Spark flies: it took a village to bring my dog from Manila to Melbourne

When things go smoothly, it takes nine months to relocate a pet from an unapproved country under Australia’s strict quarantine rules. It took me three years

Any dog owner knows how difficult it is to be apart from their pet. After being separated from my dog for nearly three years, I know it too well.

While many Melburnians were surviving long lockdowns one dog walk at a time, I was trying to figure out how to get Spark, my shih tzu-poodle cross, to join me from 6,339km away in Manila.

Australia has some of the world’s strictest animal quarantine laws. Moving a dog here from a non-approved country such as the Philippines is not cheap and it’s not easy. First, the dog must undergo a rabies test – only animals with sufficient antibodies against rabies can make the journey. After a satisfactory result, it’s another 180 days until the animal can be moved.

Maida kneeling on floor while Spark sits on a kitchen stool
Maida bids Spark farewell in Manila in 2019 Photograph: Maida Pineda

Next, the dog is required to relocate to an approved country, such as Singapore. There, it must complete a mandatory 30-day quarantine and undergo more testing. Then the owner must secure an import permit to Australia and a slot at the Mickleham quarantine facility in Melbourne. There the dog must complete another 10 days of post-entry quarantine.

Even if it goes smoothly, the entire process can take nine months or longer.

In October 2019 I fulfilled a promise I made to myself and migrated to Australia. But Spark’s rabies test was done in September, so he still had many months to wait before he could join me.

It would end up taking far longer. Along the way, he passed through a whole village of helping hands.

First, my best friend, Rissa, offered to look after Spark in Manila. She already had two bichons. “What’s another dog?”

Three people sitting on a couch, each holding a small white dog
Spark with Rissa, her sons Rico and Rhys and dogs Hugo and Louis Photograph: Supplied by Maida Pineda

Spark settled nicely with Louis and Hugo, enjoying a life of cuddles from Rissa and her sons. But by the time Spark’s wait was up, the world was in the grip of the pandemic. I put his move on hold.

Spark was overstaying the longest playdate ever, but Rissa assured me it was OK. At one point she said: “I’d be happy to take care of him permanently if it’s too difficult to move him to Australia.” I cried. This was not the plan.

I joined Facebook groups, did a lot of research and found a good pet relocation service. It wasn’t until November 2021, with some financial assistance from my mum, that I decided it was safe for Spark to move. But at this point the quarantine facility in Singapore was fully booked. The earliest available spot months away, in June 2022.

Smiling woman with Spark on her lap
Maida’s mother minding Spark in Manila Photograph: via Maida Pineda

In March, Rissa called – one of her dogs was getting aggressive and she was afraid Spark would get hurt. Spark moved to my mum’s house while he awaited his June trip to Singapore. In that short time, my mum and nephew Teo became very attached to him.

On the day of his Manila to Singapore journey, I worried how my little dog would fare in his first plane ride. When he landed in Singapore, my pet relocation service sent me a photo of a smiling Spark. “He’s such a happy pill,” Bellina Tan, his relocator, reported.

Thirty days alone in quarantine in Singapore seemed like a really long time. But Spark lived comfortably in a spacious kennel. He had access to an exercise garden and was allowed visits from humans. I enlisted the services of Caishi, a dog walker, to visit him twice a week. She brought him boiled carrots, his favourite treat.

Spark on a deck next to a dachshund and small fluffy dog with skyscrapers and water in the background
Spark sightseeing in Singapore’s Marina Bay with Lesley’s dogs, Atlas and Apollo Photograph: Supplied by Maida Pineda

Then there was Lesley. Lesley and I were not close friends. We had merely corresponded over email, but when she learned via Instagram that Spark would be in quarantine, she offered to help. Her two dogs, Atlas and Apollo, had been through the same process months earlier. She visited Spark and gave walks, baths and playtime; when his quarantine finished, he stayed at Lesley’s home for another week.

Next, Spark moved in with my friend John. Like a doting dad, John took care of Spark’s irritated eyes and ears, and diligently brought him to the vet. The night my Spark was due to fly from Singapore to Melbourne, I tearfully watched via video call as John packed the travel crate.

Spark sitting on John
Spark with John in Singapore Photograph: Supplied by Maida Pineda

His flight left Singapore shortly after midnight. I stayed up all night watching his plane move on a flight tracker. Like a crazy dog mum, I cheered when he entered Australian airspace.

Two days after Spark entered his final 10-day quarantine, an officer gave me an email update, saying: “Spark is a very happy and friendly boy! I spent time with him today and he was very excited and playful.” I felt like a proud mum, receiving my kid’s report card.

I’d been worried about how Spark would fare shifting from the tropics to Melbourne’s cold winter days. Then, another angel appeared. Janet found me through a Facebook group and sent me brand new jackets, knitted jumpers and shirts for Spark. We have never met in person.

Maida smiles as she cuddles Spark, who is wearing a puffer jacket, in a park next to a river. He is nuzzling her face affectionately
Maida and Spark reunited in Melbourne Photograph: Maida Pineda

Finally, on 26 September 2022, almost three years since I left Manila, it was time for Spark and I to be reunited.

My friend Joe offered me a lift to the Mickleham quarantine facility. Joe works in a pet store and even arranged a welcome-home package for Spark: a dog bed, a big bag of food, treats, a toy, a bowl and the all-too necessary poo bags.

We arrived 20 minutes ahead of schedule. When it was time, the quarantine staff wheeled Spark’s crate towards me – I could see his little face peering through the gaps. As they opened the crate door, he rolled straight into my arms, licking my tear-stained face, his tail wagging nonstop.

I cuddled him in the car all the way home. His big eyes peered out the window, seeing Melbourne for the first time.

For nearly three years, I walked by the Yarra River daily, alone, but imagining him there with me. On Spark’s first walk beside me, like a true Melburnian, he wore a puffer jacket. The weather quickly turned to rain and then an hour later it was sunny again. But Spark doesn’t care, as long as we are together.

Being unable to look after your own dog is the worst feeling. But I have been buoyed by the people who helped along the way, many of whom I’ve never met in person. Together at last, Spark and I are still riding high on the love and kindness of this global village.

  • Maida Pineda is an author, food and travel writer; Spark is still a happy and friendly boy

Maida Pineda

The GuardianTramp

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