By Scott Fugit
The instant the question left my lips, I wanted it back.
We had been doing so well, having good conversation at a popular Cuenca dinner party, meeting other expats and learning a lot about life in Ecuador. My wife, Dee, and I were chatting it up at one of our first gringo night events. Then, like an idiot rookie, I said it. Maybe it’s the worst question you can ask an American here, the ultimate expat buzz kill. My conversation partner, recently from California and residing in Cuenca, had been charming and cheerful. Now, she slowly looked down into her wine glass as a tear left a moist trail down her cheek. That was the last time I will ever ask:
“Did you have to leave any pets back home?”
Ouch! I’m usually not that clumsy. Thankfully, Dee jumped in to help me out. After 25 years at a large humane society, she is adept at consoling grieving pet owners. The conversation was gently nudged towards happy four-legged memories. Adopted by friends back home, the cocker spaniel named Molly, was very good at retrieving the paper. Let’s talk about that. Smiles again. I certainly felt better.
It was a hard new lesson for an old dog. Negative reinforcement was used in my training, and it worked well. I learned that pets are a very sensitive issue for expats and wannabes – maybe the most touchy of them all. Potential expats planning an international move frequently cite pets as the number one reason they have not left home. That ranking puts them above finances, language concerns and even grandchildren. For animal lovers who want to travel, tough choices are as unavoidable as fur on the sofa. It’s not always a pack decision. Wannabe couples with pets may have differing plans for their “wanna-beasts.” Hackles can get raised. Some growling may occur. Are they just pets, or are they anchor pets? Yes, there’s a leash between you and them, but who’s leading? Facing these questions, agreement often scampers under the bed. Ultimately, a few animals will join the ranks of “expets” in Ecuador. Sadly, most pet owners who move here must make other arrangements. Either way, your pre-trip to-do list just got longer.
Can you look into your pet’s eyes and say goodbye? Forever? Not many wannabes even want to think about it. In part, this is a cultural thing. In the U.S., pets are worshiped as companions and family members when much of the world sees them as working stock. Our attitude results in some amazing pet eccentricities. With so many other aspects of life in America seemingly out of control, pets offer welcome comfort and diversion. Call them escapism that sheds, or fuzzy therapy. They say to hold onto your sanity, hold onto your pet. American’s fanaticism is also encouraged by the marketing of every imaginable type of animal related good and service. In the U.S., you can take your pet to a relaxation therapist or a chiropractor. There’s also doggy dancing lessons and clothing lines for cats. Pet videos top You-Tube view counts. Pet hoarding is now a defined mental disorder there. Separated for an hour? Load a phone app to stay connected with your animal pals. Medical insurance is now sold to cope with rapidly growing health care costs – for pets. Hundreds of TV shows and news segments are pet related. It goes on and on. In manic America, pet zeal is real. Just bring plenty of money.
Coming from the United States of excess, a harsh, cultural lesson awaits animal loving expats moving to Latin America. Be forewarned. Your ability to adapt to completely different customs regarding animals can make or break your Ecuador experience. When it comes to animals, if you are shocked easily, you will be shocked often. It may be the toughest test for wannabes. One Cuenca friend summed it up nicely:
“Some of my closest Ecuadorian friends think very differently about pets than I do … I have worked very hard not to be judgmental…”
And Cuenca is far better than most places on the animal planet. Free spay and neuter clinics, started by volunteers and now supported by the government, have reduced pet overpopulation and helped to educate owners. Still, there is no shortage of animals on the streets of Cuenca. My wife and I helped out at a clinic, where one volunteer told me:
“It’s almost criminal to bring an animal into Ecuador, when there are already so many here that need homes.”
Of course, not everyone feels that way. For some wannabes, there’s no decision. Their pet is coming with them – expenses and complications be damned. Don’t press this group too hard, or they start explaining how pets are less trouble than their spouse. From another friend:
“There was never any question about my husband bringing Bingo, his 4-year-old chocolate Lab. They are a package deal.”
It’s a bond to be respected, between two largely evolved cognitive creatures, dog and man. Still, not many wannabes actually decide they can bring their best friends. Informal surveys suggest less than 10% of Cuenca’s U.S. expat community come here with pets. The well-established pet culture back home makes it easier to confidently leave them. Other reasons are as numerous as the local strays.
