Moving Pets Abroad: The Great USDA Debacle
After five months of waiting, the paperwork for our move to Italy was complete (the first set, at least), the official passports and visas were in hand, the house was sold, the car was shipped, the other cars were sold, the Unaccompanied Baggage was on a plane, the Household Goods were on a boat, and the Non-Temp Storage was packed away for its three-year slumber. Before I knew it, we were standing at the airport with our bags, backpacks, a little dog and a very panicked cat. It’s strange to say, but of everything we did to get to this point, moving pets abroad was the most stressful. Why? Well, sometimes that governmental red tape gets wound up so tightly, it actually starts looping back on itself and you end up in an unending cycle of bureaucracy. Let me explain. To bring a pet to Europe, you have to have a USDA approved pet certificate. You can’t apply for this certificate more than 10 days from your date of arrival. Note that last part – date of arrival, not date of departure. Usually, to get to Italy, you depart one day, and arrive the next. So, you really only have eight days to get this process done correctly. In the olden days, you’d go see the vet, get the certificate, run it over to the USDA office, get their stamp of approval and be ready to go. But that was then. This is now – a post-pandemic bureaucratic dystopia. We did our vet appointment the morning of day 10, to give ourselves the maximum amount of time possible. Upon completion of the appointment, we were informed that the USDA would only accept mailed submissions. Mailed. Like, in the mail. Do you remember mail? Where you pay someone to drive your letter from your location to another location? And it takes days? Clearly, this wasn’t going to work, so I called the USDA to (hopefully) problem solve a better solution. Did you know you can’t do that anymore? They stopped taking phone calls during COVID. I’m not sure how many COVID cases were transmitted over the phone, but better safe than sorry I suppose. Now the only way to reach the USDA pet certification office is via email. So I emailed. A lot. When they replied, it was with a canned response saying there was no other way than mail. Like, old-fashioned mail. Oh, and did I mention they only work Monday through Friday? So those eight days I discussed earlier? It’s actually six. That’s not very much time for a person to carry the certificates to the USDA (but usually a few other places first, because mail). And then have someone process and then approve (hopefully? Maybe?) the certificates, and then place them back into an envelope, and give them to a person to carry back to you (but usually a few other places first). Eventually, the vet found a way to send the certificates to the USDA electronically, but the USDA maintained that they had to return them via mail. (Like, mail…) I won’t bore you with the details of how the first seven days went, but when it all shook out, we found ourselves with only one day left, still waiting for the USDA to return our certificates via mail. Like, paper in an envelope delivered by a man in a truck. Not email. Not fax. Not online portal. Mail. Like, mail. So there we were – Monday. We were leaving Tuesday afternoon to drive to SeaTac, where we had a hotel for the few short hours before our 3:00 a.m. check-in at the airport. And there still wasn’t even a tracking number indicating that the certificates had even been shipped. At this point, you may be wondering – what do you do if the certs don’t arrive in time? Well, you can’t get on the plane – so you call the airline or your travel agent or your travel insurance or all three and pray someone lets you keep some of that money. You rebook your flight. And then, and this is the fun part, you start the whole USDA process all over again, because even if the certificates come the next day – it’s now more than 10 days out from your new date of arrival. Welcome to your personal USDA Groundhog Day purgatory. And then, out of nowhere, the vet called. The certs had arrived, with just 24 hours to spare. Miracle of miracles holy guacamole hallelujah!!! Just like that, it was over and we were on our way. We’d done it. We got to the airport in Seattle, went through all the security, and hopped on that plane. Our dog ate a hole in his bag mid-flight, but other than that, it was smooth sailing. Well, we did have some trouble coaxing the dog and the cat to use the pet potty stations during our layovers, and some trouble finding them, and the cat kept having spaz attacks where she’d start jumping around in her bag and mewling, but other than that, it was smooth sailing. When we arrived in Germany, our EU entry point, the customs agent asked if we had the correct paperwork for our pets. I said yes. He said “good.” Then he stamped our passports and ushered us through without even looking at it. All that work and stress for nothing, I thought. What a waste. When we touched down in Italy, there was no customs. You just got your bag and waltzed right out of the airport – unless you had something to declare, like pets. And that’s how I ended up in a windowless room with a closed door, two Italian customs agents, four customs trainees, and a videographer documenting the process of reviewing our pet certificates. They went over those documents with a fine-toothed comb, triple-checking every line. They brought out a microchip scanner, scanned both pets and double-checked to make sure the number that came up exactly matched the number on the certificates. I’m not sure what else they did, but there was a great deal of gesturing and that door didn’t open back up again for a while. I do know one thing though – I’ve never been so grateful to have papers in my whole life. Getting them was an unnecessary nightmare, but we couldn’t have made it here (legally) without them.