Pet owners run out of patience with the shortage of inspectors and longer waits at Honolulu Airport’s quarantine station
The line of tired and weary pet owners can stretch out the door at the Honolulu Airport’s animal quarantine office, and tempers occasionally grow testy.
In just the last three weeks, the anti-rabies quarantine station has seen as many as 60 pet owners per day trying to squeeze through a time window that used to be 12 hours a day.
Since the number of inspectors reviewing both applications and animals was cut to two from four in December and mandatory furlough days went into effect, pet owners now have 31/2 fewer hours to get their pets processed through the increasingly busy quarantine station below Gate 26.
In between reviewing paperwork and retrieving family pets fresh off the jet yesterday, veterinary technician Steven Lee said, "You can tell it’s summer – some days are totally insane around here."
And that means weeks of preparation and hundreds of dollars in veterinary bills and anti-rabies vaccinations can sometimes bottleneck in a crowded waiting room as pet owners try to get into the only rabies-free state in the country.
"We’re not planning on going through this ordeal again," said James Roe, who picked up his family’s miniature Yorkshire terrier, Bella, who had just arrived yesterday from a trip that took her from Anchorage, Alaska, through Seattle and into Honolulu.
Roe has been in Waikiki since November for his new job as an air medevac pilot. But until yesterday his wife, Robin, and 15-year-old daughter, Chloe, had stayed behind in Anchorage so Chloe could finish out the school year.
Getting their 21/2-year-old, 5-pound,
8-ounce dog immediately through quarantine took eight months of preparation and cost Roe $1,000 in vet bills, vaccinations, fees and airline tickets, he said.
"It wasn’t an option," Roe said. "We had to do it."
State agriculture officials established Hawaii’s rabies quarantine program in 1912 when they feared an outbreak in California could spread to the islands. Generations of incoming family pets had to endure a mandatory 120-day quarantine period, which was cut to 30 days in 1997.
Then in 2003, state officials approved a "five-day-or-less" quarantine period. Now most pet owners like Roe can pick up their animals immediately after both human and animal deplane at Honolulu Airport – if the owners follow the exact preparation procedures.
And that’s the rub these days for understaffed quarantine officials, who too frequently see the patience of pet owners growing thin when the owners do not follow all of the procedures.
Last month a quarantine worker had to call state sheriff’s deputies to intervene when a military couple began yelling at Lee through the quarantine office’s bulletproof glass.
The couple had left for a funeral on the mainland with their pet Lhasa apso without undergoing the proper anti-rabies protocols. When they returned to Honolulu Airport, the couple brought a note from a veterinarian saying the dog was allergic to rabies vaccine and therefore did not need to be vaccinated.
"They had it in their minds that they would just come sailing through regardless of our state’s regulations," Lee said. "They wouldn’t listen and the wife was really upset. After the deputy asked them to leave, she came back and threatened to have me fired."
The Lhasa apso remains quarantined at Halawa.
But Dr. Cynthia Kishimoto’s understaffed crew remains calm under fire, she said.
Kishimoto, the quarantine office’s veterinary medical officer, also handled her share of phone calls, paperwork and pet reunions yesterday. In between, she printed out an e-mail from a pet owner who saw the pressure on Kishimoto’s staff on Tuesday.
"Your staff member was Quite Polite and maintained her composure even when the person was nearly saying that your staff member didn’t know what she was talking about," the e-mail went. "I am sure that … dealing with the public daily about their pets can be quite stressful."
Kari Mendoza started a business in December devoted to helping pet owners navigate through the process – after watching her best friend’s frustrations in getting her dog to Hawaii.
Yesterday, Mendoza guided Alissa Takenaka and Takenaka’s 2-year-old sheepdog, Sadie, though quarantine after both arrived from a long series of flights from Stuttgart, Germany.
Takenaka discovered Mendoza and her business – Island Pet Movers – after reviewing Hawaii’s quarantine regulations online and saying to herself, "Holy Toledo, where do I start?"
She paid Mendoza $250 to handle all of the paperwork on the Hawaii end, which resulted in a happy reunion yesterday between dog and owner.
"It was well worth the cost," Takenaka said.
Pet owners especially need to remember to send in their paperwork at least 10 days ahead of the pet’s arrival to avoid frustrations in Honolulu, said Dr. Isaac Maeda, program manager for the state Department of Agriculture’s Animal Quarantine Branch.
Iris Nolting navigated the quarantine process alone for her 21-year-old calico cat, Nellie, who is going blind.
Nolting, 26, has raised the cat since she was in kindergarten. And both arrived yesterday on a flight from San Diego en route to Kapaa, Kauai, where Nolting will care for her ailing grandfather.
Nolting put Nellie on the flight only because she could retrieve her immediately after arriving in Honolulu in what quarantine officials call an "airport release."
In San Diego, Nolting said, "I was in tears putting her on the plane. She probably couldn’t survive quarantine in a kennel."
As she teared up again in the cramped Honolulu Airport quarantine office yesterday, Nolting cooed over her beloved childhood cat. And Nolting was ecstatic that she had provided all of the proper paperwork and done all of the advance preparation.
"She’s alive," Nolting said, staring at Nellie. "It’s all good."