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We Brought a Street Dog from Africa Back to the United States

Follow our tips to stay safe while traveling internationally with your pets.


Tracy Whittington writes: In 2006, while serving as a U.S. diplomat in central Africa, I rescued a starving, pregnant street dog. Labi, as I named her, had a rough time on the streets. At the bottom of her pack, she was dotted with old bite wounds. Humans hadn’t treated her much better, as evidenced by an old burn on her hip where Congolese soldiers had tried to set her on fire.  

After being rescued, her sweet nature quickly revealed itself, and over the course of the next year, she blossomed into a beautiful, kind, and loving pet. She put on weight (19 pounds to 35 pounds!), weaned her baby (who was adopted by a local missionary family), and got spayed. Soon it was time for me to leave the country for my next posting in Canada –- with her, my 11-year-old rescue dog, and my 14-year-old rescue cat in tow. 

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Labi with her puppy.

For anyone who’s ever fallen in love with a street dog while traveling or working overseas, the most daunting part of the experience is often figuring out how to get them home. The logistics of traveling with pets, particularly dogs not small enough to fit under an airline seat, require advance planning and patience. Sadly, some expats I met abroad were serial adopters for this very reason. At each post they would take in a street dog or cat, make it a part of the family for a few years, then leave it behind with whomever they could find to adopt it (if they could find someone) because it was “just too hard” to take it with them. I’m here to tell you that’s nonsense.

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Former street dog Labi with her cat, Linc.

The first thing everyone asks about Labi is how I got her into the United States. I hate to burst anyone’s bubble, but the U.S. has just about the most lax dog and cat admission policies of any country in the world. When I landed in Detroit with my three pets in tow, the inspectors had no clue that two of them were U.S.-born and one a (former) Kinshasa street dog. They took a cursory look inside their cages to see if they displayed any signs of illness, glanced at my carefully signed and photocopied rabies vaccination certificates, and waved us through. The same thing happened when I moved with the animals to Canada several months later for my next posting. When we reached the border in upstate New York, I dutifully marched into inspections with my stack of veterinary certificates. The Canadian border agent glanced out the window at my car, where the pets were waiting, and stamped my passport.

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Labi not long after we rescued her.

Why is this part so easy? Well, both the United States and Canada are not rabies-free countries. Island nations tend to have much more stringent regulations in order to prevent the disease from entering. Don’t get me wrong –- North American countries require proof of rabies vaccinations, too. But with bird flu, terrorism, and drugs to catch, someone traveling with a street dog just isn’t worth the time.

The much harder part about getting Labi to the United States was the airline industry. As an employee of the U.S. government, I’m bound by a law called the Fly America Act, which requires me to travel on U.S. carriers whenever I’m flying for business. Unfortunately, these same companies have increasingly limited their accommodation of pets. United Airlines now charges thousands of dollars for transport of pets under their new PetSafe policy (luckily diplomats and military service members on orders are usually exempted). American Airlines won’t fly pets during the summer months at all, which is the traditional moving season due to the school year. And US Air doesn’t ship pets at all to several continents, including Latin America.

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Labi gets used to her travel crate.

Paradoxically, attempts to monitor the safety of pets by requiring airlines to report deaths and injuries have produced these restrictions. Rather than take the extra steps required to ensure pet safety, U.S. carriers have chosen to make it as difficult as possible to fly with dogs and cats.

So what’s a street dog (or cat) adopter to do? I’m now on my second round of bringing street pets home from a foreign country. My husband and I have spent the last two years in Bolivia with Labi and our newly adopted Bolivian street cat Lincoln. (My rescued dog and cat from earlier travels have since passed away.) We’re headed home to the states in a few months with the pets, and we have some tips for others who find themselves with foreign-born pets in tow.

Here are four things to do when traveling internationally with pets:

1. Use non-U.S. carriers if necessary 

To get the dog and cat home, my husband and I are flying separately. One of us will transit Peru on the South American airline LAN (which allows pets only in cargo), and the other will transit Colombia on Avianca (which allows pets only in cabin). Because we’re not using U.S. carriers, we have to cover the costs of the flights ourselves, but it’s more than worth it to accommodate the pets.

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Labi on the trail in Bolivia.

2. Make lots of flyers

Whenever my dog has to fly cargo, I make full-color flyers in English and the language of the country I’m flying from with the following information: her name, my name, our itinerary, an emergency phone number in the United States, and an emergency phone number in the country I’m leaving. I include Labi’s picture and a message from her: “Please make sure I’m on the same flight as my human.”  

3. Be assertive but polite

From the moment I arrive at the airport, I hand out those flyers to every single airline employee I see. I ask the gate attendant to call down and check on her, and I ask the stewardesses to make sure she’s been boarded. If I have the slightest doubt she’s on the plane (as I did when leaving Kinshasa), I insist (to the point of holding up the plane’s departure) that her presence be physically verified.  

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Tracy, Eric, and Labi above 13,500 feet in Bolivia.

4. Pick up your pet at every point on your itinerary

Many of the horror stories about lost or dead pets come from missed connections and excessive wait times between flights in poorly ventilated areas. I stay with Labi until the absolute last minute the airline will let me. And the moment I get off the plane, before I find my luggage or immigration, I find her. In Paris, I walked around the airport for six hours with two giant kennels and a cat rather than let the pets remain in the cargo area for the duration. 

Also, don’t be afraid to drive. As necessary as international flights are to getting a rescued street animal home, I hate putting my pets on them. When I arrive on U.S. soil, I rent a car and drive the rest of the way to my destination. Just remember to buckle them in, too.

Eric and Tracy Whittington are U.S. diplomats currently serving in Bolivia and are the owners of a great street dog, Labi, and a great street cat, Linc. They have written a children’s book titled “A Street Dog’s Story” (available on Amazon) and are the authors of a blog, StreetDogStory, that provides information about organizations and people dedicated to helping street dogs all over the world. 

Read more on traveling internationally with your dog: 

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