International groups seek volunteer travellers to accompany animals to their new overseas homes.
On a recent trip to Colombia, I traveled light with two bags, a banana and no live animals. On the return, I subtracted the fruit and added a third carrier — and a wiggly dog named Max.
To unknowing eyes, I was just a typical traveller with a strong pet attachment. But in truth, I was a flight volunteer for Cartagena Paws, an animal-rescue centre that, among myriad services, places Colombian street dogs with adoptive families in North America.
My ultimate responsibility was to escort the 8-month-old puppy with the overactive tail to the District of Columbia. I was headed north anyway, and, well, Max needed a lift.
"Without flight volunteers, many animals will be stuck here and unable to get to their forever homes in the United States and Canada," said Maureen Cattieu, the Buffalo expat who founded the center in 2014. "We just don't have the means of getting them there."
Around the world, animal-welfare groups are rescuing dogs from dire situations: poisonings in Turks and Caicos; shootings in Turkey; the meat trade in South Korea; overcrowded shelters in Thailand. But in most cases, plucking them from imminent peril isn't enough.
Many cultures, such as those in Russia, Thailand and China, do not share Americans' head-over-tail obsession with companion animals. Residents either let the dogs duke it out for survival in the urban wild or allow government officials to cram them into shelters with no release date. In countries with active adoptions, the ratio of stray dogs to available homes is out of whack.
"We adopt out over 500 dogs a year," said Jane Parker-Rauw, founder of Potcake Place, a shelter on Providenciales in Turks and Caicos.
"We simply do not have the number of homes here wanting to adopt dogs, so most go off-island."
As a temporary solution, the organisations are exporting rescue dogs to North America. The groups have no shortage of animals to send or humans on the receiving end, but they need independent travellers to connect the two halves.
"We use flight volunteers who are met at the airport by the adoptive parents," said Lisa Anne Ramirez, executive director of the Humane Society of Cozumel Island in Mexico. "It is usually a very emotional and tearful reunion."
Depending on the airline and the departure city, the groups have three ways to transport dogs internationally. Cargo is the most expensive route, but the pups can fly solo. They can also travel as checked baggage, down with the wheeled hard cases and golf clubs, or as a carry-on, with the laptop bags and backpacks. In both scenarios, a chaperone is required.
To save money on the companion's fare, the rescue centers solicit help from holidaymakers already holding a plane ticket home.
"It's a great way to end your vacation — to do something good," said Melissa Borden, who owns a rescue and rehab facility in Michigan and accompanied 10 Thai dogs earlier this year. "You can pay it forward without a lot of work."
The process is surprisingly easy and orderly. The organisations handle the bulk of the duties. They compile the mandatory paperwork, such as the vet records, health certificate, customs documents and adoption form, which the traveller will present at customs.
Many groups will book the reservation for the four-legged passenger as extra baggage or an in-cabin pet. (You just need to provide your itinerary.) They will deliver the animal to the airport in a crate or soft-sided carrier and help with check-in. They will provide a care package containing food, water, medications, leash, collar and other necessities. (For animals travelling in the belly of the plane, they will attach the supplies to the crate.)
They will pay for the assorted costs, including the airline's fees, which can range from US$100 ($141) for a carry-on pup on JetBlue to US$465 ($658) for a checked animal weighing more than 31kg on EVA Air. They will also reimburse the traveller for any porter expenses. (Of course, donations are much appreciated.)
After the aircraft lands, the families or rescue centers will scoop up the dogs and cart them off to their next — and possibly final — destination. The flight volunteer can now hang up his or her cape.
"The volunteers don't carry the dog, they don't touch the dog, they don't do anything," said Sema Rosinbum, who runs Kyra's Rescue, which has sent 150 street dogs from Turkey to Washington and New York. "The dog is like an unaccompanied minor."
Sasithorn "Sas" Moy barely lifted a pinkie during a recent transport of five dogs from Thailand. The Harlem resident didn't know what to expect when she contacted the Phuket-based Soi Dog Foundation, which sends at least 25 dogs to North America a month.
"I was looking up 'Thai street dogs' and Soi Dog came up," said Sas, who spent two weeks visiting family in Thailand in late October. "I thought, "Oh, what's the catch?' "
She quickly learned that there wasn't one.
"I just showed up at the airport and they gave me the paperwork," she explained after a nearly 20-hour flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City. "I said goodbye to the dogs at the X-ray machine. It was painless."
The only investment she had to make involved the tick-tock of the clock.
"There was extra time on the front end and the back end," she said, "but it was worthwhile."
On the morning of her flight from Bangkok, Sas and her sister had to arrive an extra hour in advance — 9am for a noon departure. In New York, they had to wait at the baggage claim for an airline employee to wheel out the crates. Then she had to flag down two porters to help push the pups into the arrivals area. Less than hour after landing, she was standing curbside, cooing at her charges.
"D.J., come home with me," she said wistfully to the dog bound for Michigan.
Travellers wishing to serve as flight volunteers should reach out to the rescue center as soon as possible — preferably right after they secure their flights. I messaged Cartagena Paws two weeks before my departure and received a reply peppered with exclamation points.
"We would love to have some help! Yes please!" Maureen wrote.
I sent her my itinerary. A few days later, she made a match. I read my travel buddy's bio on the foundation's Facebook page: "On our way home, we saw a beautiful dog running across the street near a very dangerous part of town in the Market of Bazurto. None of the cars stopped for him and he almost was demolished by a pickup. Shawna Lee and I stopped and SL rushed out of the car to see if he was ok. He immediately showed his submissive side and laid down to let her rub his belly and wagged his tail!"
Maureen soon found Max a home in Texas and arranged a car ride from the District to San Antonio. With all of the crucial pieces in place, I reserved a spot for my plus-one during my stopover in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
In Cartagena, I had to run one errand related to the transport. The morning before my flight home, I took a short cab ride to the vet and picked up a very excited Max. We walked - in zig-zaggy formation - to the airport, where I submitted his documents to the government's agricultural department.
While the officer typed in our information, Max rolled around on the office furniture. He handed me the documents and inspected the pup, smiling at his windshield-wiper tail. I returned Max to the vet for his final night in Colombia.
Max received a jubilant send-off at the airport, complete with bon voyage poster and kisses from Maureen.
At security, I carried him through the X-ray machine and tucked him into his carrier while we waited to board. Before takeoff, he poked his head out of the open top like a periscope, surveying the alien landscape of a Boeing 737.
In Atlanta, I stepped up to the immigration desk with confidence. The officer noted the "yes" I had checked under "bringing meats, animals, animal/wildlife products" and reminded me, "Do not forget the pup".
I followed the green agriculture sign to an officer who barely glanced at the folder. Before permitting us to leave, he warned me to keep the puppy in his carrier. Fear of biting or barking? I asked. No, he didn't want Max to mark where other dogs had marked before.
We had three hours before the next flight, so I gave Max a tour of Hartsfield-Jackson. I took him to the outdoor pet-relief area, where he flirted with a dog named Paisley, who was returning from three months in Antigua.
I introduced him to duty-free shopping and treated him to a grilled chicken roll-up. On the plane, the flight attendants doted on him. After landing, he strutted down the aisle like Gigi Hadid.
At Reagan Airport, we waited outside for the next member of Max's village to arrive. A little after midnight, Kim Rodeffer drove up. We photographed him with a sign that read, "Max is in Washington D.C."
A week later, I watched an online video of Max racing around the backyard of his new home. His Colombian tail was wagging wildly against the Texas sky.