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Homeward Bound: Pets' Incredible COVID-19 Journeys To Reunite With Owners

Justinian Huang with his dog Swagger in California.
Justinian Huang with his dog Swagger in California.

Before Justinian Huang left Shanghai for some beach time in Malaysia last winter, he took his dog Swagger to stay with a friend.

"I dropped him off. I kissed him goodbye. I was like, 'I'm going to see you in six days,' " Huang recounts. "That was Jan. 23 of this year."

That week the coronavirus spread with alarming speed in China. So Huang decided to wait it out in Malaysia a few extra days. Then he flew to Taiwan, where he has family, and finally home to the United States.

But the pandemic worsened. Borders closed. A week away from Shanghai turned into a month, then two.

Countries around the world have closed their borders and restricted flights to try to limit the spread of the coronavirus, rendering international travel challenging and expensive. In late March, China effectively blocked visa-holders from getting back into the country without special permission. Many airlines have stopped allowing animals on board.

The International Pet and Animal Transportation Association, a nonprofit trade group for companies that specialize in moving pets, suggests owners wait out the travel restrictions, if they can.

With Huang in California, Swagger stayed with Huang's friends in Shanghai. Man and dog occasionally FaceTimed.

"He would get excited and his tail would start wagging and he would smile. He smiles a lot," Huang says. "Afterwards we both would be sad."

Huang missed the pooch, which he describes as a corgi mix. He adopted him after the dog was rescued from the streets. Huang says Swagger ended up rescuing him from loneliness for the past three years while living away from home.

In March, he tried to get Swagger on a flight to the U.S., but that fell through as travel restrictions tightened.

Last month, Swagger flew to the southern city of Guangzhou where he stayed with another of Huang's friends for a week for preflight medical checks and paperwork. Then the dog was put on a flight to San Francisco.

Huang paid $4,000 in flight and transport agency fees to get Swagger to the United States. Another Shanghai-based expat paid around $14,000 to be reunited with a corgi. It's a lot of money, but Steven Feldman, executive director of the Human Animal Bond Research Institute, says, it's worth it if you can afford it.

"The more we invest in our relationship with our pets — spending time with them, caring for them — there's good evidence that that will come back to us in terms of better mental and physical health," he says. "So it's worth the investment to get reunited with your pets."

Dogs in front, cats in back

Not everybody can afford it at those prices. So Kyla Robertson, a communications professional living in Shanghai, is trying to help.

Robertson had been trying — to no avail — to get back to Canada with her own dog Sugar. She has connected on the Chinese social media platform WeChat with hundreds of other people trying to get their pets to North America from China — and is organizing a charter flight out of Shanghai later this month.

She's calling it "Mission Impawsible."

The plan is to fly an Airbus A330 with people and pets from Shanghai to Vancouver, and on to Seattle. As of Monday, they had more than 155 people and 115 pets signed up for the flight. They are raising money on GoFundMe to make it happen.

Cats and their owners will be riding in the back. Those with dogs will be in the front.

"The dogs kind of go like every second row just because we don't want, you know, one dog to, like, look under the seat and see another dog and maybe start growling or be upset at it," Robertson says.

The 10-and-a-half-hour flight is scheduled for July 18 in the afternoon, and Robertson is recommending owners don't feed their pets or give them too much water before takeoff to minimize the chances of accidents on board.

"It's going to be an amazing flight," she says.

Robertson got inspiration from Nikole Poirier, a Canadian living in the Cayman Islands who chartered a plane that carried 92 people and 27 pets to Toronto in May.

Spread the love

When the "Mission Impawsible" flight takes off, Kyla and her husband plan to be on board with Sugar.

They're also reuniting a spunky little mutt named Ted with his owner, Kait Hooper.

Hooper has taught elementary school in China for five years but is now stuck outside the country in her hometown near Toronto. She has had an exceedingly rough few months. Her father died in December, so she traveled home. Then in late January, she went back to Canada and, a few weeks later, her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer.

Hooper tried to get her dog.

"My mom was really excited to ... she really wanted to meet him," she says.

But by the time Hooper got the money together, it was impossible to get Ted on a flight. Her mother died in early June.

Before hearing about the charter flight, she felt stuck. "I have the means to get him home and I'm ready to get him home, but it's not possible," Hooper says.

Now, though, thanks to Robertson — whom she's never met in person — she has hope. "A dog becomes part of you. And you are the world for that dog. ... I'm really looking forward to getting him home."

At a park in California, Swagger is chilling by Huang's feet, tongue out.

Bringing Swagger out of China was one small thing that Huang said he could control at a crazy time in the world. And for that, he is grateful.

"He's a good force, man," Huang says of his pooch. "I think bringing him to America makes America a little better. I just want him to spread the love that he's always given me, you know?"

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.