Planes, Trains and Pet Carriers

An Interview with Sara Graham, Author of How To Make Big Moves

By Si Si Penaloza

planes trains pet carriers sara graham interview

As our Get Leashed community grows, we’re fielding more queries and quandaries from readers interested in traveling with pets. Inspired by this rising interest in all things jet set pets, we reached out to Sara Graham, editor, yoga teacher and author of How To Make Big Moves: Relocate Without Losing Your Mind. A Canadian currently based in Sweden, Graham shares with us inspiring tales from living abroad with her two frisky felines, Tigerlily and Dragon.

Tell us a little about how you came to be an expert in the art of relocation.

Rather unwittingly! I hesitate to call myself an expert, but I have done it three times now and learned a lot. First, from Bermuda to Canada for university and then, becoming addicted to big city life in Toronto, I stayed on for almost 20 years. The second two moves happened in short succession. Mario, my partner, is a character artist and got a job at a video game studio in Prague, so I followed him over there in early 2014.

A little over a year later, he received an offer from Sweden, so we were packing up again and arrived in Uppsala in June 2015. I made so many logistical mistakes leaving Toronto that I was determined to do better. That’s when the guidebook idea came to me and I immediately started writing and recording video in a step-by-step diary style.

Your guide delivers on exactly what it promises – a one-stop shop for every obscure question or panic stricken scenario that a potential relocator could imagine. How did you approach structuring the book to be most relevant in a real world context?

Well, thanks! I think you just inspired my elevator pitch with that synopsis. While it’s impossible to cover all relocation scenarios, I wanted to structure a guidebook that would kick start the thought process for the most important relocation tasks and issues. I really tried to come from a place of pure practicality. The anecdotes, from 17 globally based contributors and myself, provide actionable information, as opposed to fluffy roundabout “advice”.

It also came down to being ruthless with research. There’s a ton of information out there and I had to cut the fat, so to speak. The other vital element was to ensure the guide was an easy, entertaining read with lots of images, icons and links. I tip my hat to the very talented Paulina Perzynska, who handled the guide book’s graphic design. It was her first time putting an ebook together and she did an incredible job.

We are certifiably cat crazy at Get Leashed; when did your love affair with felines begin?

Again, this happened rather unwittingly. Mario was pushing for us to get a cat after we moved in together in 2012. We were living in Toronto at the time and decided (like every other person) to get a Bengal–until we found out the cost. We ended up getting a part-Bengal kitten from a breeder and called her Tigerlily. It did not take long to get attached to this little fur baby. I think I am most surprised at how much she adds to our lives. We adopted her little sister, Dragon, from a shelter here in Uppsala last October. They each have very distinct personalities and, for the most part, a calming energy. It’s really nice to have them both around the house. Worth all the destroyed furniture.

Traveling with pets can be quite a trip; share some funny or endearing episodes from your time as a pet parent on the road.

The first time was a mess. I flew with Tigerlily from Toronto to Halifax to share Christmas holidays with my family before leaving for Prague. She handled it better than I did. Assuming it was a good idea, I tried to give her a break from the carrier from time to time, but just ended up tripping over her leash. I also lost my less-than-a-year-old smartphone somewhere along the way!

During our time in Nova Scotia, there was a lot of back and forth to the vet office with vaccinations having to be timed properly and such. Tigerlily got a bit wild when it came to the rabies shots; requiring two vets with full-arm gloves. The vet in Prague was not so prepared I’m afraid. There was a bit of blood and he was not endeared.

In terms of long-haul travel, getting from Canada to the Czech Republic, Tigerlily handled the first two flights (Halifax-Montreal-Frankfurt) well, but by the third leg she was literally chewing her way out of the carrier. Poor thing just went nuts on the zipper.

Flying from Prague to Stockholm, Tigerlily seemed more nervous than ever. The attendants on Czech Airlines were pretty cool and let us hold her outside of the carrier. That would never happen on Air Canada or Lufthansa. Luckily, Mario and I had a whole row to ourselves so we were not bothering anyone.

Does a pet’s healthy and successful relocation boil down to their own unique personality, or do you find the preparedness of the owner plays as big a role?

Regardless of a pet’s personality, an owner has to be 100% prepared or the whole thing will be a nightmare for everyone. Attention must first be paid to the pet’s disposition and unique health issues, which will determine if they can even handle endless hours in transit.

Then an owner has to consider, what is the best possible way to get the animal from A to B? Should we drive or fly? If it’s the latter, you don’t want to show up at the airport without researching and pre-booking your pet space on the flight. Every airline is different when it comes to pets. Most have an in-cabin quota and then others don’t let them on board at all. Moreover, it can all totally change depending on the aircraft type.

The size of the animal plays into it, of course. Can they fit into an onboard carrier or do we need to get a crate for cargo? We had to put Tigerlily on a diet before we left for Sweden so she would be the regulation 8kg inside the carrier.

I am very against putting a pet into cargo and I go into this more in the guide. Essentially, if an owner has no choice, then at least look for an airline that offers climate-control from start to finish. Meaning, pets are last to board and first to come off the plane; avoiding wait time on hot or cold tarmacs.

Then there’s the paperwork. There are rules and forms that must be completed for both the country you are leaving and the country you are going to. I had to be on top of that or Tigerlily would not have been allowed through Germany, which was our first point of entry into the EU. All my forms were translated in both German and Czech. Ultimately, it’s all about how to minimize stress for yourself, which will put less stress on the animal.

