These expat pets charmed their owners into a life of international travel

Rafiki explores Freetown, Sierra Leone — one of many moves with his owner.

The diaspora dog

Meet Rafiki.

The “diaspora dog,” a 10-year-old Rhodesian Ridgeback, was born in Geneva but got back to his African ancestry by moving to Sudan and Sierra Leone. He now roams Cambridge with owner Anne Bennett, executive director of Hirondelle USA, a nonprofit that supports the peaceful transformation of societies coming out of conflict or undergoing democratic change.

Though Bennett adopted Rafiki on purpose in Geneva, it isn’t uncommon for expat aid workers to be “adopted” in reverse by stray cats and dogs while posted abroad. Often a welcome distraction and buddy in the most challenging of working environments, the transient nature of most aid work leaves a giant question mark when it comes to deciding when and how to transport a pet to another posting.  

Rafiki braves a dust storm in Jebel Aulia, Sudan.

Bennett, who had to ask a friend (the British defense attaché, to be exact) to watch Rafiki for a year when Sudan imposed a ban on domestic pet imports in 2009, is well versed in the complexities of international canine travel.

(Rumors would float among expat pet owners at that time, she said, that the British Ambassador had gotten his cat in. Untrue).

She eventually imported Rafiki, and executed another complicated, and expensive, transport through Dubai — where she had had to pay someone to care for him during a layover — to the U.S. a few years later. Bennett has advice for others in similarly complicated pet situations, but first, read on to meet Ghengis.

The cat smuggled to Pakistan.

Ghengis relaxes on a balcony in Jordan.

Meet Ghengis.

Ghengis adopted Jacky Sutton in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006.

She was irresistible in only the way “a senior cat with one eye, no teeth, straggly ears and attitude,” as described by Sutton, can be.  

Sutton, a veteran war zone aid worker who has been posted with the U.N. and international NGOs to various hotspots including Gaza, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea and West Africa — and has adopted or cared for animals in every one of them — was evacuated from Kabul for security reasons. She arranged for a friend to get Genghis across the Khyber Pass to Pakistan, where another friend put her on a plane to Ghana, the location of Sutton’s new post. Later, she moved to Jordan, where Sutton worked with UNDP Iraq and where Ghengis became a firm favorite with coworkers.

“She was very chatty, very opinionated and would show her displeasure by pretending to enjoy a certain flavor of cat food and then, once I had trekked across Amman to the supermarket to buy the entire stock of that flavor (supplies of cat food being erratic) she would then turn her nose up and refuse to eat until I had gone and gotten another flavor.”

Ghengis passed away, but Sutton has rescued several cats since, some of which are awaiting her return to Australia after her current posting in Iraq.

The rescued rabbit.

When his current owners could no longer care for him, Arnie became one of Jacky Sutton's many rescue animals.

Meet Arnie Louis VIII.

In the meantime, Sutton has adopted rabbit Arnie Louis VIII. He was bought by a Kurdish friend for his children, but adopted by Sutton when they could no longer care for him. Arnie now lives in her office. Sutton has a few words of wisdom for other aid worker animal lovers, but not before you read on to meet Jude.

The cat that didn’t speak Creole.

Jude takes a rest from his usual antics. He currently resides with owner Hanna Jamal in Austin, Texas.

Meet Jude.

Jude has always been an outdoor cat. He’d climb out on the fire escape and play on the roof when his owner, Hanna Jamal, an entrepreneur and business consultant, lived in an apartment in Baltimore.

But before roof climbing, Jude was left to die as a kitten in post-earthquake Haiti, where Jamal found him while on a short-term assignment. When it came time to leave, Jamal sought the help of a renowned vet in the area to obtain an international health certificate and have Jude fully examined, vaccinated and approved to travel. The actual process of traveling with him, though, was nothing short of entertaining, according to Jamal.

“My Haitian colleagues couldn’t believe it,” she said. “And at the airport, everyone looked at me like I was crazy holding him while I walked through the metal detectors and security.”

But when she got to the U.S., the process was more straightforward than she’d anticipated.

“I just declared him on my customs form,” she said. “The customs officer took one look at him, cracked a joke about whether he spoke Creole or French and waved us through.”

The customs officer also made a comment of her painstakingly obtained international health certificate: “We don’t really take these seriously. You could have purchased this on a black market somewhere.”

Five-year-old Jude is now a resident of Austin, Texas where Jamal is completing her MBA and working as a consultant for Doctors without Borders.

