When Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton visited Britain in the 1960s with four dogs in tow, they circumvented the country's draconian rabies quarantine laws by keeping their pooches on a yacht anchored in the Thames. For the past century, however, pet owners without such star power have had to put their dogs and cats into six months of isolation in kennels the moment they set foot on British soil. But last week, dog and cat owners arriving at two Channel ports were able to take their animals straight home. The British government relaxed its quarantine law under a pilot pet travel program--so far limited to dogs and cats--while leaving in place lots of complex qualifying criteria.
To avoid a spell in quarantine, pets traveling to Britain from the Continent must have a computer chip implanted in their necks to serve as a digital ID. They must have been vaccinated against rabies and have had a series of further health tests. Even armed with all the correct certificates and technology, only pets entering Britain by car currently qualify and the program covers just 22 European countries, and not the U.S. The cost: $300 for vets' bills and paperwork, plus $40 to $50 for a ticket on a Channel ferry or the tunnel shuttle train. It is high, but is still one-tenth of the average $3,000 cost of a six-month kennel stay.
For those who campaigned to change what former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten called preposterous rules, Feb. 28 was a historic day. It was particularly satisfying for Lady Fretwell, the wife of Britain's former ambassador to Paris, who since 1996 has spearheaded the Passports for Pets campaign. Her cause was given a poignant boost in its first year, when two dogs died in quarantine and their high-profile owners made a fuss. Danish diplomat Henrik Sorensen talked bitterly of English cruelty when after two months in kennels, the cremated remains of his spaniel, Mr. Bogie, were handed to him in a coffee jar. Just weeks later, Air Chief Marshall Sir Michael Stear's golden retriever died in quarantine with less than a month to go in his isolation period. Stear wrote an angry open letter urging a change in the "cruel and evil" law.
For a long time, that law was defended in farming, medical and veterinarian circles--and, of course, by the owners and operators of the country's 80-odd quarantine kennels. Supporters argued that Britain had been rabies-free for the past 30 years. Why rock the boat for a minority of affluent pet owners? Other arguments for the status quo included assertions that the rabies vaccine had been known to fail; that Britain, with its huge urban fox population, risked having any infected foxes pass on rabies to dogs; and that other European countries were less stringent about vaccination and certification standards than Britain. The pressure for change, however, proved too powerful and the pro-quarantine lobby eventually acquiesced, citing scientific advances as the reason for their change of heart.
Fretwell, celebrating last week in the Channel port of Folkestone after taking her daughter's chocolate Labrador Dennis on an overnight trip to France, promised she would keep pushing for further reform. By the end of the year-long pilot program, campaigners hope to see it extended to include other pets, other modes of transport and other countries.
Meanwhile, the fact that tens of thousands of pets could soon be traveling in and out of Britain every year has the travel and pet insurance sectors salivating. For Fido, faced with the prospect of long journeys in Europe stuck in cramped cars, the new rules may turn out to be a mixed blessing, after all.