In cat-schlepping, as in so much of life, you have to learn when to say yes, and when to say no. When to push past fear, and when to pay it respectful attention.
Mostly, it’s my cat’s fear that needs working on, but some of it is my own. Fear of the unknown, fear of strangers. Fear of judgment, fear of harassment. Fear of getting lost. Fear of loud noises. Fear of the sky, and of inclement weather. Fear of being covered in disease-bearing ticks. Fear that the immigration officer is going to find something wrong with our papers. Fear that the trust between cat and human will be pushed beyond what it can bear.
How do you deal with fear? By confronting it. By proving that you are equal to the challenge, that a lot of the worried voices in your head and from the naysayers around you didn’t know what they were talking about. That you and your furry best friend are just as entitled to occupy this planet as anybody else is. On the other hand, a certain amount of fear is healthy, and sometimes valid...
Saying No to Other People
For the last couple of years, I’ve been very concerned with proving that cats and humans can go just about everywhere together. I’ve been trying to prove it to Aífe, and to myself. Every milestone, large or tiny, has encouraged me to press on. New opportunities in love and work have pushed me to say yes to bigger challenges, bring my fur-baby on journeys across cities and mountains and oceans. The result is that Aífe and I have gone on many adventures that I would never have imagined taking any cat on, let alone one who seemed an incurable scaredy-cat at the start.
I’ve also been very concerned with trying to prove our mission to everybody who takes notice of us on the streets and trains and trails and interwebs. I’m very much an introvert by nature, but as a personable, small-town, liberal, west coast, female, I also have a strong impulse to smile and be nice to people. But with cat-schlepping, it’s more than that. I want to convince skeptical strangers that I know what I’m doing, that all is well, that they too should consider schlepping their cat around if they have one, and rethink their beliefs about cats’ capabilities regardless. That they should not take for granted any of the limitations they project onto other species, or onto members of our own. That’s a lot to sell when you’re on strange soil and have nothing to recommend you except a smile and an neurotic cat.
A lot of people get excited when they spot Aífe – pretty much nobody expects to see a cat on a leash, or hanging out in a public. Some people try to grab at her without asking. Men are particularly bad about literally grabbing her, but women generally feel free to reach out and try to give her a heavy rubbing, too. Often, they act kind of insulted that Aífe doesn’t seem to like being grabbed by strange hands, like she’s the one who’s being rude. I’ve also encountered many women who stand by and do nothing as their small children chase Aífe while she’s trying to walk through a park - even when it's clearly freaking her out.
Then there are the people who want photos. Once in a while, I’ll look and see phones and cameras pointed at us from nearby. One time, on a train across Berlin, while I was moving house with Aífe and several suitcases, and feeling sweaty and tired, I looked up and saw this one older guy taking a photo of us with a digital camera. I decided to let it go. But then I looked up again minutes later, and he was still taking photos. I gave him the cranky look, and the universal, arms raised out gesture of “What the fuck?” He backed off.
Some people, however, are polite, and do ask if it’s okay to take photos, or to pet her. And I want to say yes. Or rather, I want to say no, but feel like I should say yes, that the response of politeness and least-resistance is to just say yes. Because even when they ask, a lot of people get an insulted look on their face if you do exercise your right to say no. I therefore often do say yes to small things when I’d rather say no.
Like I said, I try to be a good sport and friendly ambassador for the leash-cat movement. But on long quests, whether it’s moving house between countries with cat and luggage, or day-trips to other cities, or just a big jaunt across town to the park, I’m likely to get worn out at some point, and Aífe is almost sure to get over-stimulated and then tuckered out.
This year has seen more schlepping than ever before. I’ve been toting Aífe around Ireland, the UK, Germany, and Oregon. We’ve encountered the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean. We’ve explored mountains, canals, cemeteries, high streets, alleys, cemeteries, outdoor markets, and fine gardens. We’ve traveled by buses, trams, underground trains, over-ground trains, planes, boats, cars. We’ve stayed in hotels, airbnbs, sublets, cabins, Mom’s house. It’s been really, really busy – sometimes exhausting, sometimes glorious, and always companionable.
But having been so much out and about with my cat, there’s something I’ve had to learn this summer. Something that seems like it should go without saying, but, as with all important things, you actually do need to state clearly at some point, if not repeatedly –
You are allowed to say no.
I’ve realized that it’s actually my duty to be able to tell people no when I want to. For my sake, for my cat’s sake, and for the sake of our fellow creatures everywhere. Neither women nor cats should be made to feel bad about not welcoming unasked-for attention. People should learn to accept the idea of leash-cats, but they also really need to learn that just because there is a pussy in public, it doesn’t mean they are entitled to grab it.
Saying No to Intimidating Quests
At the end of 2016, about a month after finally getting the visa document that would allow Aífe and I to stay in Germany long-term, my husband was offered a great teaching job in Ireland. When I went to book flights for myself and Aífe, I discovered that you aren’t allowed to bring animals on flights into Ireland. You can bring them on flights out of the country, you can bring them on ferries into and out of the country, and you can pay nearly a thousand euros to have strangers ship them as cargo on planes into the country. So animals come and go from the island all the damn time, but not in the convenient, modern way I’d finally been getting the hang of. I asked several airlines why this was, and they said it was government policy. But I called the Irish Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of all animal movement in and out of the country, and they said that it was nothing to do with them – that properly documented animals were welcome in, it was up to the airlines. The long and the short of it was that I couldn’t fly to Ireland with Aífe as carryon, as I had done into Germany. Instead, I had to schlep Aífe and all of my luggage across four countries, via nine trains and two ferries, to get her from Berlin to Limerick.