First and foremost is housing. Many places don’t allow pets. Often, above ground condos and apartments are standard issue for new Cuenca expats. Many feel that upper floors and dogs don’t mix. However, balcony barkers are certainly not uncommon here. In older parts of Cuenca, plenty of dogs live above street level. Yet wannabes are typically used to more open spaces for their canines. Housing is pet problem numero uno, and of course, large breeds are the most challenging. From experienced Cuenca expet owners:
“….. Jenny’s accustomed to having a relatively large yard that is fenced…. after fifteen places, I finally found a house that fits….”
” ….we had to really talk to our landlady to let us have our very large German shepherd…. we also rescued and adopted out several dogs while living there….. we put her through hell…. she and her family are now dear friends….”
Have you drawn up your pet position depth chart? Get tough coach. Only one can be first string and others are on the non-traveling reserve squad – and looking to be traded. Your pet’s age, health and condition, size, coat type, dietary needs, temperament and personality, activity level, all are factors in the expet decision. One Cuenca friend, forced to choose just one of her three dogs to bring, refused to discuss the decision in front of them.
Need more to think about? Some airlines have stopped flying pets altogether. For those who do, hot weather can be an issue. Cold too. Any harsh conditions now restrict pet travel. And be ready for some breed discrimination. Is your expet a “brachy?” The flat faced brachycephalic dog breeds like Lhaso Apso, Shih Tzu, Boston Terrier or Chinese pug may be restricted due to their labored breathing. Ditto for Persian cats. Crate training is essential. Consider having your pet sleep in their travel crate for a few weeks before the trip. No food and water prior to departure. You want your critter empty front to back. And NO calming drugs – like the fine print says, side effects may include death.
Why not provide live action, onsite expet training drills?
“….we took Puffer to the airport in a carrier just for practice…. carted it around for hours….. it helped him get used to all the sights and sounds….”
Accounts of the actual flying experience range broadly. It’s guaranteed to be somewhere between a nightmare of details and delays, and a smooth trip with no problems. Veteran travelers usually fare the best. Recently, news suggests that getting to Ecuador with your pets is increasingly complicated. Airlines see animals as an unprofitable pain in the tail section. Their policies change rapidly and seem designed to discourage. As in all things expet, research is both vital and time sensitive. Pets as cargo versus checked baggage is a hot issue that’s changing rapidly. Your specific air carrier’s policies are paramount. Educate yourself. If possible, talk to someone who has recently travelled with pets on your planned route.
“…. We didn’t realize it, but our cat’s flight was connecting through Peru…. things were delayed and she didn’t get to Cuenca for two days….”
Yet, more than a few times we’ve heard:
“…. I think the horror stories are overblown…. We’ve taken our dogs back and forth to the U.S. several times with no issues….. they did great….
Maybe your expet can ride up front with you. Amazingly, toy breeds in carriers somehow fit on an airplane. Tiny Chihuahuas and Yorkshire Terriers can also be seen traveling in purses and carryon bags. Not under the seat in front of me. It’s my two big “dogs” filling that space.
For overall pet convenience, as the old saying goes, cats rule and dogs drool. Although expet kitties are rare in Cuenca, owners say when kept indoors they generally do well. Surprisingly, many cats are also good on airplanes. One traveler with an under seat Siamese, typically a noisy breed, told me:
“She gets on an airplane and doesn’t make a peep for hours.”
Cuenca’s gato population gets little press. Ecuador animal culture is dog oriented and cats are less common as pets. Spay and neuter clinics see very few. The life of street cats here is either very short, or lived mostly above danger on rooftops and eves. Young, helpless kittens are the most vulnerable. They seem to attract animal loving gringos, who adopt them two at a time. A Cuenca expat:
“…. we have four fixed cats and one feral that we feed. I also have three kittens rescued from across the street…. dumped there at maybe five weeks old….”
Money, of course, cannot be ignored in the expet decision. Veterinary exams, an approved carrier and other comfort gear, travel documentation in several languages, airline charges, phone calls, time and effort, it all adds up. Absolutely, having your pets in Cuenca is worth the cost and hassle – for some. A typical comment:
“So far, it’s cost us about $900 for our dog Roscoe. The airline said $125 for the travel fee…. one way….”
Unfortunately for expats and wannabes on a tight budget, the bottom line usually excludes expets. Finding other homes for them is expensive enough.
Let just say your most gut wrenching decision is over. Pets will NOT be included in your expat experience. After weighing all the factors, what is best for your animals has won out. For you, common sense has prevailed. All affected parties are solid with the decision. They’re just animals after all. Another good owner can make their tails wag too. Your self-doubts have been scooped out and thrown away like those smelly lumps in the litterbox. Congratulations and good job! Now it’s time to successfully rehome your pets.
