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Anguished Pet Owners Battle Britain's Rabies Quarantine

November 10, 1996|WILLIAM D. MONTALBANO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — Hong Kong Gov. Chris Patten may turn over Britain's prized colony to China with equanimity next year, but he will not surrender Whisky and Soda to authorities back home without protest.

"Preposterous," rails Patten at strict British quarantine laws that require him to send his two Norfolk terriers into six months' solitary confinement when they return to England.

As never before, animal rights, xenophobia and public health intersect in Britain today in narrow cages where family pets from abroad must prove in solitude that they do not have rabies before being allowed into the country. Even animals belonging to the royal family get six months to cool their heels and prove their health.

Not all survive. Recent deaths of high-profile pets in these cages have intensified pressures for reform of one of the world's toughest defense systems against rabies. For the first time, there seems a chance that the pet quarantine may crumble.

The pathos of owners facing separation from beloved pets has captured the imagination and the sympathy of public and media alike: actress Elizabeth Hurley with tears in her eyes consigning German shepherd Nico to quarantine after a flight from Los Angeles; artist David Hockney painting in California exile because coming home would mean separation from dachshunds Stanley and Boodgie.

And the British ambassador to rabies-free Cyprus, with his 14 cats and one dog, wondering if he can afford to come home at all: Quarantine costs pet owners around $3,000 per dog and $2,000 per cat.

The debate is emotional and incendiary. Cutting across class and political lines, it raises questions about Britain's view of itself--and its neighbors.

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In a country renowned for its fondness for animals and its suspicion of foreigners, two- or four-legged, the government is besieged by articulate and outraged pet owners who accuse it of being cruel to animals. There hasn't been a case of rabies among the 200,000 dogs and cats to pass through quarantine in the past 25 years, they note caustically.

"It is a monstrously archaic system, totally xenophobic and fanned by hysteria. It must go," said Lady Mary Fretwell, a leader of an anti-quarantine group called Passport for Pets. "Animals in quarantine die of stress--not rabies. Then they cut off an animal's head for examination, even if it dies of a broken heart."

Defenders of the system call it harsh but necessary, saying that strict quarantine has kept the British Isles rabies-free for decades. Why fix something that isn't broken, they ask.

And please do remember, many urge, that alternatives would mean abandoning the fate of British public health, to say nothing of the well-being of its animals, to the potentially unreliable word of foreigners. Suppose a rabid animal got loose?

"In my constituency, people don't want outsiders to come from abroad with dogs which could have had contact with rabid animals, then escape and spread a rabies epidemic," said David Shaw, a member of Parliament from the frontier port of Dover. "You can't always be certain that a foreign vet has done all the vaccinations and tests."

Two years ago, a select parliamentary committee recommended easing pet quarantine detention, which has been in effect for nearly a century. Last year, 9,250 animals were detained, 117 of which died. Through mid-October this year, 43 cats and 40 dogs died in quarantine.

Now the government belatedly acknowledges that it is studying reform of a system that some of the country's most senior veterinarians call "an anachronism and indefensible on scientific grounds."

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Americans and their animals are familiar players in the quarantine drama because of the large, steady flow of business people, diplomats and military personnel. Most of the dogs and cats in British quarantine kennels today are American, but relaxed laws probably would not benefit these pets because the United States, unlike Western Europe, still has rabies.

One day in 1994, dog fancier Raymond Seitz left office as American ambassador to London, and the next, he says, he became an activist for anti-quarantine forces. "This is as close to cruel and unnecessary punishment as you can get," Seitz said. "Alternatives are well-demonstrated. It's time for the structure to be revised."

After six years in California, Eileen Thompson returned to England recently when her American husband retired from the Air Force. Eleven-year-old Sadie, fruit of a liaison between a German shepherd and a Chihuahua, went into quarantine with her son Winston. Sadie developed breathing problems and then a fatal hemorrhage.

"I think it was stress; she had a complete physical before leaving Sacramento," Thompson said. Winston survived quarantine but is a changed dog. "Quite honestly, he looks as though he's grieving," Thompson said.

Danish diplomat Henrik Sorenson complained publicly last month after American-born, 13-year-old spaniel Mr. Bogie died in quarantine and he was handed the dog's cremated ashes in an instant-coffee jar.

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