Many Foreign Service families have pets, and spend a significant amount of money transporting them around the world on one diplomatic tour after another. It isn’t easy or cheap to move pets between the United States and a foreign country of assignment, let alone to commit to doing so every 2-3 years. Between airline customer service, the stress of an international move (often by plane) with pets, complex shipping and courier requirements, vet paperwork, foreign country import and quarantine regulations, extra vaccinations, and the EXPENSE often stretching well into the four figures, it can get very stressful. Not to mention if you have elderly or special needs pets who don’t travel or relocate well, you may decide the best thing is to leave them behind with a friend or relative, if possible. And there’s always the worst case scenario: a large-scale crisis at a post where pets are not guaranteed a space on a limited evacuation flight out.
Some types of pets are generally more practical than others in this lifestyle, too – namely cats and smaller dogs. Of course, there will be officers who find a way to make it work for a time with fish, hamsters, and humongous dogs – in my view, adding more worries to an already complicated life. But the prevailing thinking seems to be pets are worth the hassle and complications posed by a Permanent Change of Station (PCS) move because of all they add to your life during calmer times. I was happy to forego that benefit until our most recent tour in Mexico; there we finally acquired our first FS pet, more than seven years into this lifestyle. A combination of seeing how much my husband V loved the animal, being on the border where all we had to do was drive home to the United States when we left our post, and knowing we wouldn’t have to move by air for at least three years all pushed me over the edge. After all, we can’t just live every day in the tight box the Department draws around us, even when coloring outside the lines makes it harder.
My teeth almost fell out when I joined the Foreign Service and a colleague shared the several thousand dollar estimate of how much he and his wife had already spent shipping their two cats to and from his prior assignments. I daydreamed about all the other things one could do with that money – not because I was judging his choices, but because I didn’t come from a family that spent thousands of dollars on animals. (Or purses, but I digress.)
Then my colleague reminded me of his young twin daughters, and how much having pets during their childhood meant to them. I considered my own childhood with our Irish Setter, Brandy, and cats Nit Wit, Smiley, and Spot, and suddenly it made aching sense. I thought of their family again a few years later when they were on R&R in the United States from a tour in Russia and our consulate in Yekaterinburg closed, necessitating a local staff member colleague to rescue his cats from a pet hotel and look after them for months until he was able to resume his assignment in Russia and reunite with them.
We certainly had plenty of animals around during our first two tours – they were just more of a transitory sort.
During our first assignment in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (2015-2017), we had adopted two Central Asian desert tortoises, Jamshid and Arslana. They were outdoor-only pets because tortoises carry salmonella. Also, being endemic and native, they really belonged outside in their natural habitat.
Not much bigger than my hand, they hibernated in our front yard during snowy winters and provided lots of entertainment. (They also triggered a constant anxiety I would back over one of them in the carport). But although survive to enjoy countless strawberries and melons they did, it wasn’t possible to export such animals to Australia, and we felt they were best-suited to stay behind. So at the conclusion of our tour, we gave them to a colleague who had just begun a three-year tour at the embassy and said goodbye.
In Canberra, Australia (2017-2019), we also didn’t have any pets of our own, but we did look after many wonderful native backyard birds as well as babysit a colleague’s dog for a few months as she and her husband waited out summer weather-related airline restrictions preventing the pup’s safe shipping to their onward tour in Pakistan. I had an American friend in Australia – who was not associated with the embassy – who paid something on the order of $8,000 AUD in 2018 money to import her cat. Between airline shipping costs, vet bills, vaccination requirements, quarantine, and government paperwork, the costs to get the cat to her new home when she married an Australian man and immigrated permanently to New South Wales really added up. The itch to see animals was well and truly scratched in Australia though, where we saw wallabies, wombats, kangaroos, and all kind of birds on a near-daily basis, and often in our own front yard.
So in August 2020 when we moved into our house in Ciudad Juárez for our third tour, and I observed there were three kittens living in the apex where the stone wall in the backyard met the side of our house, it never occurred to me that one of those cats would become our house cat. I had successfully avoided the responsibility of a pet for years!
We had just finished our mandatory two-week arrival quarantine period at home, and V had returned to Washington, DC. He needed to go in-person to participate in the DETO (domestic employee teleworking overseas) onboarding for his new Civil Service job, a position in which he’d already been working as a contractor for a year.
I wandered out to the backyard one day, a place I’d ignored up to that point given temperatures well over 100 degrees: dusty, shadeless, with the desert sun blazing down like Baghdad. And there they were, perched precariously in the corner of the stone wall. There was no way I could have wedged myself much farther beyond the air conditioner to get a closer look, let alone all the way back into the narrowest portion of the passage. However, even if I could have, I wouldn’t have gotten close to them; at the first sign of a human, the kittens and their mother would ascend the crevice vertically, like little elevators, and bolt to the top of the stone wall that squared off around the top of the property at a height of around 12 feet.
Feeling sorry for them as the afternoon sun crept into their shade, I set a bowl of milk underneath the air conditioner unit, the only place that offered any respite from the sun. I left it there, and 30 minutes later when I checked it was bone dry. I’m on the hook now, I thought wryly. I texted V, We have kitties in the backyard!
One was black, one was white, and one was kind of gray striped. They were so small and never made a sound. The mom was mostly white with a few black spots. The next time V and I FaceTimed, I aimed my screen at the wall and tried to show him the kittens, but it was too far back and he couldn’t see anything. It wasn’t until he returned in October that year that he met them for the first time.
