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Why is getting your pet into New Zealand such an ordeal?

Bringing pets into New Zealand can be a lengthy exercise that requires dogged determination. Photo / Getty Images

Bringing your pet into New Zealand is an expensive exercise that requires a lot of patience. Why is it so hard? 

Pet owners are spending thousands of dollars, and months checking off lists of demands, to get their four-legged pals into New Zealand – a process even the government admits is a "quite an exercise”.

Some pets are arriving into the country only to be euthanized within days when they don’t meet the country’s high biosecurity standards.

This is a reality confronting Kiwi pet owners who take their pets abroad or adopt them there, and for foreigners making a move to Aotearoa.

None are immune from the experience. The US Ambassador's Twitter celebrity dog had to jump through bureaucratic hoops, too –  although it appears she got released from quarantine early.

“It is a complicated process, it’s a lot of effort to go through this,” admits Paul Dansted, the man who oversees the process as director of animal and animal products at the Ministry for Primary Industries.

Despite the difficulty, thousands are going through the process – 6176 cats and dogs were imported into New Zealand in 2016.

It’s pretty easy if you come from Australia: cats and dogs (guinea pigs and rabbits are allowed, too) from there don’t face any quarantine upon arrival.

For every other pet, it’s a bit harder. Cats and dogs must have spent the past six months in an approved country – one that’s rabies-free or where the disease is well-controlled. If your country’s not on the list, you’ll have to send your pet to one that is, for a six-month stay.

Then, they need to get vaccinations, a microchip, and rabies tests, all between specific dates. They’ll also need an import permit from MPI before they’re allowed on a plane.

Air New Zealand requires owners to use a pet relocation company – which costs at least a couple of thousand dollars, but can considerably slash the amount of stress with their expertise.

Then, a pet needs to spend at least 10 days at an approved quarantine facility in Auckland or Christchurch – at a cost of about $1100 for a cat and $1500 for a dog. While in quarantine, they’ll twice be inspected by MPI before being released.

If any health issues are found, the pet might be kept in quarantine longer for tests and treatment.

One quarantine owner told Noted that an owner of two dogs from Rarotonga, which were found to have heartworm, opted to have them euthanized, rather than leaving them in quarantine during months of treatment.

Dansted, the MPI director, says such a decision would be one for the owner to make.

US Ambassador Scott Brown and his wife Gail Huff and their dog Gracie. Photo / Hagen Hopkins

Diplo-Dog Drama

In New Zealand, it’s not just rabies MPI is worried about: a dog can also be a possible source of diplomatic drama.

U.S. Ambassador Scott Brown faced a less-than-smooth road as he prepared to bring his Yorkshire terrier, Grace, to New Zealand when he began his posting last year.

Between shifting travel dates, a late vaccination and incorrect blood tests, Grace’s quarantine stay had to be rebooked three times – with MPI helping with the last booking.

The issues Brown faced – and how MPI handled them – were revealed in responses to Official Information Act requests.

MPI initially refused to release any information, saying it “would be likely to prejudice the international relations of the Government of New Zealand”, though it backed down after Noted pointed to an email where the ministry told Brown: “MPI believes that there are no good reasons to withhold this information”.

Brown’s case also highlights possible issues with MPI’s record-keeping, with documents showing the ministry appears to have let Grace out of quarantine a day early – an issue that MPI is unable to explain.

MPI says its records show Grace was quarantined at Levin’s Shado-Lans facility from July 7 to 17; however, the U.S. Embassy’s own records show Grace was released on July 16 – the same date tweets from Brown and Grace (best known as @DiploDogGracie) show the dog out of quarantine.

Asked if there’s any reason a pet would be allowed out of quarantine a day early, Dansted said: “No. The rules there are pretty clear.”

Shado-Lans has since closed down. Its owner, Denise Clark, said she could not provide the facility’s own records due to client confidentiality.

However, she said Shado-Lans had always required pets to stay for 10 nights, rather than days, to ensure animals that arrived on late-night flights didn’t skip part of their quarantine period. She said pets were only allowed out once MPI had approved their release.

Brown declined to comment for this story; a US Embassy spokeswoman said: “It wouldn’t really be appropriate for the Ambassador to give an interview about his experience interacting with a New Zealand government department.”

In an email to MFAT advisor Ben Steele, the U.S. Embassy said Brown “picked up the dog when the Levin facility told him to, he didn’t ask for any earlier release”.

Steele then wrote to MPI: “The U.S. Embassy expressed concern, shared by MFAT, that the discrepancy in the date the dog was released could cause confusion … We trust that MPI will be willing to explain the discrepancy should it be made public.”

What it's like for the average pet

Maggie, the Mexican street dog

Owners: James and Karla Turner

Cost of getting to New Zealand: $16,000+

 James and Karla Turner spent a small fortune getting their Mexican street dog to New Zealand. Photo / supplied


James Turner and his wife Karla found their dog, Maggie, on a street in Monterrey, Mexico – a country that’s not on MPI’s approved list – and wanted to bring her home to Kapiti.

Turner says he twice emailed MPI seeking advice last year, and never heard back.