Our rigmarole getting into Ireland left me feeling totally exhausted, but also empowered – it was an epic schlep, and we’d done it. Apart from being exhausted, and a few hours of epic seasickness, we got through it safe and sound. I learned a lot, and my concept of what we could handle went up a few levels. At the same time, it made me realize that getting us to my husband’s next teaching fellowship, which was set to start five months later in Singapore, was not going to be a cakewalk.
Within days of finally arriving in Ireland, I was already researching Singapore. I found out that there were only a few countries on earth from which pets could fly to Singapore without having to go into a mandatory 30 quarantine upon arrival. Germany isn’t one of them, and neither is the US. Ireland is though, which at the time seemed highly fortuitous since we’d just gotten there. However, you have to prove that the animal in question had been in that country continuously for at least six months. So we wouldn’t be able to go to Singapore, or go anywhere else, until the end of summer. That meant Aífe and I would have to find somewhere to rent after my husband had gone on without us.
Then there was the stack of forms I would need to fill out for Aífe. I’d need some certified by a local Irish vet and some by government officials in Dublin. There were forms for importing ‘goods’ into Singapore, that wanted to know Aífe’s value; they didn’t give a shit that she is worth the world to me, they were only interested in what she’d sell for, which is probably next to nothing. There were forms for the pilot of the plane we flew on to sign, to swear that Aífe had not been removed from a sealed, tamper-proof case, and had not left the ‘free trade zone’ of the airports during the entire day-long journey across the planet.
Also, I would need acquire special forms and permits to get permission take Aífe back out of Singapore when we left again, six months later.
And after a months of research, and several email exchanges with the very helpful staff at Singapore’s Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority, I had this bit of info dropped on me:
“Please be informed that a tamper proof sealed cage is recommended to ensure your pet's safety during travel. However, if you wish to place your pet in a carrier bag during flight, please take note that you have to check in a hard crate cage and place your pet in the hard crate cage upon arrival in Singapore, before handing your pet over to the lost & found counter. As the pet will be transported from the airport passenger terminal to Changi Animal and Plant Quarantine Station (CAPQ) for inspection, pets must be placed in a sturdy escape proof crates to ensure your pet's safety.”
I had been researching for months, and nowhere on any page had I found anything that even hinted at this. Nothing telling me that even if I spent months jumping through administrative hoops, I’d still have to surrender Aífe over to strangers who would take her away from me, to a different location. I probably wouldn’t have found this out at all if that very helpful officer hadn’t been so proactive in spelling it out. I certainly wouldn’t have known I needed to buy and then check a crate for her. The surprise of this new information was stressful in itself, but severely compounded by the realization that there could be all manner of similarly important bits of information out there that I might miss now and trip up over later. Any one of which could result in us being denied entry into the country, or in Aífe being confiscated, forced into quarantine after all, or ‘destroyed’.
I had spent several weeks working on the problem, and feeling anxious, and trying to tell myself I would get Aífe into Singapore if I just kept at it. After that email, I looked at everything I knew, along with the possibility of there being lots more I didn’t know, and I suddenly had a very clear feeling about the situation: No damn way.
My mother had been offering to take care of Aífe in Portland if I needed her to. I kept saying that a) it was too much to impose on my mom, b) I couldn’t spend the money to come back to the States before going to Singapore, and c) six months was way to long to leave my fur-baby, who unfortunately is really is a one-human cat. But I was wildly uncomfortable with taking Aífe to Singapore, and didn’t know of anyone else on earth I could leave her with for months at a time. So I finally decided to change my mind and itinerary, and take Aífe back to Portland.
Of course, I was glad to go home for a while. But not taking Aífe to Singapore felt like a failure. I’d been trying to prove I could take Aífe everywhere with me, and now I was admitting defeat, and leaving her behind on the farthest schlep yet. I hated the idea of being apart for several months, and worried whether she’d be okay without me. But when I saw how much paper work I would need to bring as a human entering the country, when I realized that the main leg of the flight was 16 and ½ hours long, and when I thought about how the whether was going to be dangerously hot and humid for cat-schlepping pretty much every day of the year, I decided that going without her was definitely the safest thing to do.
And so it is that in a few hours I will be setting off for Singapore alone. After two and a half years of taking Aífe out regularly, and getting to a point where I can bring her just about everywhere with me, we're parting ways for a while, and Aífe will go back to life as an indoor-only kitty until I return. It's a little sad, and strange, and will thankfully only last until the next Solstice.
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Yes, it’s good to say yes to challenges, to things that scare you a little but also intrigue you. It’s good to be open to the world, and to be as kind as you can to the creatures you encounter in it. But when you find yourself faced with people who upset you or your cat, or situations where your cat’s safety is at risk, you have the absolute right, and sometimes duty, to say no. Pick your battles. Don't put your energy where it doesn't serve you. Save it for the next schlep.