My sporadic milk offerings hadn’t been much. Due to their maintaining at least a 15-yard distance from me, I had never interacted with the kittens or the mom. I spent little time in the dustbowl of a backyard. They never approached me the few times I was there and I had no idea where they slept, or what they ate. In fact, I didn’t think of them much at all because they didn’t actually come into the yard where I could see them from the house. However, V was instantly enamored with them. As soon as he returned home to Mexico and saw them, he gave them rhyming names. Then he began feeding them kitten food from the local store, buying them toys, and playing with them. As he worked full-time from home, he spent a lot of time in close proximity to them and their kitten antics.
As cold weather came to Juárez and we unpacked our household effects (HHE) – which finally arrived from a local warehouse 15 months after our packout in Australia – V took an empty HHE box and an old towel and made a makeshift outdoor shelter for them. They instantly began sleeping in it, and I felt somewhat guilty for not having done this myself. The desert in winter can be awfully cold. In this November 2020 post, I briefly noted they were living in our backyard, but didn’t think too much of it. They technically had already grown to “adulthood,” if our estimate of an April 2020 birth for their litter was close. I’d assumed they would soon hit the road.
They did mostly leave, but not quite the way I’d expected. First the fluffy white one with blue eyes disappeared, and a few days later V had found her furry little body in a construction zone near our neighborhood. Using his near non-existent Spanish he had gotten a couple of workers to let him into the site so he could take a closer look, and bury her remains. Sometime later, the striped one disappeared too, but we never found out what happened with that one. It simply left one day and never returned. We assumed they both had been poisoned – a common practice, we understood, in the area against stray cats.
One day the black one was gone for a little longer than V liked or thought was normal. He called me at work in a panic to say he thought he saw her flattened in the street near the consulate. However, after we ruefully inspected that roadkill, we decided it couldn’t possibly be “our” cat as it looked like an older, bigger cat. The night she came home and I absorbed V’s overwhelming relief and elation was the night I also knew this cat needed to become a pet, and an indoor pet, as soon as possible. It was around that time we realized the black cat, who we called Dzish (a Turkish word that means something like blackest black, or the absence of light, and is pronounced with a hard “j” sound like “jeesh”) was actually a he!
As plans evolved in autumn 2021 for my curtailment and we realized our three-year tour in Juárez would likely be cut in half, V started getting more serious about bringing Dzish indoors. He had already spent more than a year playing with him outside, and Dzish trotted along like a little dog beside V as he gardened. The relationship they’d built together was quite special. No one else could really go in the backyard without Dzish fleeing, but V could spend hours with him – talking, playing, and turning the backyard into quite the landscaped desert oasis he did before we left – all with Dzish remaining close by. I think this was not only due to V teleworking full-time from home while I went to the consulate every day, but also because he spent the time and energy every day to treat Dzish like a pet, rather than a stray.
This was also around the time where we started to worry a lot more about where Dzish was when we were away (and V would feel a lot of guilt for “leaving” him). Our long week in Playa del Carmen and weekends away in Carlsbad, Cloudcroft, and Albuquerque were wonderful and ended in relief when we returned to find Dzish was right where we left him in the backyard (thanks to wonderful colleagues who stopped by to fill up his food dish, so he wouldn’t be tempted to roam and eat God-knows-what as his siblings evidently had).
V started to try and tempt this shy cat into our kitchen by feeding him indoors, and the cold weather helped. I wasn’t too keen on him being in the house having not yet been to a vet, but he didn’t seem to have any infections or fleas despite having slept outside for a year and a half. The worst thing about him was that he was often dusty and had stickers from desert plants burrowed into his tail that he wouldn’t let us extract, and he was completely terrified of me no matter how softly I spoke to him which made me feel terrible. And he wouldn’t be in the house longer than a few minutes before he would meow incessantly to go back outside.
At the end of December, V finally had placed a cat carrier outside and Dzish’s food in it enough times to be able to trap him and bring him across the border to El Paso, Texas. There Dzish was neutered and had his first vet checkup, which made him officially ours.
As V rolled up to the U.S. immigration booth, I jokingly imagine it was an interesting conversation with Customs and Border Protection… “Well, no officer, see, I’m not really importing this cat into the United States without any documents. I’m just taking him to a U.S. vet that costs five times more because I don’t speak Spanish. Afterwards we’re going straight back to our house on the Mexican side!” “Well, all right sir. Just don’t release him, please.”
Dzish was remarkably healthy, despite never having seen a vet, never having any shots, and having slept outside for more than 18 months. As the vet noted, he was a “stray,” and “very skittish!” I think the word the vet was going for was actually “semi-feral.” But Dzish survived the ordeal and actually never roamed free again outdoors in Juárez; thereafter he lived in the house during his recovery. And almost exactly two weeks later, we left. So while we prepared to pack out, and during the pack out itself, he tried to get used to being so near two human beings for the first time.
In the next post, I’ll tell the rest of the story of how Dzish survived wearing his first cone, how he behaved riding almost 2,000 miles in a carrier to Virginia, and how he fares these days spending lots of time with his favorite human (hint: I am still not the favorite).
I admit I was somewhat ambivalent about it at first. But so far, I give the FS pet experience as enthusiastic two thumbs up.