RUSTY is a little mongrel. A bit of Cairns terrier, a bit of Aussie terrier, a bit of PTSD Christchurch earthquake refugee, jumping at loud noises and crying at the sound of sirens.
We got him from the Auckland SPCA in 2012, when he was four years old and our son Joe was just one month old. Rusty is now 11 – and his affection and dedication to our three boys is beyond compare.
When we would go for a walk down by Onehunga Bay in Auckland, little Rusty would get between the boys and any big passing dog, and snarl threateningly. The big dogs would walk on by, unperturbed.
He would come with us for school drop-offs and pick-ups. All the kids at Oranga School knew Rusty. They would cluster around, patting and stroking him, and he loved it.
He’s part of our family. And there was never any question that he would come with us, when we moved to Rarotonga this month.
Except, there was a question. Because in the weeks leading up to our move to Rarotonga, the paperwork was becoming overwhelming.
IT WAS May 9. It had been a long week chasing paperwork and permits across two Pacific nations. Import, export, Police, Customs, Transport Agency, Environment Service, Immigration, Internal Affairs, Inland Revenue, Revenue Management ...
There were 23 dogs and cats shipped from New Zealand to the Cook Islands last year, says the Ministry of Primary Industries. That’s a tiny fraction of the 3924 dogs and cats shipped overseas last year, most of them to Australia.
It’s not just dogs and cats, either. Besotted pet owners also shipped three rabbits, one guinea pig, a skink and a lace monitor lizard last year.
The myriad of official New Zealand forms required to shift our family and our dog to the Cook Islands could mostly be found online. But for the Cook Islands forms, it wasn’t so easy.
One form was proving particularly elusive. It was the Ministry of Agriculture’s “Application form for live animals”. The form was critical to bringing our family dog Rusty to join us in our new life on the island of Rarotonga – but when I clicked the Ministry’s download site, it came up with an error message: “404 Not Found nginx”.
So, I borrowed a car and drove halfway around the island, past the main township of Avarua, past the airport, past the big Edgewater resort, to the Ministry’s head office: a converted bungalow with pink camellia out front, by the sea in Arorangi.
I got there at 3.40pm. A helpful staff member emerged from a side office: unfortunately they no longer had any electronic copies of the form, she said. They did have a hard copy – but it was in Secretary of Agriculture Temarama Anguna’s bag, and she had gone for the day. Never mind: I took a photo of an A4 sheet hanging on the wall, listing cellphone numbers for the Secretary and all staff. This is a small nation; nobody is too high and mighty and inaccessible.
The next day, success: I tracked down what appeared to be the last copy of the form in the homely little airport biosecurity booth. The wonderfully helpful biosecurity officer Sherro Tomokino did seem a little perplexed, though, when I insisted on posing for photos with her and the elusive form!
THE COOK ISLANDS challenges could always be surmounted: I met Police Commissioner Maara Tetava getting his morning latte one day; the following week I had no difficulty getting the requisite signed approval from the Police Commissioner to bring in a dog.
But the New Zealand challenges were becoming more difficult. Vaccinations for canine distemper, hepatitis and parvovirus infections had to be completed more than a month out; checks and treatments for any internal and external parasites within three days of departure – and we were barely a week from flying out.
Slowly, we were ticking all the boxes, literally. But then, we discovered the clincher: all international airlines insisted that animals be shipped with approved pet transporters or IATA agents because of “the complexity involved in completing the pre-flight documentation, the Ministry for Primary Industries compliance and veterinary checks”.
The best quote was from Jetpets, for $1600. But they needed another month to get him on flight.
Reluctantly, we accepted that Rusty would not be arriving in Raro on the same flight as us.
I NEARLY ran over a dog on the way to work this morning. They run happily wild on Raro. They’re so ubiquitous that there’s a “caution, crossing” road sign with a picture of a man, a woman and a dog.
Despite generations of attempts to control them, an estimated 4000 dogs explore the island and beaches and lagoons unconstrained. Some dogs come with owners, others adopt owners. They will turn up in the morning on your doorstep, tongues lolling like Odie in the Garfield cartoons, and eventually you’ll accept that you’re their human.
I remember the first time I visited Raro, the sight of dogs loping in a merry group through the resort where I was staying, and swimming together across the lagoon to the motu. They will hitch rides on the front of paddle boards. Stray or not, the dogs of Raro look healthy, their coats shiny.
Some look a little overweight – they are fed well. After visiting a friend for dinner, she warned us that we should take the yummy leftover curried sausages with us for tomorrow’s lunch – because otherwise she’d be giving this fabulous feast to the dogs.
Many have strangely short legs. Last year Cook Islands News interviewed Donald McKegg, who recalled how his family returned to Rarotonga in the 1960s with a male standard dachshund. “My grandfather Robert had died and we moved into his house at Totokoitu,” he said. “We inherited the remnants of my grandfather’s cat and dog family. One was a terrier cross bitch, which the police had missed during their cull. The dachshund and the bitch produced six pups; all male, five with dachshund legs.”
They kept one puppy and gave the others to friends around the island. The dogs were enthusiastic in sharing their DNA with Rarotonga’s remaining unspayed females.
Personally, I prefer the (almost certainly apocryphal) local legend that one of the Queen’s corgis got loose on her state visit in 1974, and got friendly with all the island’s loyal local dogs.
Rusty has short legs – but he’s safely neutered so he won’t be contributing to that gene pool!
AFTER THREE weeks left behind in New Zealand, staying with good friends who still walked him to Oranga School each morning, Rusty finally joined us this week.
He arrived late at night to a darkened airport. In the half-light of the terminal, I cut the plastic ties that secured his travel crate, and he leapt into my arms.
On the way home, he rode next to me in the passenger seat, his head out the window enjoying the beautiful fresh smells of Rarotonga. The salt breeze off the sea, the lush foliage damp from a gentle rain shower, the scent of the flowers …
In the middle of the night, seven-year-old Joe got up to sit quietly with his arm around Rusty, the dog who had been at his side since just a month after he was born.
And yesterday morning, he walked with Georgie and our three boys to their new school on the beach.
Rusty is 11 years old. He’s getting on. His trip to the Cook Islands may be a one-way fare. And that’s okay – because a dog’s life in Raro is a pretty good one.