Taking a Cat to Korea: Merlin’s Story

When I noticed that the director, putting my bags into his car, was a little careless in tossing my backpack on top of the purple pet carrier that Merlin was hiding in, I realized something was off.

As it turned out, the director was never informed that I would be bringing a cat with me to Korea.

Merlin as a baby. Merlin is an all black cat with then-blue eyes and has a little shaved patch on his front paw from being in the hospital for several days. He is sitting next to a stuffed animal plushie of a squirrel, both on a white fleece blanket. The edges of the photo have been overlaid with some fancy black lace graphic.

I learned early on in my interviewing for teaching positions not to ask if it was okay that I would be bringing a cat with me. Recruiting companies are looking for red flags, and asking if the school-provided housing will allow pets is considered a red flag because it’s one more thing they have to worry about on their end.

I didn’t mention my cat to the recruiter I worked with until I had a job offer on the table. The person in Korea that my recruiter was working with took a few days and got back to me, saying that as long as I am responsible for any damage that Merlin does, that it’s okay I bring him. Merlin is a very well-mannered cat and doesn’t damage anything. The worst is that his fur sticks to the textured wallpaper when he rubs his face on corners, so I have to wipe that down occasionally.

Merlin, laying on top of me with his front paws outstretched, facing me.

My director wasn’t informed that I was bringing a cat and the reason for concern is that the other new teacher would be living with me for our week of training. I moved into a male teacher’s apartment while he moved in with the other male teacher who was leaving, and the other new female teacher would stay with me for a week before taking over the other male teacher’s apartment. If she happened to be allergic to cats, there would have been a problem, and had the director known,  he would have had to plan around it.

Luckily, she wasn’t allergic and Merlin just hid under the bed from her for that week. I’m also lucky in that it turns out the director has two cats of his own and we sometimes trade cute cat photos through KakaoTalk.

When I was figuring out how to take my cat with me to Korea, some people on the internet told me I was an idiot. I knew I was probably going to be staying longer than a year and knew that I would never regret taking him with me, but I would forever regret leaving him with someone. Merlin has been through a lot of shitty situations, having been a rescue from the streets when he didn’t even weigh a pound, to spending days in the hospital with some kind of infection, to living through a hoarding situation that he needed to be rescued from. He’s my fat cuddly buddy and I can’t imagine life without him.

All this said, I would not recommend bringing your cat if you only plan on staying a year, or if your cat is older. The flight is hard on even the toughest of cats. Merlin didn’t meow at all, just kept looking up at me with sad eyes, and threw up the little food that he had been given before we left. The girls beside me thought I was crazy until I told them I wasn’t just whispering into the void underneath the seat in front of me but that there was an actual animal there.

Merlin looking out the window of my apartment on our first night in Korea. There are a bunch of neon lights coming in through the window and he is behind some ugly curtains, sitting on a ledge next to an ugly pig statue that was left from the previous tenant.

So what do you need to do to travel with your cat? Well, first off: your cat needs a microchip and a rabies vaccination. The rabies vaccination was $40 at my vet and he waived the health check-up that would have been $32. You need a rabies titer test, which ran me $200 with a sedation and overnight stay costing $50. You also need a full health check-up within ten days of travel that has to be apostilled by the USDA. The vet initially thought he could turn in the health check-up results online on a Saturday, but when he realized he couldn’t, he had to mail the results in and wait for them to get back to us. There was a Monday holiday that week that pushed everything back, so it wasn’t until 9am the day before my flight that I got back that piece of paperwork. (And you may have read that I was so reluctant to let go of it, the customs officer had to tell me that it would only be valid for thirty days and I’d need a new one for travel again.)

At the airport, he cost me a one-way $200 fee. So a breakdown would be:

  • rabies vaccination: $40
  • health check-up: $32
  • rabies titer test: $200
  • overnight stay and sedation: $50
  • one-way in-cabin flight fee: $200
  • cost of mailing the health check-up to and from New York: $??

