How To Smuggle Your English Cat into Mexico

Sänna Mexico Cat

“Why bring a cat all the way from England,” the Mexican Customs & Immigration guy asked, “there’s already ten million cats in Mexico to choose from.” I explained that Mexican cats could only speak Mexican… which would be of no use to us at all because we only spoke English. He nodded and excepted my explanation before waving us away, worryingly unconcerned. Dave.

I can’t remember who made the original decision, I think it was me. It must have been me if I think about it now, because I suggested to both Marie and Henry that we should have a ship’s cat, one that was grey to match the colour decor of our boat. It was a joke of course, I never expected either of them to take it seriously… but you should never make jokes like that around a pair of dedicated cat lovers.

Almost immediately I was inundated with internet links to cuddly little grey kittens. Dozens of them from all around the UK, from Inverness in Scotland to someplace I’d never heard of way off in Cornwall. Before I could say ‘Yikes, here comes Officer Dibble’ both Marie and Henry singled out a really cute looking male down in Ramsgate, a harbour town on the south coast of England… a very nice little sea port but quite a long distance to travel. Henry argued that with Ramsgate being a harbour and close to the sea any cat from there would already have its sea legs, which was a vague argument in which I did see some logic. Marie disagreed entirely, but she just wanted to cuddle a little grey kitten sitting on her lap.

So off we travelled down to Ramsgate… just to take a look of course because I already knew this was a really stupid idea…

Now, have you yourself ever known anyone who went to see a litter of cute newborn kittens and then came back without one? We came back with nine week old Nelson, the little male runt of the litter who we’d chosen because he really was grey to match the colour of the boat and also because he was the only one that was actually available from the litter. The rest were all spoken for. And I myself insisted on a male for two reasons, first an old farmer friend of mine once told me that males make the best rat catchers and second, I’d already raised a family of three daughters that possessed three female cats and, with a cat-loving wife to boot, I’d long since made my mind up that any more family or animal commitments would be for males only… it’s purely a hormonal thing. Marie, to her credit, agreed. 

But right now I need to cut this long story short. On the night drive up from Ramsgate I got to thinking what a really stupid thing we’d done. Our life onboard a sailboat was far from an easy one though surely transporting a small English kitten from England to Mexico, where we’d recently left Sänna moored to return to England for Christmas, was going to be a relatively straightforward exercise. Surely it’s not an overly complicated procedure to stick a cat onto a plane as an extra piece of luggage and simply pick the cat up at the other end? Flying from Alaska to Seattle I’d often seen pets brought into the passenger cabin and parked under the seat in front, I’d even seen a poodle with its own seat. Well it turns out it’s not straightforward at all – absolutely no way is it straightforward.

The first shock to my system is that you cannot simply carry your pet cat onto an airplane as additional hand luggage. Exporting a cat out of any country, especially animal-loving Great Britain, involves a time consuming process requiring veterinary intervention, veterinary paperwork, veterinary documents and something called a pet passport. Nelson would need his own passport documenting which countries he’d passed through, his health condition in each country, a full record of illnesses, injuries, inoculations plus when and where he’d had sexual relations and with which cat if any… well, he might be a prized stud cat. It’s fair to say that on our long drive north I didn’t know any of this.

Let me enlighten you further. The first important procedure at six months of age with any cat unless wild or being bred for further procreation is to be snipped… castrated for you veterinary purists. Of course Nelson would then no longer be a full cat; and my long-time farmer friend insists that uncastrated cats make the best rat catchers. Castration caused me some consternation because I had it in mind that a ship’s cat earned its keep by keeping down vermin and such forth but, according to the veterinary, Nelson would need to be ‘done’ if he wished to pursue a life of travel unless being used for stud. I argued that my long-time farmer friend said working cats shouldn’t be castrated though Marie and Henry denied that Nelson was ever going to be a working cat, he was an adorably loving pet. But let me tell you this. Prior to Nelson being snipped he had been registered at the local veterinary practice who checked him over thoroughly twice to register him onto their sophisticated computerised system. Then followed three more visits to the vets for various inoculations etc. all of which were required for a cat leaving the UK to establish Nelson’s history for his pet passport. Only after all of this did Nelson go for the big snip, the operation, the castration to cut him down to an incomplete cat… and only then, after five previous visits to the vet, were we told that Nelson’s name needed to be changed to Nellie. We learned that Nelson wasn’t a male cat at all.