The second generation street dog.

Tala enjoying being off her leash.

Meet Tala.

Tala’s parents were rescued by Dutch diplomats from the streets of Khartoum when the Sudanese police were performing a stray dog cull.

Jura Cullen, along with her husband, who works for the U.K. Foreign Office, was of course smitten when invited over to a friend’s to meet the rescued pair’s new puppies, “though my husband pointed out we had no idea where we were going next and was this really the right time?” Cullen said.

But the couple took Tala home at eight weeks — and she’s now been with them for five years on four continents, from Africa to Asia to Europe to their current home in South America.

She very nearly didn't leave Khartoum, though, after slipping her collar when she was attacked by local dogs out on a walk just a few weeks before the Cullens’ move to Vietnam.

Four hours later, (her husband still in his wool suit from work, out searching in 104 degree heat), a kind engineering student spotted Tala on the roof of a neighboring building and got in touch thanks to the missing dog flyers they’d printed. Tala was fine, but spent her time in Vietnam on a leash — the combination of busy traffic and the practice of eating dogs was just too big a risk, especially with her flighty nature.

“She also very quickly came to love the Vietnamese practice of going out for rides on the motorbike/moped. If my husband and I were both on she would sit in between — if just me she would sit calmly in the foothold,” Cullen said.

Now a resident of Quito, she has adapted well to living at altitude and so far she is enjoying the temperate climate and beautiful parks, Cullen said. Tala’s fanbase is invited to follow her new adventures here.

A few pieces of advice for other current or would-be expat pet owners, from four owners who’ve gone to great lengths to keep their pets safe:

1. Think before you adopt.

Jamal was working during the emergency earthquake response in Haiti on a short-term contract, so she immediately had to consider: “If we domesticate a cat, what would happen to it after we left?”

A word of warning, she said, is that if you know you’re in that location for the short term, taking on a pet is a big commitment. Since Haitians don’t typically keep cats as pets, she knew she was taking on the responsibility herself and would have to see it through.

2. Start planning early for transport.

If a dog goes as accompanied baggage, you’ll pay an overweight baggage fee. If it goes on a cargo plane, it’ll be a different fee. This could cost anywhere from $500 to $1,500, Bennett said, but first weigh your pet in its carrier and measure the dimensions of the cage, then check with the airline you’ll be travelling on to make sure it will fit.

3. Check the paperwork and vaccination requirements.

Sometimes these requirements are handled by the ministry of livestock and agriculture, but it can bounce between different ministries, especially in conflict and post-conflict countries.

“Generally it means a lot of stamps,” Bennett said.

In Africa, for example, your pet must have a rabies shot every year. You can’t miss it, Bennett said, or you’ll have trouble the next time you want to export or re import your pet.

Cullen flew a blood sample of Tala’s back to the U.K. from Sudan to have it tested for the level of rabies antibodies at an approved lab.

“It was crucial we did this, as while Vietnam didn't need it, she would need the results for that year later to enter the U.K,” she said.

4. Having a pet can help you connect.

Bennett lived in a house on a compound that didn’t have full-time security, so having a dog enabled her to feel safer and go out and hike or partake in activities she might not have otherwise.

“It’s a great ice breaker,” she said. “I’d go to different communities and the local people knew my dog and knew his name, he was notorious. It gives you that proximity to your community.”

Cullen had the same experience with Tala.

“Thanks to daily walks to the local park and interactions with the Vietnamese, I ended up with a much better sense of community than many expats,” she said. “Tala ended up with Vietnamese friends in all our local coffee shops where she was always welcome.”

5. Pass it on.

Since adopting Ghengis, Sutton has set up Trap Neuter Release programs in Erbil and Baghdad, and organized TNR for 11 dogs from the election commission in Kabul with an NGO called Nowzad. Now Sutton is back in Iraq and preparing to do a TNR for her current compound.

6. Your caring can lead to behavior change.

While some might consider her odd, Sutton also knows that some people's attitudes toward animals have changed as a result of her interaction with dogs, cats, donkeys, chickens and bulbul birds that have crossed her path during her aid work.

“They have seen that animals feel emotions and reward kindness with amazing, rewarding love and joy,” Sutton said. “Which is currently in short supply in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Whether you’re a seasoned expert or budding development professional — check out more news, analysis and advice online to guide your career and professional development, and subscribe to Doing Good to receive top international development career and recruitment news every week.

About the author

  • Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

Join the Discussion