Can we be honest? The animals most often do just fine. It’s mainly the owner’s psychological health riding on the outcome. The rehoming process is as much for you as it is for them. It’s just your delicate, animal loving psyche at stake. No pressure. From one who has gone before:
“…. I had to separate my attachment and think about what is best for them…. yes, I cried all the way to the airport…. the emotional trauma of thinking I had abandoned them was overwhelming….”
Besides the mental anguish and expense, decent information is hard to find. Volumes of websites and blog discussions advise on the myriad details of “expet-riating” your animals. There’s money in that — equipment, ticket fees, even travel agents for pets. For the solemn majority of us who must decide to rehome our critters, popular travel literature offers zilch.
Although it is never easy, rehoming can be made a smoother process for successfully finding a new life and home for your pet. Most importantly, it can help make the same start for you.
Some general strategy to consider:
- Get started early. Your confidence will benefit. The decision is made. Why wait? If you rehome your pet weeks or months ahead of departure, there’s time to deal with any issues that arise. You do NOT want to do this last minute.
- Sweeten the pot. Call it a doggy dowry. If someone you trust truly wants your pet, work to make it happen. Provide everything necessary and reasonable. One expat: “…. we helped build a dog run and placed a new dog house….” Another: “…. we are going to pay half of a new invisible fence for her…. “
- Buff up the beast. Make your pet more adoptable. Get them groomed. Complete all vet visits. Update health records. Does your dog sit, down and stay on command? Even the basics will impress new owners.
- Throw in cash. Be careful here, but expats often contribute for care of prior pets. Make sure it’s someone you trust. A couple from Idaho told me: “….we paid for all food and medical for the first couple of years…. we will for the life of both dogs always share in the cost….”
- Do some pre-planning. Isn’t this obvious? Fewer critters means fewer rehoming headaches. An animal loving buddy living near Salinas: “…. we still have 20 cats, 5 chickens, 2 dogs and 2 llamas back home…. a friend is helping….”
- Start with friends, relatives and neighbors. These are your primary rehoming targets. Ideally, they know your animals and are trusted to treat them well. We’ve all heard: “We love your dogs.” or “Can we do anything to help?” Time to cash those in. Your second toughest decision: Who is really sincere about wanting your pets?
- Contact kennel clubs and animal rescue organizations. These make a good secondary rehoming source. Reputable groups are usually well known. Clubs can be breed specific, but exceptions get made. Evaluations are typically done, then broad networking with potential new owners.
- Consider humane societies and shelters as a last resort. They have enough animals to deal with. However, the advice and contacts available are typically excellent. Make friends with the staff, pay part of the adoption fee and let them help you find a home for your pet.
- Social media successes exist, but consider a more targeted approach. A well written flyer with a nice pet photo and email address only, can be posted at your local retailer of choice. Choose your target demographic, get permission and post them in pet supply stores, veterinarian and grooming shops, with animal trainers, pet sitting businesses, even local church or community center bulletin boards. Remember, pet rehoming is all about marketing.
- Be cautious in all rehoming steps. Trust but verify, your future psyche depends on it. Interviews, references, home visits, a trial period, backup plans, go nuts. These are your pals. Make it all warm and fuzzy.
As Dee and I lounge on a bench in Cuenca’s Parque San Blas, we watch a large gringo dude in a cowboy hat gently tossing a tennis ball for his grey-muzzled, lumpy old Lab. The dog stiffly trots after each slow roller and returns it proudly to his owner — just like he’s done for many years. When we meet and pet the old fella, his owner tells us:
“….he was too old for us to leave home…. we had to bring him….”
That comment seems to say it all. Expats think differently about what is best for their pets, and it’s all over the map. When it comes to animals, we each have our own path.
During our regular visits here, people often ask my wife and me why we aren’t yet living in Cuenca? I tell them we have nine reasons — four dogs and five cats. Of course, it’s more complicated than that. But for committed expat wannabes who are also animal lovers, some difficult and very personal decisions await. Until those are made, my policy is to be honest:
“It’s not a sensible or rational decision for us. We have pets.”
All photos by Dee Fugit.
Scott Fugit retired recently to study leisure, travel writing and Ecuador. His goal is to bring real experiences and entertainment in articles relevant to expat life. He and his photographer wife Dee are Cuenca wannabes.