In late March, leaving Nellie with Marie back in England, I returned to Mexico full of foreboding. We needed to ready Sänna to leave Ensenada so that we could sail south to Panama. Marie planned to follow a week or so later with our adorable female kitten once all the correct documentation was in place. When in Ensenada Marie informed me there was a complication. The male snip operation is a fairly straightforward one, to put it bluntly the cat’s balls are crushed in a fairly simple if not painful external procedure, afterwards the final anti-rabies injections are given around one week later which clears the cat for international travel – providing the inoculation is successful. It’s entirely different for a female of any species including, I now gather from Marie, for humans too. For a female cat it’s an internal operation that for me, as a male of my kind, is difficult to describe to you in any way that makes medical sense. But the important factor in this story is that it takes a female longer to recover from this intrusive operation than it does a male. So there you go. That was the complication. 

Three weeks later I was still sitting alone in Ensenada. Now there was a delay… the rabies injection couldn’t be given to Nellie until she’d fully recovered from her major operation, then a further week was needed for the inoculation to be effective. Then there was a further complication with the paperwork meaning that we had to contact a specialist pet transportation company who knew more about these things than we did. It seemed that Nellie couldn’t travel directly to Mexico, not without an expensive twenty-four hour stopover in a specialist animal holding facility in Mexico City because animals need sufficient rest between flights… which is fair and reasonable if you think about it but it occurred to me that I never get a meaningful rest between flights, especially when a connecting flight involves either British Airways or Qantas. But there was a much bigger problem than any of this…

The approved animal transportation airline into Mexico from London is United Airlines… but United Airlines had only very recently suspended its animal transportation business because of the deaths in transit of a number of pet animal it was carrying. You will need to read this twice unless you are an avid animal lover, in which case then please do not read this at all… the air stewardesses of United Airlines had been insisting that pets travelled onboard in the main cabin with their owners, also they insisted pets were carried in the overhead luggage storage lockers where they subsequently suffocated and died. It’s not the purpose of this blog to comment upon the ethics of United Airlines, except to say that we now had no means to transport our new ship’s cat to Ensenada in Mexico. But Marie had a plan B, or so she thought…

Only at this stage did I learn that flying a cat to Mexico does not cost the equivalent of an additional piece of luggage on the airplane. You might need to read this twice too… flying Nellie through Mexico it was gonna cost nearly two thousand quid… one way. That’s more than first-class club or over-the-top business travel for me but then, of course, I always travel cattle class… which right now seemed to me to be one class down from cat class. But Marie had an alternative, she could fly with Nellie the cat directly into San Diego in the States with British Airways for only nine hundred quid, but I would then need to somehow arrange to transport them both through the US-Mexican border. I was flabbergasted at the price and more than a little perturbed… in fact I was extremely perturbed. There was a further complication too, we didn’t have the correct documentation to travel through the Mexican border with an English cat, the paperwork needed to be in Spanish with the original documentation in the US format, not the UK’s. Of course we would be travelling from the US into Mexico, not from the UK. So Marie arranged to get all the documentation translated into Spanish, all eleven pages including everything concerning Nellie’s health records so far. From Ensenada in Mexico I contacted a US veterinary in San Diego in order to duplicate the paperwork we had onto US documentation forms which, the American veterinary said, was fairly straightforward and would only cost seven hundred bucks. I declined.

