Federal health guidelines limit the entry of pets from countries like Ukraine with a high incidence of rabies. For some refugees, the rule has been devastating.
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Natasha Hrytsenko, a lifelong resident of Ukraine, had always dreamed of having a fluffy white dog. When she started working, Ms. Hrytsenko, now 30, used her first two paychecks to buy a purebred mini Maltese puppy. She brought Eddie home to the Kyiv apartment that she shared with her older sister.
Eight years later, when war engulfed their country and they decided to flee, Ms. Hrytsenko recalls telling her sister: “I can leave behind my best clothes, my favorite bags and even my cellphone. But I will never leave Eddie behind.”
The pair made their way to Poland, then Germany, then Portugal, bound eventually for the United States, where they had friends in Virginia. The tiny dog journeyed with them, tucked under their arms or plopped on their laps.
The sisters made it as far as Tijuana, the Mexican city on California’s southern border, before they heard the news that stopped them short: Dogs from Ukraine were in most cases not being allowed into the United States. A number of people had already had to leave their pets behind in Mexico under federal health regulations.
“I would rather go back to Europe,” Ms. Hrytsenko told her sister.
Among the thousands of Ukrainians who have been lining up at the southern border since the Russian invasion, the past few weeks have been marked by a painful progression of loss: homes, loved ones, jobs, the quiet comfort of familiar neighborhoods. For those who had managed to carry a beloved pet along on their journey to an uncertain future, the barrier at the border has proved devastating.
“He is everything to us,” Ms. Hrytsenko’s sister, Ira, 31, said of the dog.
“The number of dogs here has been growing day by day,” said Victoria Pindrik, a volunteer with the Save Ukraine Relief Fund, which has been working with Ukrainian refugees who are attempting to enter the United States. “Dogs have been sent back to us.”
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prohibits except on an “extremely limited basis” any dogs from entering the United States if they have been in any one of roughly 50 countries, including Ukraine, that it classifies as “high risk” for rabies.
At the crowded border crossing in Tijuana, where a dedicated pedestrian lane has been opened to speedily process Ukrainian refugees, Customs and Border Protection agents initially allowed a number of pets into the country, volunteers working at the border said. But more recently, pets from Ukraine have not been allowed.
The Hrytsenko sisters had taken steps as soon as they left Ukraine to make sure their dog would be prepared for international travel.
Volunteer veterinarians gave Eddie his first rabies shot in Poland and his second in Germany, where veterinarians also inoculated him against parasites, implanted a microchip in his neck and provided him with paperwork and an international ID to ensure he could travel.
The sisters planned to travel to the United States through Mexico, a roundabout trip that thousands of refugees have attempted because of delays in setting up a legal pipeline for Ukrainians to enter the United States. Mexico does not require visas, so refugees have been able to fly to Mexico and apply for admission on humanitarian grounds at the U.S. land border.
The sisters boarded a flight from Lisbon to Mexico without a problem, their suitcases stuffed with cans of Newman’s Own organic chicken dog food. Eddie came along in a small portable carrier.
After they landed in Cancún last week, an animal inspector at the airport reviewed their paperwork and examined Eddie from head to toe. He handed over an official document with a stamp attesting to the dog’s good health. The sisters flew to Tijuana on Sunday.
There, they joined hundreds of Ukrainians waiting their turn to cross the border. In no time, Eddie was bounding gleefully across the mats that lined a large gym that had been transformed into a massive dormitory for refugees.
“We felt confident, trusting everything was fine,” Ira recalled. “Then, all of a sudden, we heard you can’t cross with your dog.”
After their trip of more than 6,000 miles, across four international borders, this barrier seemed the most formidable. They considered reversing their steps.
Ms. Pindrik, the American volunteer working with the refugees in Tijuana, said the process for gaining legal access to the United States under current procedures, which include a permit and possible quarantine, could take weeks.
“For many of these families that have been through trauma, it is important to keep their family together, including their pets that they spent so much energy, money and care to bring with them,” she said. “We understand the requirements the U.S. has in place and reasons for them, but it is impossible for the refugees to satisfy them.”
