News & Politics

Smuggling Smudge

Moving from Washington to China wasn’t easy, and one of the biggest headaches was how to get our beloved cat to Beijing.

Photograph courtesy of Flickr user Peter Huys.

When my husband and I decided to move to China after 26 years in Washington, we had a little extra baggage: our 13-year-old cat.

Most people fall into one of two camps: those who think we’re out of our minds to bring a cat halfway around the world and those who are as crazy as us. In any event, the process of getting Smudge to China was one of the most challenging, expensive, and complicated tasks of my life.

We had planned to fly into Beijing, where we’d be living, but animals landing there had to go into 30 days of quarantine, or what my son called “kitty concentration camp”–not something I wanted for a cat who gets stressed out if she hears a noise in the hall. So we did what any normal pet lover would do: We decided to smuggle Smudge in.

First, we hired a pet-relocation expert. We found WorldCare Pet Transport, which has US offices in New York and Connecticut. It had an answer: Fly into Tianjin, China, then make the two-hour drive to Beijing. Because it gets very little international traffic and doesn’t have the proper facilities, Tianjin doesn’t insist on quarantine.

The cat had to have a USDA-stamped international health certificate showing she was up to date on rabies shots and healthy enough to travel. Done. Then we had to request an in-cabin spot for her so she could stay in her carrier under the airplane seat in front of me. Done. Then we had to figure out how to get to Tianjin, a coastal city nearly two hours southeast of Beijing. There are no direct flights from the United States, so we’d have to fly to Seoul, stay overnight, and then fly to Tianjin, where a driver would pick us up.

The US-to-Korea leg wasn’t all that complicated. We got Smudge to Seoul and into a hotel. The flight to Tianjin on Asiana Airlines brought a complication: weight. To ride in the cabin, the cat and carrier together had to weigh less than five kilos, about 11 pounds. Her regular carrier put her over the limit, so before the trip we had to buy a special one, the Twist-N-Go, which was less than a pound. Smudge was nine pounds, so her total weight would be about ten pounds. When we looked at the new carrier, we realized why it had been advertised on pet-hamster websites.

The next day at the Seoul airport, the staff of Asiana suddenly balked at the idea of allowing Smudge into China. “Where are her quarantine papers?” they asked. “We don’t need them for Tianjin–it’s taken care of,” I said. I started to wonder if our smuggling scheme was going to end in South Korea. I called our Beijing-based pet-relocation expert, who convinced the Seoul authorities that all was kosher. Eventually, Seoul said okay, Smudge made weight, and we got on the plane. I could feel her trembling.

We arrived in China, where we stood nervously at immigration. Though Tianjin doesn’t enforce the quarantine, we were told it was possible authorities would ask to examine the cat and see her papers. I held Smudge in the carrier–my arm ached. The agent stamped my passport, and I entered China.

We retrieved our luggage and walked through customs. I held Smudge’s carrier from the handle of the luggage cart so that she swung by my midsection like any other bag. The customs agents, busy pawing through the suitcase of some other hapless traveler, barely glanced in our direction. We made it. My husband suggested we could have waltzed in with just about anything inside the Twist-N-Go: cocaine, firearms, tiger paws.

Our driver took us to Beijing, where we dumped our things into our apartment. I settled Smudge in the bathroom, shutting the door behind me. When I tried to open it again, I realized it had locked. She had made it 7,000 miles in silence and dignity only to be stuck in a bathroom. We called a handyman, who thought it was very funny to drill the lock out of the door only to encounter a terrified gray cat high on a windowsill over the bathtub. As for Smudge, whatever sense of humor she might have had was probably abandoned with her quiet life in DC.

This article appears in the March 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

Debra Bruno

Debra Bruno (, who lives in DC, writes frequently for the Washington Post and Washington Lawyer, among others.