That’s roughly $600 to have Merlin travel in the cabin with me. If someone told me that it would cost that much, I would have probably cried and wondered where I’d get the money. I’m glad it was spread out over a few months, and no matter the cost: you make things work for the ones you love.

Merlin snuggled up in my gray and purple fleece jacket.

As far as how Merlin has adapted, he’s pretty resilient and adapted right away. I tried to switch him to tofu-based litter but that smelled bad, so I found a brand comparable to what he was using in the States. Although he was initially a touch fussy with the new Korean brand food, he still ate it, just more slowly than usual. He doesn’t like the Korean cat treats that come in a little squeeze pouch for them to lick, but several of my local marts stock Temptations brand and Friskies brand treats. (And my mom sends me Greenies brand treats for him, spoiled cat.) He usually sleeps with me in my bed or on the second-hand chair I have in my room, which is something that he scratches at occasionally even though he has a scratching post. He is probably looking forward to winter, when I turn on the floor heating, because last winter he loved sprawling on the heated floor and sleeping.

I have no regrets taking butthead to Korea with me. I hope he’s my kitty forever.

From Baltimore to Seoul…

On the day I left for Korea, I faced every traveller’s worst nightmare.

image description: a plane window, seen from behind; the back of the seat is blue and there’s a brown fuzzy bit from a stuffed animal in the seat in front poking out towards the window

No, not a long delay or a cancelled flight.

I forgot my passport at home.

*insert Pac-Man dying noise here*

In my defense, I hadn’t slept well and woke up at 4:30. I remember my friend Carin pointing out to me not to leave my bag and I thought I had slung it across my shoulder, but I had actually slung across my Hydroflask in its carrier. Normally I don’t use my large 32 oz Hydroflask but wanted it for the long flight, and my muscle memory must’ve thought that I had grabbed my bag.

I didn’t realize I didn’t have my passport until I got to the check-in desk. Cue the frantic messages and phone calls, and somehow I managed to get a hold of my roommate before she left for work. The problem was then having my friend Carin drive from BWI airport all the way into DC and back with enough time for me to catch my flight. I wasn’t worried about catching the actual flight, but about the bag check-in, which cuts off 45 minutes prior to the flight.

I cut it close, but in the end, Carin and LaTroy came through for me and I made my flight.

I didn’t run into too many hiccups during my flight. When I first checked in to BWI, it took a bit of time for them to check me in because of my cat, but after a quick looksie at my paperwork, they verified that I was good to travel. My newest piece of luggage came in exactly at 50 pounds, which was great, but I knew that my second, older piece of luggage was going to be overweight, which was another fee.

The big question: how best to get Merlin through security. While I had asked for a private screening, I was told that I’d still have to send all of my luggage through the xray machine and take Merlin out of his carrier anyways which kind of… defeats the purpose of a private screening? So I waited until the last possible minute, reached in, wrestled him from his harness (which would have set off the metal detectors), and held onto him for dear life.

He squirmed a bit but he was mostly calm. I waited for what felt like ten minutes until the TSA agent gave me the go-ahead to walk through the metal detector, and then she told me she’d have to swab my hands. I asked her if I could put my cat back in the carrier and she asked if I was traveling with anyone, implying that if I was, I could hand the cat over to them. Luckily, she allowed me to put him back in the carrier and immediately swabbed my hands which, by that time, were covered in black fur.

My carry-on bag got pulled aside for extra screening and this time, it wasn’t because I was flying with coffee. (Pro-tip: if you fly with coffee, be sure that it’s easily accessible because they will have to screen it as coffee is apparently often used to smuggle drugs and/or money.) Turns out I had another “organic material” in my bag: cat litter. The TSA agent opened it up, put a little litter on two pieces of paper, administered two separate chemicals, and then let me go. She told me to take out the litter the next time I flew and there wouldn’t be a need for the extra screening.

