Tuesday, April 17, 2018

That damn paperwork

Trooper and partner at Cabo San Lucas, where they knew his name.

Preparing to cruise with a service dog in the Caribbean and off Central America can be a right pain in the ass.

You have to obtain, and carry, a thick pile of documentation attesting to the state of your dog’s health. Different countries require different certificates, different tests and different immunizations, and that makes the paperwork infinitely more complex. Some require import permits. Mexico requires not only that everything be computer-printed, not filled in by hand, and that everything be spelled out on the documentation—no abbreviations—and will reject those that say the animal is “3 yrs. 4 mos. old.” 

This is partly because in the Western Hemisphere, only the United States and Canada recognize special legal privileges for service dogs. All other countries treat them as ordinary pets and therefore prime targets for bureaucratic minutiae.

And so for our recent cruise with Trooper through the Panama Canal, we had to go to our veterinarian to get various health certificates filled out for the Bahamas (which also required a pet import permit), Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico, where we were going ashore. (We decided not to go ashore at the Nicaraguan and Guatemalan ports, because we’d been there before and wanted to lighten the documentation load a little, so we didn’t get papers for those countries.) Then we had to drive  to the local U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service office to get some—not all—of the documents countersigned by a government veterinarian.

The rub: On previous cruises with Trooper, nobody wanted to see his papers—except the cruise line, of course. But you never know what’s going to happen.

Came embarkation day at Fort Lauderdale. When we stepped through the metal detector at the cruise terminal, a uniformed guard called us over and asked to see Trooper’s papers. At his desk he riffled through them until he came to the import permit for the Bahamas—and put his finger on the official Bahamas animal and plant department stamp.

“That’s what I was looking for,” he said.

Even if you don’t plan to take the dog off the ship while it’s docked or anchored in the Bahamas, you must have an import permit if the dog enters Bahamian waters. The ship won’t allow you aboard without one. If you haven't done your due diligence, your vacation could be ruined.

On this voyage we had to present Trooper for examination three times. The first, which we hadn’t expected, was at Cartagena, Colombia, where two officials—one from the government and one from an import-export company—came aboard when the ship docked. They examined Trooper’s papers and politely ruffled through his ears and fur to make sure no parasites jumped out. 

The exam was decidedly perfunctory and the fee was US$25. Colombian laws say an incoming animal has to be officially received by a government-approved import-export company. The $25 went to the representative of the latter, who simply glanced at Trooper and gravely handed us a receipt for the fee.

The ship’s port paper officer assured us that the procedure was standard at Cartagena and the fee was not a shakedown.

The night before we arrived in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, the port officials there said they wanted to examine Trooper. A few hours later they said they didn’t. We went ashore without incident.

The next episode was at Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala. The night before our ship called there, the port paper officer told us that the Guatemalans had asked for Trooper to be present for inspection even though we had no health documentation for that country for him and planned to stay on the ship instead of going ashore. That made us a little nervous. Should we have obtained paperwork for Trooper specifically for that country? What would happen?

A pleasant surprise, that’s what. Two amiable officials from the Guatemalan Ministry of Agriculture sat down with us in a ship’s lounge, cooed at Trooper, warmly ruffled his ears, remarked approvingly about his calm demeanor, and examined all the documentation we had brought for other countries. Satisfied that he had had all his required immunizations, the officials invited us to bring him ashore and issued us a permit to do so. And so we did. 

Next was Puerto Chiapas, our first port call (of two) in Mexico. “We never know what’s going to happen there,” said the port paper officer. “Sometimes they want to see the dog, sometimes not.”

This time they wanted to. A dour agricultural officer came aboard, took a quick peek into one of Trooper’s ears, and OKd his presence ashore. No baksheesh involved, however.

Two sailing days up the coast, we arrived at Cabo San Lucas on the tip of Baja California. We were not told that an official wanted to meet us ashore. We figured the approval at Puerto Chiapas would be good for the rest of Mexico.

When Debby and I tendered ashore with Trooper at Cabo, a customs agent stopped us at the pier and said, “Papers for the dog, por favor.”  I started to fish them out of a shirt pocket.

“Is that Trooper?” called another agent, from a nearby desk.

“Yes,” Debby said, astonished. How could they . . . ?

“Let him in,” the second agent quickly told the first. “He’s OK.”

Later we speculated that the Cabo authorities had studied the documents—which carried not only Trooper’s breed mix but also his name—that had been faxed to them by the port paper officer the day before. Presumably the Puerto Chiapas people had added their OK to the pile. At any rate, somebody on shore decided that Trooper was good to go. 

Whew. Cruising to Alaska and Canada with a service dog is easier. All you need is a rabies  certificate and (just for the ship) a veterinarian-issued international health certificate that doesn’t have to be endorsed by a government vet.  A lot easier.