The first abandoned kitten I found while living in a foreign country was a tiny skinny ginger tabby, collapsed starved and exhausted, near the rear tire of my parked bicycle. I looked around, wondering where it could have come from and how it had ended up exactly there. I couldn’t possibly leave it to die, and I couldn’t imagine any other outcome, under the circumstances. I picked it up. I assumed that after taking it home and giving it something to eat, I’d find a local animal shelter. But, I quickly discovered there wasn’t one. The only public option in my entire Japanese prefecture was an animal control center, resulting in immediate destruction. Living in a job-secured no-pets apartment, I had to begin searching for a new home for the little guy right away. I admit, I worried about what might happen if I couldn’t find a home, and I spent a few sleepless nights. Should I not have gotten involved? Luckily, after putting the word out amongst my ESL students, I found a great home within a short amount of time. I went on to repeat (and refine) this process enough times that I eventually became a founding member of an animal welfare group focusing on, amongst other issues, support for expats hoping to help pets.

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Helping stray or abandoned pets can often be a daunting effort, even within your own country. As an expat or tourist coping with language and cultural barriers, it can feel completely overwhelming. Stumbling upon an animal in distress in a foreign country might make you feel helpless to respond. But, this shouldn’t and does not have to stop you from doing something positive. Here are 10 tips for navigating the process of rescuing pets and/or finding forever homes, in your home away from home.

1. Get the animal evaluated by a professional for any urgent health concerns.

Tiny orphaned kittens, in particular, will likely need expert attention in order to survive. Other animals might need parasite care or treatment for wounds which are not immediately apparent. Do not be afraid to ask about costs ahead of treatment and to clearly let the clinic know that you are working within a limited budget. In cases where there is very little public animal assistance readily available, vets are often overwhelmed with constant requests to discount or donate services. Tread lightly, and do not request a discount. Do tell the vet that the animal was recently found in distress, and that you are just trying to help. Some veterinary clinics are prepared to automatically discount the treatment for stray and abandoned pets found by travelers. Conversely, others are unable to see the difference between this situation and that of the average pet guardian coming in with their pets for treatment. If the vet suggests a number of tests, ask the reason behind them and what the cost will be. It might be best to decide what is most urgently needed to stabilize the situation and to seek out further medical treatment after you have more information. While you’re at the clinic, ask if they have any information about rescue groups working in the area.

2. Try a web search for animal welfare groups.

Even if you are unable to do this in a foreign language, there may be other expats doing welfare work and posting about it in English, so it's worth a try. Write to any reasonable looking efforts, asking if they or someone they know can help you find a good outcome for the animal(s) in distress. Immediately offer to help with the physical effort and/or expense of rescue or rehoming. This is important! Most groups are functioning at or beyond their limit and you almost undoubtedly have more available resources than they do. When tourists or expats contact us about animals they see in need, we respond most committedly and quickly to those people who are willing to do something (anything) themselves. We do this because we know that it very much extends the ability to help overall. Send a picture or two, because seeing the animal in need can make all the difference, and it can also provide more accurate information as to the surrounding circumstances. This is not to say that you should leave the animal in those circumstances. You often have only one chance to help an animal in need. Walk away, and you could end up with a sad story of regret, rather than a happy story of collaborative effort. Simply reporting an animal in distress is not actually rescuing the animal. By the way, if you see the importance in animal welfare groups being available to help in situations like this, consider picking a good group and being a monthly donor. The number of groups available and the amount of work able to be done is directly proportionate to the number of people willing to provide regular support.

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3. Reach out to government resources

If you can’t quickly connect with an animal welfare group (please give us some slack, as most of us involved have day jobs and are already caring for large numbers of animals besides), government resources might be the next best option. The public tends to have an antagonistic feeling towards animal control (that feeling is usually mutual) but government centers are not always the bad guys. They don’t actually want to kill animals, even just from the standpoint of cost and care. They may be able to point you in the direction of animal welfare groups or veterinary facilities working under the radar. You can often start by asking at your local city government office to help you speak with an animal control representative, as there might be an onsite translator at the city office (though probably not available at the center). It’s also a good idea to file a found pet report with the animal control center, city office, or police station, in case someone might actually be looking for the animal in question. This is not to say that you should surrender an animal to an animal control center. These centers vary widely from country to country, and region to region, as far as humane holding and destruction standards are concerned. You should remain responsible for the animal until it can be returned to a previous guardian or placed in other invested custody. Only use the center to connect with humane non-government organizations or individuals providing various kinds of animal support, as these will be more reliable options regarding a humane outcome.

4. Evaluate all presented options carefully, and thoroughly.

Organizational resources vary greatly depending on the country. The level of assistance readily available in your home country might be very hard to come by where you are now. Interact with representatives kindly, being mindful of the fact that they’re often performing an unpaid service. It doesn’t hurt to ask about possible sheltering, and/or advice on finding homes locally. Help with navigating any positive government resources, such as subsidies for spay or neuter, could also be available. Don’t make the assumption that any person or organization will be able to immediately (or ever) take the animal in themselves. If they do offer to take the animal in, be prepared for the possibility that sheltering space might be severely limited, with living conditions poor and/or overcrowded. Don’t hand pets off to a middle person, without knowing under what conditions the animals will actually end up living, how long they’ll be stuck there, and what happens if they don’t find homes. Groups and individuals helping animals may mean well, but some lives on offer are actually worse than life on the streets. Or in even sadder cases, worse than death. It is absolutely essential to check the shelter living conditions yourself, rather than to trust pictures and other possibly outdated and/or misrepresented data. If a group does end up being able to assist you in any way, even just by providing helpful information, always consider making a donation as a thank you afterward.