The C.D.C. said it had issued a number of permits for people arriving from Ukraine with their pets. “We are working with NGOs in Mexico and the U.S. along the border to ensure persons arriving from Ukraine with their dogs meet entry requirements before entering the U.S., or that they have a safe place to quarantine dogs if they arrive and do not meet C.D.C. entry requirements,” the agency said.
Among the Ukrainians who managed to cross the border with their pet before enforcement of the rabies ban appeared to have been stepped up was Anastasiia Derezenko, who crossed after spending a few nights in Tijuana with her husband and two children. They entered the United States with their mini Maltese, Luka, last week, she said, after visiting a Mexican veterinarian who gave them the necessary paperwork.
“When American immigration police took us, we had Luka in our arms. Everything was very, very OK,” Ms. Derezenko said from Portland, Ore., where her family is staying with friends. Luka, who is 6 months old, has become fast friends with their hosts’ pups.
“He came all the way from Brovary with us, and it was very difficult trip,” she said, referring to the Ukrainian city just east of Kyiv.
More recent arrivals, like the Hrytsenko sisters, have been warned to not even try to enter the United States with their pets.
For the sisters, it seemed an impossible barrier. Then they learned there was a temporary solution: Mexico is not on the C.D.C. rabies list, and Americans bringing dogs from that country are unlikely to face scrutiny at the U.S. border. In fact, Americans arriving with dogs from a low-risk or rabies-free country are not even required to present a rabies vaccination certificate or special permit.
Several days ago, American animal lovers began ferrying dogs belonging to Ukrainians across the border themselves. Several dozen Ukrainian pets, mainly dogs but also cats, have already made their way to California with American help. The Hrytsenko sisters began looking for someone who would agree to take Eddie.
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On Tuesday evening, they were informed that No. 3748, their designated number in line, should join a group at the border checkpoint, where the sisters would be escorted into California for processing by U.S. authorities.
At first, they were elated. Their monthslong odyssey was about to end.
Then they learned there was no American to take Eddie across until the following day.
“We broke into pieces,” Natasha said. “We did not want to leave Eddie overnight. We have never left him alone. He is really tied to us.”
They postponed their passage to the United States until the next morning after being assured that Eddie would be delivered to them shortly after.
On Wednesday, at about 10 a.m., they placed Eddie in his white-and-gray crate near the gym, where they were told he would be picked up.
The dog began gnawing on the slits and the door of the crate, recalled Natasha, who said that she was overcome with guilt. Both sisters began crying.
“You can’t explain to a dog that everything is going to be OK,” Natasha said.
After crossing into the United States, the pair joined another Kyiv native, Liuba Pavlenko, a fellow dog owner with whom the sisters had bonded in Tijuana. Ms. Pavlenko and her two children were waiting at a hotel in San Ysidro, near San Diego, for their Chihuahua, Maya, to be brought from Mexico.
“I’m sorry that Maya and Eddie had to be refugees and endure this journey,” Ira said when they met at the hotel.
The families grew anxious as the day wore on.
“I’m getting impatient,” Natasha said. It was after 3 p.m., more than five hours since they had left Eddie in the crate.
Then their phone rang with a live video from the border, showing Eddie being carried toward the port of entry into the United States. They peered at the screen, trying to determine how their dog was holding up.
“Oh my God, he has aged,” Natasha said.
“Look at him. He’s probably thirsty. He hasn’t eaten,” her sister said.
About 45 minutes later, both dogs were reunited with their owners, who smothered them with hugs and kisses.
Then it was bath time.
Natasha scrubbed Eddie clean in the tub with the special White on White shampoo that, along with the organic pet food, she had made sure to pack in her single suitcase.
Only then were they ready for the final leg of their journey — to Virginia, where their friends awaited.
What happens next for Ukrainian dog owners in Tijuana is unclear. Ms. Pindrik said a local shelter had agreed to start looking for a way to help pet owners. In the coming days, new immigration regulations are expected that will allow Ukrainians to fly directly to the United States, where they could face similar hurdles at airports until the C.D.C. updates its guidelines.
For the Hrytsenkos, the only thing that mattered was that Eddie had made it. They ordered an Uber and headed for the airport, five hours before their flight.
Ira said it was better to be early than run into problems they had no time to solve. “We don’t want to take any chances with Eddie not getting on the plane.”
Mark Abramson contributed reporting.
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