If you really can’t get your head around this, or just don’t have the time to deal, then there are professionals that relocate pets for a living. Not a cheap option, but an option nonetheless.

Sara Graham big moves author cat

What are some of the more memorable moments with Tigerlily as she explored the sights and sounds of her new homes in Prague and Uppsala?

She’s done quite well at settling in. When we first got her, she had this amazing Cabbagetown garden to run around in. We’ve been lucky to find apartments, in both Prague and Uppsala, that featured balconies or gardens. In Prague, we were on the top floor so Tigerlily could not get enough of the roof, which was about a mile long because all the buildings on our block were attached. She would go up there for hours. She also had a Czech mate called Socks, so I would take her to the garden for play dates with him.

Philosophically speaking, what kind of bond do you share with your cats that you share with no other living being?

It’s just pure love, for both Tigerlily and Dragon. It’s the simplest love in the world. Life can get really complicated and the things that bring joy easily are so important. They bring a kind of balance and groundedness. At this point, they are the only living beings Mario and I have to take care of, so that responsibility has created a special connection.

With Dragon, she was very sick when we first got her and that involved round-the-clock care. It was that heart-tugging feeling of really wanting to take her pain away. Thankfully, she recovered and is perfectly healthy now. There is a sort of pride in that we were able to help her get better.

Care to weigh in on how either Johnny Depp and Amber Heard – or on the flip side Australian officials – could have handled things better in the diplomatic Yorkiegate debacle?

That situation could have been managed better by both sides. The missing puzzle piece, insofar as what I have read, is how the dogs bypassed customs in the first place. Yes, Amber Heard admitted she lied on the declaration, but the dogs were reportedly in plain sight of the officers. Seems like a gap in the Australian customs process to me. There would have been, at least in normal, non-celebrity circumstances, some kind of security check. Yes, it’s a criminal offence and celebs should be treated the same as everyone else, but threatening to have the dogs put down was overkill. Barnaby Joyce came off looking like an aggressive grandstander. Heard and Depp’s apology video had zero sincerity. It did make for a hilarious parody by Stephen Colbert though. That I would watch again.

As an editor, you’re an inventive task master, devoted to smart organization and finessing the finer details. Conversely, you’re also a celebrated free spirit – a force of grace in your yoga teaching practice. How has living abroad balanced these forces in your life?

That’s high praise. Thank you. I can’t say it’s been easy finding a balance, but living abroad has allowed me to find my sweet spot in terms of the type of yoga I now practice and teach. I guess you could say that my practice found a purpose. I didn’t really do meditation before moving to Prague.

Honestly, I was a hot mess when I first landed in the Czech Republic. My mind was racing with having to figure out my work situation, dealing with a new language, lacking the support of the social network I had in Toronto. Long story short, I stumbled into chakra-focused meditation. As a graduate of Toronto’s 889 Living Yoga Teacher Training School, I developed a chakra restorative yoga class, as well as a workshop, that I really love teaching. For anyone interested, there’s more on this journey in a video at howtomakebigmoves.com.

Given your own anecdotal experiences and the depth of research you put into this fresh new guide book, what are some of the easiest countries to travel or relocate to with a pet? How about the hardest?

The degree of ease any human has traveling or relocating anywhere has much to do with their passport and the related visa freedoms and restrictions. That’s number one. Then it depends on the breed of your pet, as every country implements controls on certain breeds. Some are banned outright. For example, American Pit Bull Terriers and Brazilian Mastiffs are pretty much on every country’s don’t-bring-here list. Petolog.com has a comprehensive list of banned dog breeds by country. Government web sites will also make it clear what cats and dogs are not eligible for import.

Once those two pieces are sorted, and if you’ve got your pet paperwork in order, my experience is that Europe is easy to get both into and around. Going from Prague to Sweden was a breeze. The EU has designed these smart little pet passports (pictured on ebook sample below) that make so much sense, as opposed to the mess of forms that the rest of the world uses. When I say Europe, I don’t mean the UK. Any country where there is a mandatory quarantine will add another layer of stress to the move. One of my guidebook contributors is now relocating from Prague to Manchester with her cat, so I’m anxious to know how it all goes.

I’ve heard both positive and negative things about Asia. Rachel Brathen (aka @Yoga_Girl) often travels with her Italian Greyhound and, when I interviewed her for the guidebook, she told me that she had a bad experience bringing the dog into Thailand. However, another contributor, relocating from Singapore, sailed through Bangkok customs with her cat. This was after she realized she had packed and shipped ahead the cat’s health records – information she needed to have with her to ensure trouble-free travel. She effectively lost her mind, but recovered well. Definitely made for a good lesson-learned story!

In the rising culture of emotional support animals, do you see this becoming an even deeper trend in travel and pet culture?

I think so. As mentioned earlier, there are quite a few relocation companies out there that are exclusive to pets. Judging from some of the products coming on the market – like the astronaut-style backpack by U-pet – it seems the trend of bringing your pet along for the ride is on the rise. I hope people do so responsibly and in a way that has minimal stress on the animal.

Sara Graham is the author of How To Make Big Moves: Relocate Without Losing Your Mind. The guidebook is available on the iTunes Store as well as for Kindle and Kobo readers. Download in PDF format at www.howtomakebigmoves.com.

$1 of every ebook sale goes to People in Need – one of the largest NGOs in Europe currently doing important work in high conflict zones.

Follow Sara on Instagram @freshpresse and Tigerlily @the_expat_cat