Monday, July 12, 2010

Unaccompanied Cat Shipping: A Cluster$@%& of Epic Proportions

Okay, so the morning the cats arrived, I spoke to a very helpful guy at the Pet Desk of the airline that shipped the cats. I'd spoken to him at least three times in trying to make arrangements and checking statuses, we're almost friends now.

He gave me the information he had: go to JAL building 228 for paperwork, then to cargo building 4 for the airline's cargo warehouse and pick them up.

Step 1: driving to the airport.
This drive has strengthened my resolve not to drive in Japan. Local highways and driving a few cities over is one thing, but expressways are complex and expensive, not to mention not labeled by numbers and cardinal directions like they are here. Not all signs are in English, even the ones that do have destinations I don't know, and some look like this:
They show traffic jams up ahead, but I have no idea how to interpret them. So driving to the airport was a white-knuckled adventure that strengthened my resolve not to drive here.

We stopped at a rest area right before the airport for a drink and snacks and found a place to check flight information.

By the vending machines and fried food kiosk, I saw this in the roof:

Aww, baby birds! But what drew my attention was this, directly below:

Snacks, nowhere near the bird territory:

This is kind of a fishy, potato-ey thing. Not bad.

He said this was like a fish stick...on a stick. He approved, I didn't try it.

Step 2: actually getting cats.
We get to the cargo area and park, only to discover that every building has the JAL (Japan Air Lines, I think) logo, none of them have numbers except cargo 4, nobody knew what Building 228 was or where our airline's cargo facility was, and nobody spoke English. We tried calling the cargo desk at the airport, but the number didn't work. I called the Pet Desk in the US and spoke with a less-than-helpful woman whose advice was "find someone that speaks English."

We eventually got in touch with a friend who could speak enough Japanese and hand the phone to communicate enough of what we were trying to do to have someone else in a uniform lead us to a different building which turned out to be Customs. We never would have found it on our own. Some guy there asked for paperwork, and we couldn't tell him in Japanese that we didn't have the right paperwork for them and we didn't know where to go and that was our problem, but he came to that conclusion after we handed over the most relevant piece of information that we had and it wasn't what they needed.

One of those guys led us through more anonymous corridors and buildings until we found the Animal Quarantine Service (AQS) room. Also not labeled, also not something we could have ever found on our own. Someone there spoke English, but told us we needed to find our airline to actually get the cats. When we were able to get across to her that we were trying to do just that and failing miserably because we didn't know where to go or who to call, she brought out an English map of the cargo area and somehow found out that the cargo through our scheduled airline was handled by a different airline (also not something we could have accomplished on our own). Out the door, down the street, around the corner, we saw a cargo area full of crates and forklifts. Here, all Husband had to say was "ni neko" (grammatically incorrect, but literally "two cats") and they nodded and pointed to the two carriers. Then we went with the cats back to the previous building and into a scary windowless cement room to leave them for a few minutes. Back to AQS to verify paperwork, back to the inspection room so they could scan the microchips, back to the AQS office for more paperwork verification...

Here's where we discovered that the USDA vet in Richmond, the one that we had to overnight the health certificate to, didn't stamp everything. She stamped the date on all the pages, but neglected to give the embossed seal to a form and a half for each cat. This means the paperwork is incomplete and the cats are therefore subject to 180 days of quarantine.

We went from two hours of quarantine to six months in the space of six unstamped pages. We will be having words with this vet soon.

Their quarantine will be considered over as soon as we can get the stamp, but it's still a royal pain.

So we told them the cats would be quarantined on base, went to Customs, went back to the airline that handled the cargo to pay the man for whatever shipping fees were incurred, and got the cats to Midori Tori for the drive home.

Our radio gets very few stations that play music and the cassette player kept rejecting the iPod adapter (yes, it has a cassette player), so this was our soundtrack for the two and a half hour drive back home from the airport.

But, once home, Aria settled in pretty quickly.

Crooked is sulky and a little annoying, but he was dehydrated and uncomfortable, so I can cut him some slack. This picture may look like abuse, but he's not being squished at all.

So what happens now?
We bring the cats to the base vet at 8am tomorrow to examine them, check them in, and begin their quarantine. Then we see if we can work something out in-country or FedEx the papers to the USDA office in Richmond again to get all the right stamps.


This was a stressful event, and it's not quite over. But I'm exceedingly grateful to all of the employees of the cargo area that were kind enough not to just give directions, but to actually send someone to show us the next place we needed to go. Every place we went we couldn't have found on our own and I don't know if I could find them again.

So, since I just figured out how to type in hirigana/katakana on my computer, to the employees of Narita's cargo area: どもありがとうございます。Couldn't have done it without you.


  1. AnonymousJuly 13, 2010

    Hey hun, if you need any legwork done in Richmond, let me know since I am currently living here for another 14 days =D

    Glad the kitties are home though!!!

  2. I think we're good, but I really appreciate the offer to help.