I have spoken of my beautiful big dog Mitch in a number of articles on the website. I am now writing this article to help you when your pet dies abroad. Mitch joined our family in ’99, in Honduras, and after that he followed us around the world, first to Peru, then to Italy for a few months, and finally to Jerusalem.
Here he left us forever on 14th October 2011. He had been ill for some time, although until the last did not give us any problem. He had always made sure to bother us as little as possible during his life. Even in death he went without creating much distress. Up to the last moment he remained independent, never complained (even if his bone degeneration gave him severe pain) and gave us smiles and joyful barking.
It is very hard for me to express my feelings because Mitch – like all dogs that are loved by their “masters” – was effectively a member of our family. For twelve years our lives and our decisions took his presence into account. Before we changed country we made sure that we could rent a house with a garden for him. We always tried to accommodate our rhythm to his. In all the different countries we always tried to organize things so as to make him suffer as little as possible when we left to return to Italy on vacation. For twelve years every morning when I woke up he was the first to greet me. From the garden of Tegucigalpa, the garage of Lima, from the hallway of the apartment in Milan, and from the veranda in Jerusalem. His absence has carved a huge void. It will take a long time to fill it, if we ever can.
The purpose of this article is to reflect with you on what it means to have a dog as an expat. When your pet dies abroad a chapter opens which you may not want to consider now, but that sooner or later must be addressed.
When I think back now to the story of Mitch, I realize that two factors played an important role on his state of health. The first was the climate of the countries in which he lived. Both in Lima and in Tegucigalpa humidity reaches 98% and winters in both capitals can be quite harsh.
The second thing is that all travelling dogs have to face is the plethora of vets and different approaches and healing methods with which they come in contact. It makes me smile to think of how many faces Mitch saw in his life. He met the old vet who treated him at the beginning to Tegus, so old that he retired and recommended to us a young and permanently galvanized and excited vet. There was Manuel, the vet in Lima, interspersed with a number of young ladies (when Mitch did not want to be touched by men but only by young girls …). He was treated by the talented Cinzia in Milan, who saved him when he got piroplasmosis. She treated his bone degeneration with homeopathy, while the virile Israeli Zvi, immediately stopped the homeopathy to give him steroids!
I have often wondered if Mitch would have stayed with us just a few years longer, had he not had to endure a change of medication, food, treatments, climate, water, every time we moved. Useless question, for that matter, because when you decide to integrate a dog in the adventure of expatriation, you know that he will also have to pay a small price.
Small price that in my opinion is largely compensated. Dogs have a very special place in the expatriate family, especially if children grow up with them. They become one of the few anchors of certainty in the sea of changes of countries. The emotional reference they constitute grows over time. Dogs contribute to enriching the family with their friendly presence in our daily lives.
I will never forget the day when Mitch arrived in Peru and we brought him home from the airport. Or when we finally took him to our beloved home in Tuscany for the first time – something we had dreamt of for a long time, being able to let him run free in the nature that we love so much. And many other small anecdotes and adventures that, thanks to him, have made our life more beautiful and cheerful.
When Mitch arrived Mattia had just turned three. He is now fifteen. Me, him and my husband were together, opening the door to take Mattia to school, when we found Mitch dead one morning. It was a very sad moment, but it was beautiful to think that we were feeling so much grief because that big black dog has counted for so much in our lives and has given us so much.
Many times I had imagined the moment when he would leave, but I never thought about what we would have done with his body. If that had happened in Tuscany, we would have definitely buried him. Here in Jerusalem for a moment we thought to ask the neighbors if we could bury him on their land, but a sense of shame prevented us from doing so. Even if we are lucky to live surrounded by wonderful people who love animals, we know that the Arab culture does not consider dogs really like the most desirable creatures. We were terrified of having to explain to the municipality that we had a big dog to dispose of, perhaps without understanding each other. It is not always obvious to find someone here who speaks good English.
So we called our vet, who was – he and his entire team – of infinite delicacy and humanity, and in that moment this was absolutely important for us. He explained that “here” there are several options for the body: to give it to the municipality, to bury it in one’s own land and make him a beautiful marble plaque, or even a statue, if desired, or cremate it, the collective cost of cremation being 80 euros (but in this case you do not receive the ashes, for obvious reasons), the cost of individual cremation 600 euros. The high price in the latter case is due to the fact that the oven has to be started just for one dog; the advantage is that the ashes are retrieved and delivered to the owner.
We did not hesitate in choosing the second option. Alessandro, our eldest son, was away at the time of Mitch’s death, and we wanted something – especially for him, but also for us – to hang on to the memory of Mitch. So we took Mitch to the vet wrapped in an old sheet, and the last thing I saw him while he was being unloaded from the car was his beautiful black nose, that I kissed and kissed again countless times in these twelve years.
I am telling you these sad things because I think it’s important, when you’re in a new country with a dog who is growing old, to prepare yourself in the broadest sense for the possibility of his death. Of course when you arrive in a new country you will look for a reliable vet. My advice, when you have found him, is to talk about these possibilities, or what to do in case your pet dies abroad, and what are the most common solutions for disposing of the body in that country.
When your pet dies abroad you are confronted with lots of elements you were not prepared to. When they called me to tell me that the ashes of Mitch had arrived, I went to get them without having a very clear idea of what to expect. I cried more when I saw where they had placed them, than for the fact that I was taking him away in that way: the choice, that certainly came from a kind soul and caring towards the memory of our dog, had fallen on a teapot of white pottery decorated with lovely pink and red flowers. Of course we will move them from there and place them in a more appropriate a container. And who knows, maybe one day we will take him to Honduras, his native country, and spread his ashes in the woods where he grew up and where he so much liked to run.