I was initially planning on sneaking away to a family restroom to let Merlin have the chance to use the toilet before my second flight, but by the time I got from my previous gate to the next, they had already started the boarding process. I had only given Merlin a small amount of food in the morning, so I hoped he was going to be okay. I took someone’s advice from the internet and bought a bunch of cardboard shirt boxes that I could fill with litter and then dispose of.

The first flight from BWI to Detroit went by smoothly and quickly. The second flight from Detroit to Incheon wasn’t too bad either–I mostly slept or stared into space, although I did watch “Parasite” for the third time.

When I finally got into Korea, my overwhelming emotion was… I’m sweaty. Really, really sweaty. It wasn’t a matter of whether or not they’d let me into the country (they did, and that was painless), or even whether or not they’d let Merlin into the country (I had all the right paperwork)… I was just sweaty and pretty miserable, waiting in line after line.

Going through customs was an interesting experience. When I got to the first agent, she peered into my bag and her eyes lit up. “Ohhhh he’s so big and cute!” She then told me that I had to move to a different line and she shouted at her colleague (in Korean) that she had a cat.

The new agent checked Merlin for his microchip and went over the signed paper from the USDA and asked to see the original rabies titer test results. Then I had to hand over the signed paper from the USDA and, seeing that I wasn’t so willing to give it up, let me know that it was only good for thirty days from the signing.

image description: a purple cat carrier with a mesh top seen sitting on the floor underneath a plane seat at my feet; Merlin is a black cat and only his bright orange eyes can be seen through the mesh top

I was particularly stressed out about that piece of paper and for a few days, there was a question of whether I would even be able to make my flight, as I wasn’t going to fly out without my cat. In order to travel to South Korea with a cat, the cat must first get a rabies titer test, the results of which can take up to a month. Then, within ten days of travel, the cat must have a full health check-up and the results must be sent to the USDA to be apostilled.

I took Merlin in for his check up on Saturday and the vet told me to call the USDA on Monday to make sure they got the digital paperwork. Problem was… Monday was President’s Day. I got a call on Tuesday from the vet, saying that they needed a more specific address to list on the form (not just “South Korea”) and I could only give them the school’s address, which I hoped would be enough. Oh, and they weren’t going to be able to send the paperwork digitally so I would have to pay for them to FedEx the forms.

I received the paperwork on Thursday morning, before my Friday morning flight. As you can imagine, I wanted to hold onto that paperwork for as long as I could because I had stressed out so much about it.

When I finally got through customs, I noticed that there was no one waiting for me as there should have been. I gave a call to the director of my school and he answered, apologizing for not being there when I landed. He had mistaken the terminal I was flying in to, so I waited a few minutes outside my terminal for him to pull up. Then it was an hour drive to my apartment.

image description: view of the interior of a plane being boarded; there are three sets of three seats each along the left of the plane and people can be seen sitting and standing

Merlin bounced back pretty fast from the trip. He threw up the little food I gave him before the first flight, but didn’t defecate or urinate in his carrier. He immediately ran out of the carrier and under my bed but came out a few minutes later to poke around the apartment. I will note that it was a few days until he used the makeshift litter box, probably because he was scared of my temporary roommate (another new teacher) and the new environment.

So, Lessons Learned:

1) It is totally possible to fly internationally with a cat. I am blessed that my cat is super chill and quiet and has been through a lot in his little life so he bounced back pretty quickly from the trauma of a 14-hour flight.

2) If traveling with a cat… realize that your cat will take up most of the space at your feet. You also won’t likely be getting into your carry-on in the overhead bin, so don’t pack it like you’ll be able to easily reach in and grab things.

3) Be nice to flight attendants. If they find out your favorite cookie is Biscoff (Delta’s cookie of choice), they may just give you extra cookies.

4) Sometimes plane food is great. Other times it’s worse than Mickey D’s.

5) For the love of all that is holy… Make sure you’ve got your passport!

image description: a picture of snowy mountain peaks outside of a plane window where a plane wing can be seen at the top left of the picture