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Episode Transcript

A few years ago, Amelia Barklow wanted to relocate from the United Kingdom to the San Francisco Bay Area. Like any international move, it was a bit of a slog. She had to ship out all of her belongings, go through a customs process, and find a new place to stay. But Barklow’s move also involved a more unique challenge.

Amelia BARKLOW: Yeah, there she is. She’s — she’s in a mood.

Those are Barklow’s pet ducks, Bean and Wobbles.

BARKLOW: Bean — she looks like a pinto bean. She has little brown and cream spots all over. “Wobbles” is because he’s very clumsy and very round, and he tends to fall onto his back a lot like a turtle. 

As it turned out, getting Bean and Wobbles to their new home, in a new country, was no simple task.

BARKLOW: We would speak to someone, from the USDA who worked in livestock, they’d be like, no, they’re pets. And we go to the people who work for importing pets. They’re like, no, they’re livestock. There was no protocol for what we were trying to do. It was to the point where I call someone, they’d go, “Oh, you’re the duck lady! Yeah, sorry, we can’t help you.”

So, Barklow had to turn to a specialist — a company that has found a lucrative niche in transporting pets all over the world.

Mike GAYS: We’ve had goats, pigeons, sheep… Airports have thousands of weird and wonderful animals go through: tropical fish, alligators, lions, tigers, flocks of birds, the occasional duck.

Gemma TAPPIN: This one family had an emotional support hedgehog — which is absolutely fine. 

For the Freakonomics Radio Network, this is The Economics of Everyday Things. I’m Zachary Crockett. Today: Pet Movers.

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Bean and Wobbles aren’t the only jet-setters in the animal kingdom. Every year, around half a million pets travel by air. Sometimes, pet owners just want to take their dog or cat on a vacation. But there are also job relocations and permanent moves. And those require an expert.

GAYS: My name is Mike Gays. I’m the managing director of Global Pet Relocation. We handle pet moves door to door, anywhere to anywhere in the world.   We’ll help anyone to move their pet.

Global Pet Relocation is based in the UK. It’s one of around 400 firms around the world that specialize in domestic and international pet moves. Every year, the company relocates 800 to 1,000 pets. Gays says usually a client’s first question is: “Can’t I just put my dog next to me on the plane and do this myself?”

GAYS: We get asked that question a lot. Way more often than not, it becomes: “No, your pet’s too big, or the route won’t take it.” There’s a whole bunch of places where you’re just not allowed to bring your pet in that way.

In some cases, you can take your pet with you in the cabin, inside a soft carrier. The fee for doing that is around $100 to $150 each way. But airlines have pretty tight restrictions around the weight and size of the pet, and where you’re supposed to store it.

GAYS: It does have to be a really small pet. Typically the airlines will say if it’s a cat or a dog that’s less than eight kilos, including the soft travel bag that they have to travel in — so like 18 pounds, something like that. Chihuahuas, Boston Terriers sometimes, really small breeds. Some cats generally fit the profile pretty well. Your pet also has to stay inside the bag under the seat in front. That’s usually the published rules. 

The majority of pets do not qualify for in-cabin travel. Certain animals — like rodents, snakes, and spiders — usually are not allowed to hang out with you on the plane at all, regardless of size. Service dogs are an exception, but emotional-support pets may not be. A few years ago, United Airlines refused service to a woman who attempted to board a plane with an emotional support peacock. Even if your pet makes the cut, many international destinations won’t let you enter with a self-transported animal. In most cases, your pet’s only option is to fly as checked-in cargo in a temperature-controlled cabin in the bottom of the plane.

TAPPIN: It’s a specially designed, pet cabin, typically towards the front or the back of the aircraft, below deck — so, not with the luggage. Lights are typically dimmed down low. It’s nice and quiet and calming in there. 

That’s Gemma Tappin. She works in operations at Global Pet Relocation.

TAPPIN: The captain will know that there’s a pet on board, and therefore all of the controls are monitored continuously to make sure everything’s just right. So things like oxygen pressure, you know, temperatures, etc.

