By Nicola Nightingale
Living in a foreign country raises all kinds of questions, both practical and emotional: how do you define yourself and how are you characterised by your adopted homeland? This series relates, in alternating parts, the experiences of a French woman in the UK and — with this, her final piece — a British woman in Hong Kong.
Super-peripatetic expats should not even consider owning a pet — but they do.
There are those who give in to their children’s clamouring for an animal. Others, the solo adventurers in Hong Kong, feel only a cat will prevent the once splendid isolation of their tiny 47th-floor flat in Sai Ying Pun turning into a place of solitary confinement.
Then there are those who think life would be a dull affair without a pet, the sort of devout animal lovers who could have a meaningful relationship with a mouse (I must confess to possibly being one of them).
Whatever the reason for acquiring a pet, the headache is what to do with the beast when you leave, either for home or another country. And leave you probably will — not many expats stay in Hong Kong long enough for a cat, for instance, to live out its life.
Nearly everyone seems to be on the move these days, says Fiona Woodhouse, deputy director of welfare at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Hong Kong. “I think that nowadays the picture is blurred about who is an expat,” she says. “With the current business environment, people tend to be transient. Anybody can be in a situation where they have to relocate.”
Some may be fortunate enough to work for a company that offers a relocation package that includes exporting pets; some will “pass them on to a friend”, says Woodhouse. These friends will often pass them on to the SPCA when they discover how much time — and possibly money — the animal takes up.
Woodhouse says the sensible thing to do, if you know you are not going to be in Hong Kong for very long, is to foster animals — usually puppies or kittens — until they can be found a home.
Those who do not want to be parted from their permanent pet can fly them to their next destination. Managing the paperwork yourself saves dollars, but there is always the fear you might have forgotten that vital form when you arrive at the airport. The other option is to use an agent.
George Yung, who runs International Pet Travel in Hong Kong, says the cost of sending a Labrador to the UK, including the airfreight charges, agency fee, the cost of the crate and health certificates, is HK$38,275 ($4,900). Sending a dog to the US can be considerably cheaper because, unlike the UK, pets can travel as excess baggage. It does mean you have to catch the same flight as the animal, but it will only set you back HK$7,030 plus HK$3,140-HK$6,280 in excess baggage fees.
Steve Pheby, of Ferndale Kennels and Cattery, charges HK$21,000-HK$24,000, excluding vaccination costs, for transporting cats to the UK — and HK$23,000-HK$28,000 to the US — depending on their size and which city they are bound for.
He is not enthusiastic about the excess baggage option. “The owner must do the clearances themselves in the first port of call in the US and would have to sort out the connection flights. So, if it’s not a direct flight from Hong Kong, it could get complicated and stressful for the owner,” he says. Presumably the pet would not be best pleased either.
None of the options is cheap, which is why Sheila McClelland, founder and chair of Lifelong Animal Protection (LAP), a Hong Kong charity that rescues and rehomes abandoned animals, says potential costs are underlined when she and her volunteers counsel expats about pet adoption. “We suggest they start a fund for exporting their pets,” she says, although she adds it is not always money that makes foreign residents leave their pet behind.
While, on balance, expats are far more likely to return a pet to the charity than the local Chinese people who make up the bulk of LAP’s adopters, she says they often have valid reasons. For instance, it might be impossible to find a place to live at their next destination that will allow pets or there is an insurmountable “visa issue”.
“If they lose their job, they lose residency,” says McClelland, much as partners do if they hold a dependent visa and there is a divorce or separation. Both spell a swift departure, which often means leaving pets behind.
It is not all negative, however. “Lots of people take their animals with them,” says McClelland. “Hong Kong is one of the better places to export from because it’s rabies-free.” It is certainly not the “terrible trial” it would be if you were trying to ship an animal from a country with a high risk of rabies, such as mainland China or Cambodia, she says.
She is right: exporting a pet from Hong Kong is not an enormous ordeal. The cat asleep on the chair behind me might think otherwise, but she has been to London and stayed with me there for three years before we both returned to Hong Kong. She did not visit the Queen but she did acquire — oh no! — an EU pet passport. Now that could prove a problem.
You can read more articles from our Expat identities series here
Photographs: Thorsten Nilson; Nicola Nightingale; SPCA Hong Kong