The specialist pet transportation company in the UK, Pet Air UK, were exceptionally good and did everything we needed to get Nellie to San Diego, but they too warned that we did not have the correct documentation for the US-Mexican border. I told Marie not to worry, I had a plan. Marie didn’t worry either because she’s like that… she said everything would somehow be ok. Marie always says everything will be ok – but right now she was sat in England stroking a cuddly little kitten fast asleep on her knee.

My plan was this. I would hire a car in Ensenada, a Mexican car with Mexican plates, drive north to Tijuana and then through the busiest and strictest border crossing in the world to San Diego, I would collect them both from San Diego Airport then simply drive back south through the same border and just see what happens. We had some paperwork, it was in Spanish, there are millions of stray cats in Mexico… would the Mexicans really care about just one more cat? And I sincerely believed, from talking to many Americans in Mexico who had their own dogs with them, that Mexican immigration officials on the border just weren’t that interested in pets coming into their country. Of course, my plan didn’t quite work out like that.

My first impression of the Tijuana border crossing into the US is that there is already a great big wall there. It stretches for a good few hundred miles in fact, although not all the way across to the other side of America. Donald Trump plans to fix the gap apparently. Then there is a five to six hour queue for vehicles before you reach the US Border Protection people – it’s a very sophisticated facility they have there on the border, being extremely well protected. Next, when you drive up to the first screening kiosk the US Border Protection guard asks why is it an apparent Englishman has a supposed English passport whilst driving a Mexican car into the United States. I explained to him that I was going to San Diego to collect my cat. Then I was surrounded by an armed squad in full protective gear, two of whom had dogs. 

Next, when you sit there in your vehicle unsure of everything that’s happening you are directed to drive out of line to the detention facility whereupon you have to step out of your vehicle, keep your hands on the vehicle roof at gun point, then affirm that you waive all your rights as a member of the human race. When taken to the detention facility, which was jam-packed full of Mexicans in handcuffs, you then have to explain everything about your whole life and then prove it… and happily I could do just that, I could substantiate everything with the paperwork I had with me plus my ten year US visa in my passport. They checked it all out, including Nellie’s transportation documents from England to San Diego but I knew full well what was coming next. My full page US B2 visa in my passport is right facing my full page Yemen visa… we had sailed our boat into Yemen some years previously during our circumnavigation. As usual I was taken into a separate interrogation office to explain my activities in Yemen with my three full page Yemeni visas (the Yemenis go over-the-top with their rather too elaborate visas) but always knowing this is going to happen I carry all our ship’s documents which detail everywhere we’ve sailed into so far. It all stacks up… US Customs & Homeland Security are then all smiles, I usually get coffee with an amiable ten minute conversation about sailing a sailboat around the world to America… and this is exactly what happened right now. US Customs & Border Protection stamped my passport and prioritised my drive through the vehicle line and in to America. 

It took nearly eight hours for me to transit through the border – and I was appalled by the numbers of Mexicans detained there in handcuffs. Sure enough I was gonna have to get back through this same border crossing with Marie and the cat with what was likely the wrong paperwork and incorrect documentation… two English tourists with an English cat driving a Mexican car. This, I tell you now, was fast becoming a surreal travel experience worthy of any traveller’s tale told anywhere. It compares even with smuggling Sänna’s new mast over the remote Slovenian-Croatian mountain border some years ago, in what turned out to be a tax fraud. 

In any event I collected Marie from San Diego airport then we drove to the cargo collection facility. Nellie the cat arrived on time at the customs depot having been personally collected by a private car directly from the tarmac right beside the British Airways flight. Marie saw it all happen through the aircraft window whilst still strapped in her seat waiting to disembark. The new ship’s cat wasn’t happy, she’d been inside her BA approved travel cage for over twelve hours – but then so had Marie. It took over thirty minutes to complete the import documentation, sign everything over and pay a further seventy dollars in US customs fees. Then, because it was ten o’clock at night we headed for a pet friendly hotel.

