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Pets across the pond

To protect against rabies, England quarantines animals arriving from the U.S. for 6 months. A possible repeal cheers pets' best friends.

November 04, 2002|Patt Morrison | Times Staff Writer

London

All the scores of weeping American children who move here every year and have to lock up their beloved pets or leave them behind....

All the great and glitzy of America too -- Elizabeth Taylor anchoring a rented yacht in the Thames just for her dogs, David Hockney choosing to paint in California rather than in his homeland because of his dachshunds, a diplomat who had to think hard about accepting the ambassadorship at the Court of St. James's, all because of this island nation's stringent, century-old rabies quarantine.

Now all that could be a thing of the past, consigned to the kitty litter bin of history.

The British government, which raised hopes and spirits of peripatetic pet lovers this summer by letting it be known that it might roll back the quarantine requirement for the United States and Canada "subject to satisfactory conclusions" to its research, says it will announce its findings this month. A paws-up ruling on a "pet passport" program could allow U.S. pets into Great Britain without the harrowing six-month "no-walkies" sentence of solitary confinement in small cages. That law has prohibited quarantined pets -- even guide dogs -- from so much as sniffing the soil of Britain and forced owners who want to cuddle to climb into the cages with their critters.

In a nation that loves its pets enough to allow them on public transit, thousands of foreign pets have been sentenced to time in government-approved kennels, and dozens have died there and thereafter -- not from rabies but from ailments, stress and just plain loneliness. (Precise numbers are hard to come by, but in the three decades preceding the lifting of the quarantine for selected European countries, more than 200,000 dogs were caged.) To pet parents among the quarter-million Americans living in the U.K., and to others who'd like to settle here with menage and menagerie, the new program would be not only welcome but a "what took you so long" cause for celebration. Take the word of a former ambassador.

"I talked about it by kidding on the square, kidding by being serious. I would say that I thought [the quarantine] was the biggest obstacle to improving Anglo-American relations," says Raymond Seitz, appointed by the first President George Bush, and the first career diplomat to hold the ambassadorship in modern times. Seitz loves his dogs, mostly mutts; he devoted a chapter to them in his memoir, "Over Here," and became a founding member of a British organization, Passport for Pets, that has lobbied to change the quarantine he characterizes -- in language not remotely diplomatic -- to be "ludicrous, awful and dreadful," serving "no obvious purpose" in an age of vaccines and med-tech.

Seitz's own three-time shuttle diplomacy to Britain meant giving one dog away to friends -- "that was excruciating" -- and locking down others in "the slammer." When he was offered the ambassadorship, his wife's first reaction was: What about the dogs? "I think for her it was a close call as to whether we should come back here and put the animals back in the slammer, one of them for the second time."

Reasons for policy

For about a century, the quarantine has served as a cordon sanitaire, keeping the nation and its nearly 10 million dogs and cats virtually rabies-free. The quarantine was tightened after World War I, when officers brought back infected dogs they'd befriended on the battlefields of Europe.

"The only defense of this policy is the fact that Britain is an island," says Seitz, "and this has been a kind of paranoiac consideration of a lot of island countries." He's from Hawaii, he says, and understands this. "Once [rabies] is loose in an island country, you don't get rid of it, it's there forever. But that argument went away with the [English Channel] tunnel."

In spite of effective vaccines, the quarantine has carried its own sluggish entropy of resistance. Quarantine kennels lobbied to stay in business, and no bureaucrat or politician wanted to wear the mantle of "the man who let rabies into Britain." But like other seemingly unassailable British customs, such as "last call" in pubs and no Sunday commerce, the quarantine too began to disappear in an internationalized world. In February 2000, Britain opened the kennel doors for cats and dogs from 22 Western European countries, provided they had the proper paperwork -- "pet passports" proving they had been microchipped, vaccinated and tested for rabies and treated for parasites.

It was a concession to Europeanization; if England wasn't adopting the euro any time soon, at least it could do this for its Euro-partners. But it was also an acknowledgment that Britain's own traveling class was no longer confined to diplomats and businessmen. Ordinary Britons were buying holiday homes on the Continent -- and they wanted to take their pets with them. And when Europe opened, could America be far behind?

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