And so, after months of online research, Turner decided to book Maggie into a Los Angeles kennel for six months until she was eligible to fly to New Zealand, while he and his wife headed home without her.

Turner was originally quoted an eye-watering NZ$24,000 for flights, kennelling, vet checks, and quarantine, but cut the cost by driving Maggie to the U.S. himself, and haggling with kennel owners. Turner says the eventual price tag was about NZ$16,000, with most of that raised through a Givealittle page.

Of the process, he says, “I would never want to do it again.”

“I went into it not knowing anything. If I had to do it again, it’s easier, but the whole initial thing was impossible. You search online about it and there’s nothing about it – no blogs, nothing.”

Turner says other pet owners have reached out to him on Facebook for advice; he’s urged one Mexican student against bringing her dog to New Zealand when she came to study.

Despite the stress and the cost, Turner says, it’s been worth it.

“She’s really happy here, always running around and sniffing everything. She’s really relaxed.

“It’s cool to see a dog that came stumbling towards us covered in hundreds of ticks now fully healthy and enjoying life here in New Zealand.”

Gingey and Pearl, the Californian cats

Owner: Carolin Phillips

Cost of getting to New Zealand: Doesn’t want to think about it

Gingey and Pearl were keen to visit New Zealand says their owner Carolin Phillips. Photo / supplied

Carolin Phillips, on the other hand, is full of praise for MPI.

In 2014, after her husband had died, and with her parents getting older, she decided it was time to move back home from California.

She wasn’t quite sure what to do about her two cats, Gingey and Pearl: first, she put feelers out to see if she could re-home them locally. Unable to find a perfect match, she consulted a “pet intuitive” – a move, she admits, is “pretty weird and wacky” – and both cats apparently said they were keen.

And so the trio prepared for their trip. Phillips called MPI, and a “really lovely person” talked her through the rules.

“She was very kind, she understood the stress and the trauma that I was thinking [the cats] would be going through – and for me, too.”

Phillips says she nearly missed the deadline for her cats’ rabies shots, but a pet relocation expert “took over the process”, and helped ensure they met all the requirements.

She doesn’t want to tally up the cost – though she says it was certainly several thousand dollars – but, like Turner, says it was worth it. Though Gingey has since died, the cats loved their new life together in rural Waikato.

“I don’t have children, and it’s just like, they’re not quite my babies, but they’re my family. They’re definitely my family.”

Coco, the globetrotting Kiwi dog

Owner: Kate Macmillan and family

Cost of getting to New Zealand: $5000

There was no way the Macmillan family were leaving Coco behind in France. Photo / supplied

When Kate Macmillan and her family headed off for a year in France, they couldn’t bear to leave their dog, Coco, behind.

En route to France, Coco needed vaccinations, including for rabies, a microchip, and the use a pet relocation company – but Macmillan says bringing her home was even more challenging.

“[It was] very overwhelming with all the injections that she needed and the blood tests, right up until the last minute, she had to have them on certain days and dates, right up until the last 24 hours before she travelled, so just kind of had my list and worked my way through it. I just knew I had to do it to get her home.”

Macmillan was so worried Coco might fail one test – the dog had been bitten by a tick in the south of France – that she and her husband formulated a plan B: “We were thinking that we’d be moving her to the UK and living there … We couldn’t have left her behind if she had have failed that blood test.”

In the end, plan B wasn’t needed. The family moved home in November – spending about NZ$5000 on Coco’s vaccinations, tests, flights and quarantine.

Macmillan says the cost was worth it – “we just would have been miserable over there without her” – though the travel has taken a small toll on Coco, making her a “slightly less confident dog”.

“Flying on the plane, I know that was a traumatic experience, but it would have been more traumatic for her, me leaving her behind. Even though she’s bounced back and she was fine, I think it definitely does take a little bit of a toll on animals.”

The expert's advice

Still thinking of moving a pet to New Zealand? Dansted says MPI is here to help, and while it doesn’t require owners to use a pet relocation company, he says it’s a very good idea.

“We really do recommend you get a professional to help with this process. It’s quite an exercise … People who are only doing this occasionally won’t necessarily understand all the ins and outs of that process, so there are a number of companies out there that will help people through the process, and we really do recommend that people seriously consider that upfront.”

MPI is also “constantly” working on making the process simpler to follow for pet owners, Dansted says.

“Without compromising our biosecurity, we would like to make it as easy as possible for people.”

That’s why, in 2010, MPI cut the quarantine period from three months to 10 days, putting more of its trust in rabies vaccinations and testing.

Since 2016, it’s added a little extra flexibility around tests and rabies vaccinations, with two “directions” that give some pet owners – including Brown – small windows to get those completed outside of its set timeframes.

Special quarantine arrangements are also available for assistance and guide dogs, but don’t expect any special treatment for your emotional support peacock – or any other exotic animal.

“We do have some funny enquiries about things that people want to bring in – we’ve heard of people wanting to bring bears, wolves, camels,” Dansted says.

“Realistically, if you’re not a zoo, we wouldn’t recommend you try that,” he says, then he repeats the same words he used to describe pet imports: “That’s going to be quite an exercise.”