The next morning we all three set off for Mexico. Now, it’s a fairly straightforward drive from San Diego to Tijuana on the border, it’s a four lane freeway in either direction. Somehow, by following the Chinese lady’s  instructions on my new Chinese smart phone, we got lost. For some reason she instructed us in Chinese to turn off the highway into the desert, even though there were big overhead signs on the freeway quite clearly stating Tijuana and the Mexican border. Four hours later we were interminably lost in the desert mountains, on a dusty gravelly roadway without any internet connection to re-establish a conversation with our Chinese sat-nav queen who’s English was appalling. We had no idea where we were… and in the desert it gets hot. We saw a group of buildings ahead so we drove on, we thought we’d try that before turning around to find our way back onto the freeway leading over the border to Tijuana. 

We made our way to the small collection of buildings and, surprisingly, found ourselves on the Mexican border. The dirt-track road continued over the border but there was a Mexican border guard standing with a rifle over his shoulder guarding the gravel road through a gap in the high concrete wall. We drove up to the guard and he seemed surprised. Of course he was surprised, there was no one else about and I got the impression we could have been the first people the guard had seen all day. It was excruciatingly hot, it was dusty and windy… just like a Clint Eastward movie and I swear to you a rolling cactus dustball blew over the road in the stiff breeze. The guard saw our Mexican number plates and beckoned us to stop, which of course we did. He spoke absolutely no English. I explained to him that we were from England, it was a hire car, we were travelling with an English cat and that we had all of the relevant cat paperwork in Spanish – by now all fourteen pages had been expensively translated. I said that we had English passports, all the insurance documents for the car (we hadn’t) and that everything was in order even though I knew full well he understood not one word. The guard looked terrified. 

“Esto es demasiado complicado para mí, ni siquiera soy un guardia fronterizo. Solo estoy cubriendo a mi hermano que fue a ver a su esposa que lo está dejando. Por favor, ve, simplemente conduce y déjame en paz. No me molestes con todo esto,” (click here for translation). We understood nothing of what he said but, in a rather panicky manner, he beckoned us to drive on through the hole in the wall and into Mexico. 

The guard wasn’t interested at all in the cat, showed no inclination to check our passports, the car, ourselves nor anything else for that matter. We never got our passports stamped, were given our tourists visas or anything, neither was Nellie’s passports inspected or stamped, nor her health documents stamped or verified. He waved in a somewhat relieved way as we drove off, we were quite jubilant at the easiness of our border crossing – we’d got Nellie into Mexico… but after about five miles or so it occurred to us that all three of us were in Mexico illegally.

We drove on, finding a road signed to Tecate, from there I knew the road down to Ensenada. Around four hours after crossing the border we arrived at Cruise Port Marina and hauled everything aboard Sänna. Nellie didn’t look one bit impressed and immediately tried to jump off the boat into the water. This ship’s cat lark, I tell you, was not going to be easy.

The next day we talked and decided to walk up to the Port Captain’s office, where we ourselves had checked into Mexico the previous November. We would explain everything, come clean and accept everything they were gonna do to us. Of course, they would throw the book at us… god knows what would happen, probably a stiff fine, perhaps deportation…

Well, nothing happened. It was an anticlimax. The Port Captain took us to quarantine and then to Customs & Immigration all in the same building, who simply stamped and backdated the entry date for our passports and issued us with the required visitors visas. The immigration and customs official wasn’t interested in the cat one bit. He shrugged his shoulders and asked why bring a cat to Mexico? “There’s already millions of stray cats in Mexico,” he said…

Worryingly though, we still had no proof that Nellie has ever been in Mexico and, we’ve been told, she’s technically a stray English cat who speaks no Mexican…


You can soon follow the trials and tribulations of Nellie the ship’s cat all written in her own words. I warn you that she’s a precocious little bugger who’s never satisfied with her lot, even though she’s supposed to be working hard for her passage…

So don’t you be fooled now…

Read…

Nellie the Cat, Now Officially Inducted into Ship’s Crew

Nellie the Ship’s Cat

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