5. Be prepared to be responsible for the animal for a limited amount of time yourself.

When we present this need, people inevitably panic and ask how long they will need to remain involved. They say their apartment or living situation is strictly no-pets. We understand. We also know that many people manage to hold on to animals for limited amounts of time under these circumstances with no negative impact (and LOTS of positive). Groups can often loan you a cage or other supplies to make things easier. We tell people honestly, that it’s unknown as to how long they’ll need to wait, but we will begin working hard on finding a new placement for the animal (and we really do that). Another option might be arranging for a veterinary clinic or pet hotel to hold the animal temporarily.

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6. Start spreading the word.

Here’s a way to put those social media accounts you have to valuable use! Let other expat friends or colleagues know you’re looking for a good home for a pet, and ask them to tell their friends. Advertise on any expat venues, such as online magazines or classified ads. It can also be helpful to find appropriate social media venues for placing announcements, such as local facebook groups or meetups. When finding venues for posting, avoid Craigslist and/or primarily shopping pages, as these don’t tend to be safe areas for finding good homes. Also, posting on these kind of venues tends to offend animal lovers, who feel bad seeing pets seemingly reduced to commodities. Never make posts advertising “Free” pets anywhere, as this definitely attracts the wrong kind of people. If possible, get help searching for local language resources for rehoming pets. For example in Japan, there’s a very effective site called satoya-boshu.net specifically for rehoming pets, on a regional basis. But, you need to be able to read and write in Japanese in order to use it. So, make connections and reach out in as many directions as possible, even it it is only for help communicating in the local language. Though any animal welfare group you’ve connected with might also be looking for a placement, temporary or permanent, they’ll be thrilled if you manage to do this first yourself.

7. Screen any potential placements carefully and responsibly.

If you are not working closely with an animal welfare group on this aspect, be prepared to screen people yourself. Ask potential adopters some good questions about what kind of pet they are looking for, and what kind of care they are able to provide. Ask about their experiences caring for past pets. Get ideas for good questions to ask, by checking animal welfare groups’ online adoption applications or questionnaires (here’s ours). What you are looking for is a responsible person or family who will provide good care, and will not easily give up on the pet--landing the animal in the same situation in which you found it or worse (see point 3). This is particularly important when rehoming with another expat, since not all adopters are willing to go through the steps needed to take pets back to home countries.

8. Make arrangements to actually bring the animal to the new home.

This is important because it will help the animal settle in more quickly, and it will also give you one last opportunity to evaluate the new living situation. By now, you’ve decided the home and the person seem like a good match for your rescue. You’re now just ruling out that unexpected and/or negative aspect that would prevent you from comfortably leaving the animal. Go with your gut--if something makes you feel uncomfortable about the potential home, don’t leave the animal. Make some excuse (“I forgot the adoption contract”), if you don’t feel able to immediately be honest, but do WALK AWAY. It can be a good idea to check a picture ID, to be sure that the adopter actually lives at the address in question. There’s no shame in being thorough. It’s really important, regarding an overall positive outcome, for you to feel secure that the home you are leaving the animal in is safe. Any potential adopter who tells you that a home visit is an invasion of their privacy is not being reasonable, and is frankly unsafe. This is a common bully tactic by unscrupulous people with bad intentions, generally paired with the suggestion that you will never find a home for the pet if you insist on potential adopters jumping through so many hoops. Untrue.

9. Be invested in the animal’s future and show it.

You’re not handing over a used and unwanted garage sale item. You’ve lovingly cared for a sentient being, and you’ve invested (sometimes heavily) in a positive future life. It’s a good idea to have some kind of adoption contract, because that demonstrates the seriousness of handing the animal over to a new caregiver. Again, get some ideas from other animal welfare groups, many of which have online adoption contracts. Make a provision for updates on how the animal does in the new home. This is for your benefit, as well as the pet’s. It can be hard to give up any pet that you’ve cared for, even for a short time. Seeing the pet happy in a new home, will make this process much easier, and will give you eventual satisfaction in a job well done. Do make sure that any cat or dog being rehomed has either already been spayed or neutered, or in the case of younger ones, the new caregiver is absolutely committed to arranging this. You don’t want to save one little life, only for it to go on to create future homeless offspring.

10. Be open to a variety of possibilities…

There’s another way this story can go, and I hesitate to even bring it up, because I know what you’re thinking: You can’t have a pet. This animal can’t stay. You can’t bring an animal back with you to (wherever). That being said...it might not be the end of the world if you could. Years later, you might just be thanking your lucky stars that a particular dog or cat is curled up at your feet right there, because that is the best decision you’ve ever made. Of course, it would also not be the end of the world to shed a few tears over the animal going safely to a home other than yours. This means you can go on to help the next one in need. For those of us with revolving doors, we take heart in the fact that an empty space is a space we can fill again and again. In the hard cases, the best possible outcome might be for the animal to be spayed/neutered, given other needed medical care, and returned to the streets. For feral cats, this can actually be the most humane option.

There are mostly two kinds of stories resulting from expats contemplating what to do about a stray animal that they see in trouble...Those that lead to people rescuing and homing the animal, and those that lead to regret expressed for not being “able” to do anything. Having been a world traveler myself, successfully assisting animals in a number of different countries, I can tell you that it is almost always possible to have a positive impact. All it takes is the will and a little well-directed effort. I know which kind of story I choose to live with, and that motivates me to do something, regardless of the fact that I might not be able to do everything. Helping an animal in need get to a safe place can be a richly rewarding part of your multi-cultural travel/living experience. Tell your story, inspire others, and go on to help again when needed!


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Susan Roberts

I'm an educator, traveler, vegan, and animal welfare enthusiast. I'm originally from America, but have been living in Japan for over 20 years.

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