GAYS: Even though they kind of go in the same part of the airport, everything is totally separate. They will have their own pet van that will be air conditioned from the warehouse to the cargo door. Pets are typically the last passengers to go on board, so it won’t be like: the plane’s leaving in an hour, let’s get the pet on. It’ll be like: we’re going to close the doors in five minutes, then we’ll get the pet on and safe.

The cost for flying a pet as cargo is much pricier. Airlines tend to base the price on volume and weight. For a domestic trip, an airline might charge around $300 for a Chihuahua, and $1,000 for a Mastiff. International flights can be two to three times more.

GAYS: Usually, like if you have a Labrador or an average sized pet, it’s a very large box and the airlines will charge a premium for the fact you’re sending a live animal. This can be easily into thousands of dollars just for the air freight alone.

Pets in cargo also have to travel in airline-approved sky kennels. You can find small or medium sized sky kennels at a pet supply store for around $100 bucks. But some pets — like a Bernese Mountain Dog, or a Saint Bernard — require crates that are far more expensive.

GAYS: For a Great Dane that’s needing something that’s bigger than the standard sky kennel, you could easily be looking at $1,000. They have to be custom made, there’s not a huge amount of people out there that make them. So we will provide the Sky kennel for whatever it is. If it’s a cat, or a giant dog, or two ducks, we will get it fabricated.

Accidents with pets on planes are pretty rare — but they do happen. Between 2015 and 2020, the Department of Transportation reported 112 pet deaths and 81 pet injuries related to airline travel. Many of these incidents involved snub-nosed dog breeds like bulldogs, boxers, and pugs, who struggle to breathe when it gets too hot. The problem became so prevalent that most airlines now refuse to transport them year-round.

GAYS: Hardly any major airlines around the world take pugs, English bulldogs. Really the only ones left are: Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, and a couple of others. So, when you have a move which is, say, London to New York, we have to think: “All right, well, what’s the next best way of doing it?” And we would typically: either fly them on Lufthansa, London-Frankfurt, and then over to the States, or we would pick them up in London, drive into Frankfurt and fly them on a single flight from there. 

If you’re really opposed to flying your pet over on a commercial flight, you do have a few other options. For starters, you can charter a private jet. On Facebook, there’s a group called “Chartered Air Travel With Pets.” It has 41,000 members, who post questions like, “How do I get a spoodle from Tunisia to the US?” and “Anyone else transporting a cat from Norway to Italy?” If enough people are going to the same place at the same time, they can band together and split the cost. But that can still be prohibitively expensive for the average pet owner. A one-way flight on from New York to London on a chartered mid-size jet might cost around $60,000 — and it only holds 8 passengers. There’s also the Queen Mary 2 — a cruise ship that travels between New York and Britain. For around $1,000 per voyage, your dog will have access to fresh-baked biscuits, daily walks, and even a fire hydrant to pee on.

GAYS: It’s, like, booked out a year at least in advance. It’s a super-hot ticket for pets.

But figuring out how to move a pet from one part of the world to another is just one small part of Mike Gays’s job. Every country has different rules around non-human immigration. And depending on where you’re going — and what kind of creature you’re bringing with you — things can get messy. That’s coming up.

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In most countries, rules about animals are set by the agriculture department. In America, for instance, the USDA plays the dominant role in setting standards — and those standards can vary depending on what kind of animal you’re bringing in and where it’s coming from. For example, you can’t legally bring in a hedgehog from New Zealand, or any place with foot and mouth disease. At Global Pet Relocation, navigating all of these laws has become a more central part of Mike Gays’s job. When he first started out in the industry 20 years ago, most moves were between major developed cities.

GAYS: But nowadays, it is really, truly, anywhere to anywhere. The globalization of workforces, of companies spreading out all around the world. Every year, we have more and more destinations than we had the year before.

In recent years, many countries have tightened quarantine and vaccination requirements for incoming pets. And Gays has had to spend a lot of time studying pet import and export laws all over the world.

