Thursday, June 21, 2018

What It Means to Love a Dog (and Cat) in the Foreign Service

Keeping pets in #FSLife is notoriously difficult. It's even more difficult when you lose them. We PCS'd to Cyprus in August 2017. Before the end of May 2018, we had lost all three pets (a dog and two cats) we had brought with us. Continue to the post for our story and (eventually) links to a profile of each pet-- including the best cat that ever lived.
Bertie (L) and Schnapps pictured on a piece of Embassy furniture we sent back to the warehouse.


Schnapps, the greatest cat that ever lived.
I’ve been struggling for a while to figure out how to start this and how to sort out all my thoughts and feelings coherently. I’ve also been struggling to help our girls sort out and deal with their thoughts and feelings…. All the feelings. I can’t. So I have just started writing. On the morning of May 22nd, we lost the last of our pets that came with us to Cyprus last August. We brought three—  one dog and two cats. Chip was a nine year old border collie mix; Schnapps a 17 year old ragdoll/maine coon; and Bertie, a 2 year old Arabian Mau that we adopted in Saudi Arabia. In just over nine months in-country, all three were dead.
Bertie-- that cat had style

Living the #FSLife with pets is notoriously hard. The “Traveling with Pets” seminar run by the FSI transition center is the most well attended course they offer for a reason. Moving pets all over the world is expensive. It’s time consuming. It’s stressful. But, yes, (you saw this coming), it’s worth it. There are at least 2 Facebook groups for FS members and families dedicated solely to pets. It’s a great place to ask questions and get info that will reduce time and stress during PCS. But, mostly, people share their photos and stories about their pets. It’s clear that we are not the only ones to find that pets soften the hard edges of a life that can often be so taxing and isolating.

Chip at the Outer Banks in North Carolina.
Losing a pet while overseas isn’t something people talk a lot about. I asked about it in the FSI seminar because I knew our elderly cat was unlikely to live through the 2 or 3 consecutive overseas tours we were staring down. Truly, we were lucky. We are very lucky our pets died here, in Cyprus, rather than at our last post in Saudi Arabia. Our dog, Chip, had a true medical emergency at one o’clock in the morning. Greg rushed him to our local Vet, just a kilometer or two away and the on-call Vet met him there. In Saudi Arabia, there would have been no one to call, no place to go and no one to meet us. Our dog would have continued seizing until his brain was fully cooked and his organs shut down. In Cyprus, we were also able to have our pets cremated and the ashes of two of them will go “home” with us. We had friends that had to euthanize a dog in Saudi Arabia and they had to beg, plead and, probably, bribe to have her buried somewhere and not just tossed out in the desert.

Now for the unlucky part: our Arabian Mau, Bertie, would probably not have died if we hadn’t brought him here. You see, he was murdered-- poisoned. Cyprus no longer has a feline population control program. There are cats everywhere, far too many for the good-hearted people at the non-profit rescues to afford to spay and neuter. So, people take matters into their own hands and put out poison, indiscriminately killing all kinds of animals in the process of clearing out the feral cats. Our Bertie, who just would not stay inside, found a can of poisoned cat food. He ran home to us and died in a disgusting frenzy of feces, foam, and convulsions-- all witnessed first-hand by our 8 year old daughter.
Bertie after the Vet confirmed he had been poisoned.
Note the foam on his mouth.

Given all this trauma and pain, for us and our pets, you may wonder if we regret bringing them. Have I felt guilty or second guessed myself? No. Not for one second. These blows were hard. Our dog died just a month after our arrival. The kids weren’t fully settled in school. We didn’t know anyone well enough to feel comfortable totally losing it in front of them. We had to process it on our own or through friends & family who were mostly on other continents. I’d had our 17 year old cat since long before I’d even met my husband. He was a living tie to a place and a life I had left behind for this adventure. He was also the best cat that ever lived. (link coming soon) His kidneys failed and we euthanized him. A mere 20 hours later, Bertie was poisoned and died a tragic, violent, messy death.  We struggled, but we found ways to manage. Our daughter urged us to adopt another dog late in the fall, telling me, “Mommy, I think this will help your heart heal ALL the way.” When Bertie died, we leaned on the girls’ school counselor and piggybacked on a middle-school advisory project about cat overpopulation. Our 8 year old wrote a story  about Bertie’s death and what she thought should be done about cat overpopulation and poisoning. Sharing it with the class, through the advisory teacher, helped her process her grief and anger. As tough as this was, and still is, it is nothing compared to being loved by these animals—nothing compared to whole of the life we shared with them. “A dog loves a person the way people love each other only while in the grip of new love: with intense, unwavering focus, attentive to every move the beloved makes, unaware of imperfections, desiring little more than to be close, to be entwined, to touch and touch and touch.” (NYT Opinion: “What It Means to Be Loved by a Dog”-- absolutely worth the click and whole read.)  No, there is not a thing I would have done differently.

We will open our hearts to another cat too. A friend has a rescue she is fostering until we return from our summer travels. So, when our return flight from the U.S. touches down this August, there will, once again, be a cat waiting… a cat to love us.

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