Pandemic pets left stranded overseas
Thousands of beloved family members are stranded overseas as returning Australians face the tough choice of leaving their pets behind or spending months battling to get them back into the country.
It is costing some families thousands as they go to extraordinary lengths to rescue their fur babies, complicated by Melbourne's repeated quarantine bungles.
While the federal government is under pressure to do more to bring stranded Aussies home, there is growing pressure to also help bring home pets.
And now a group of desperate expats is considering chartering its own pet rescue mission.
Tara Tubman made it home in November after losing her banking job in Hong Kong but she had to leave her adored Burmese cat Henry behind because she could not book him into the only animal quarantine facility in Melbourne.
"Henry is in a boarding facility in Hong Kong and I am paying $1000 a month and he's been there since November," Ms Tubman said.
Import conditions for bringing cats and dogs to Australia require that they arrive directly into Melbourne International Airport, then they are transported to the Post-Entry Quarantine (PEQ) facility at Mickleham.
International airports in other Australian states do not have quarantine facilities available, so all animals must undergo a minimum 10-day quarantine period at the PEQ.
The facility is booked out for months in advance, leaving dozens of moggies and doggies stranded.
An extra 1300 animals have booked to undertake quarantine for 2020-21 financial year is - 4600, up from and expected 3300.
PEQ has 1500 animals booked in between now and the end of the financial year according to a spokeswoman from the Department of Agriculture.
Bella, the four-year-old pet of the Juta family had been stuck in Shanghai since her owners returned to the Gold Coast in January. Former Shanghai-based teacher Sarah Juta has been trying to get their adored scruffy mongrel back to Australia.
"We adopted Bella as a puppy at six weeks old when my daughter fell in love with her. When we came home in January, we couldn't find anyone to look after her, so she has been in a kennel in Shanghai," Mrs Juta said.
"They send us video updates and in all of them she's standing by the fence looking out, probably wondering where we are and when we're coming to get her," the mum of two said.
Australia only allows entry to pets from approved countries - China is not one - so Bella had to go to an approved country to have rabies shots and bloods tests before she could be accepted back to Australia.
"We tried Singapore but they were booked out for four months," Mrs Juta said.
"We looked into Korea then I discovered some dogs had been stuck there for a year. My sister-in-law is in Germany and so a Chinese-based friend took Bella as excess baggage to Frankfurt and she arrived there last Sunday.
"So we can now navigate the system in Germany to get her home. The next step is a rabies test and blood tests and then we need to get an import permit and maybe we will get her here in May.
"We paid around $1500 for a rabies test, vet check, export/customs fees and agent fees to be able to import her to Germany. We don't yet know the costs to import her from Germany to Australia.
"She is one of the family, the kids miss her. She just likes to be with the family, she used to sneak into the beds of the kids and they'd hide her there."
One family has rented out an apartment for their treasured cats Ruby and Hank, who are stranded in Hong Kong.
Lisa Farrow and her two-year old son arrived from Hong Kong back into Sydney in February 2020, just before the international borders closed. Her husband did not get back to Australia until October.
"Our cats are stranded in Hong Kong, so we have rented a small apartment in Hong Kong and we are paying the helper we used in Hong Kong to stay there and look after them. They are precious cats but it's costing a small fortune," she said.
Qantas has stopped flights direct into Melbourne and pets are not allowed to transit in Sydney. Emirates airline is happy to take cats but its flights land at 10pm and the PEQ quarantine workers do not work at night, so cannot accept them.
Along with Ms Tubman, the family and a group of others are considering chartering a flight to bring their furry friends home.
"It's not ideal, but we are out of options, it is costing us a fortune to keep out cats there," Ms Farrow said.
Mandy Kearsley lost her resort manager job in Chiang Mai, Thailand due to COVID-19 and had to fly her treasured dogs Rocky and Rambo to Holland for rabies and blood tests.
"After a six month required wait to return to Australia due to animal quarantine restrictions and then moving my dogs to an 'approved' country (Holland) for the final six weeks, my dogs failed their test 12 days before they were due to fly. We had to turn back," she said.
Unemployed, with all her possessions shipped back to Australia, she has now returned to Thailand with the dogs. Her friends have started a crowd-funding campaign to help her.
"I can't bear to give Rocky and Rambo away. I love them too much," she said.
Josh and Belinda Armenta are now separated because Josh has remained in Hong Kong with their toy poodle Sophie.
Mrs Armenta returned to Sydney three weeks ago and Mr Armenta has a flight booked for April through Cathay to bring himself and Sophie home to Burraneer via Melbourne.
However Cathay has cancelled all flights in March and there is no guarantee they will fly in April.
"Given that Australia have some of the toughest biosecurity entry requirements anywhere in the world, we started the process of getting our ducks lined in a row to relocate to Sydney with Sophie over one year ago," Mr Armenta said.
With the blood work sent to the UK for rabies antibodies, Mr Armenta then applied for import permits to get a spot at the PEQ. However, staffing reductions due to COVID-19 meant the facility was operating at half-capacity.
This meant when they applied in September 2020, the earliest vacancy was March 2021.
"I understand that the earliest bookings now being accepted is July and beyond," Mr Armenta said.
"We are just in limbo, but we are considering chartering a flight with other pet owners.
"It's a herculean effort and it will cost around $200,000. I won't come home without her, I'm hanging tight."
Victoria Markin is also stranded in Hong Kong. She is meant to start a new job in Sydney in Australia in April and getting a flight for herself and her husband is hard enough but their three dogs - Bertie, Darcy and Coco - can't get home until May.
"In early December I applied for bookings in the PEQ and the first place they could offer me was the 21st of May. That means my husband would have to stay behind in Hong Kong for all of April and most of May to accompany the dogs and get them ready for the flight," she said.
Originally published as Pandemic pets left stranded overseas