GAYS: We have developed a library of checklists for pretty much every country in the world, and it has exactly what’s needed for that country, depending on where they’re coming from, what vaccinations are required, what format it has to be in, how it all has to be written out. So our teams there check everything and go through it all with a fine-tooth comb.

In some cases, those rules are being worked out for the first time.

GAYS: We had a move a couple of years ago from Morocco to Mauritius for, I think it was, a couple of cats. It looked like there had never in history been movement of pets between Morocco and Mauritius. So we sort of had to help facilitate and guide the Moroccan and Mauritian governments to come up with, like, a trade agreement to send these two pets. That is way above the paygrade of us pet shippers.

Other countries’ laws are notoriously hard-core. If you want to take your dog to Australia, you’ll have to wait up to four months for a permit. Once little Buddy is there, he may have to quarantine for 30 days or more. Cats and dogs make up around 97 percent of the pets that Global Pet Relocation works with. But Gays has seen it all: guinea pigs, rabbits, parrots, tortoises. No job is too small to take on.

GAYS: We’re currently working on a move of seven goldfish: from the UK to Boston. There will be a mix of air and water, so when you’re up at altitude, the pressure doesn’t cause the bag to pop and stuff like that. Generally they’re packed inside polystyrene boxes and it’s dark. You can’t just take them off the plane and open them up into a bright room because it will shock them. So they have to go into a room where the lighting is low. They have to make sure the temperature is ok. 

But some jobs are a little too big.

GAYS: We had an owner in New York, in Manhattan and they had a cat. This guy wanted us to pick up his cat at like three in the morning or something like that. He lives in a nice townhouse in New York, and our driver went to collect the cat, went up the flight of stairs, “Hey, how are you doing?” Gets let in, and comes into the guy’s living room lounge area, and inside is a Bengal tiger. The driver’s standing there holding a sky kennel that would be perfectly good for a cat, but it’s like, “Hang on a minute. Why is he called Killer?” We had to politely decline that one.

When Gays got the call about moving two ducks from the U.K. to San Francisco a few years ago, he was tempted to pass that up, too. He knew it would be a tough one, since the USDA considers ducks poultry, not pets.

GAYS: Typically, if you’re moving ducks or poultry, you are a big commercial outfit and you’re moving 10,000 ducks, for whatever reason. So there wasn’t really the infrastructure or the methodology to move two ducks.

But he decided to take on the challenge. In the end, getting Bean and Wobbles to the States required months of conversations with the USDA, salmonella tests, and a stopover at a quarantine center in New York.

GAYS: They flew on British Airways over to JFK, and then we had to organize 30 days quarantine for them, in and around JFK airport, in a special quarantine center. They set the ducks up with their own big room. They had a swimming pool, as ducks need, they had a log. They had all the creature comforts, pair of cool ducks could ever ask for. The 30 days go by and they’re good to go. So we get them on one more flight from New York to San Francisco, get them off at San Francisco airport, take them home to two very happy duck owners.

The bill for that move clocked in at $14,000 — around twice the cost of a typical move through a pet relocation company. But for Amelia Barklow, getting Bean and Wobbles back home safely was worth every penny.

BARKLOW: I was feeling really nervous because I wasn’t sure they’d remember me. But the second they saw me, they both just began quacking like crazy. And it was like nothing ever happened.

CROCKETT: What was the first thing Wobbles said to you?

BARKLOW: Give me food.

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For The Economics of Everyday Things, I’m Zachary Crockett. This episode was produced by me and Sarah Lilley and mixed by Jeremy Johnston. We had help from Daniel Moritz-Rabson.

CROCKETT: What’s the landlord’s duck policy?

BARKLOW: Once to see how small they are and that they wear diapers and that they don’t make a mess, they’re usually okay with it.

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  • Amelia Barklow, owner of two pet ducks, Wobbles and Bean.
  • Mike Gays, managing director of Global Pet Relocation.
  • Gemma Tappin, pet relocation consultant team leader at Global Pet Relocation.



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