When People Emigrate, What Happens To Their Companion Animals?
Anyone who has lived with a companion animal knows just how much they contribute to family life. They give us joy and provide emotional support and companionship, but what happens to these animals when people emigrate? Emigration is generally an incredibly stressful event that separates a person or family from familiar social and cultural moorings. Yet little prior research has examined the question of where companion animals fit into the emigration decision. How do families figure out what to do with their animals? And what are the emotional ramifications of these decisions?
The role and regard for companion animals has evolved over time. Earlier research has identified three different ways we view our household animals. The first, and perhaps most traditional, way is the “dominionistic” orientation, which values animals mainly for the benefits the animals can provide, such as protection or pest control. Second is the “humanistic” view, which values companion animals for their relational or affective benefits, elevating them to surrogate humans. Finally, there is a “protectionistic” orientation, which places high value on companion animals and considers them to have their own interests. How people see their animals in this context can influence whether they consider them as members of the family, and the closeness of the bonds between a family and their animals may determine how traumatic their loss may be.
It’s worth mentioning here, that moving animals between countries has practical and financial ramifications, and even if a person or family wants to bring their animal along, they may not be able to afford to do so. Countries often require “pet passports” for moving companion animals across borders. These passports allow disease to be tracked and controlled, and different countries have different requirements for quarantining a companion animal upon arrival. Such rules can require lengthy separations, which may be difficult for both the animal and their guardians. These realities may force painful decisions on families as they plan their emigration.
To explore this issue, researchers gathered qualitative data through interviews with10 South African families that had decided to emigrate between 2008 and 2009. South Africa is a socially and politically complex country with high levels of poverty and inequality. Meanwhile, little is known about South African practices of keeping companion animals. Given this, the authors wanted to learn how the families worked through issues regarding their companion animals as part of their immigration process. Destination countries included New Zealand (five families), Canada (two), and the U.K. and the U.S. (one each). One participant chose not to emigrate because of health concerns. Of the remaining nine families, four took their companion animals with them, four did not, and one euthanized their two dogs.
The study results show that these choices about the fate of their companion animals had several psychological effects on family members. The interviews also demonstrated the power imbalance between humans and their companion animals. The emigres’ decisions were often highly emotional and most often reflected a humanistic orientation. Even so, the families didn’t always opt to take their animals with them for financial or logistical reasons. When they did, they expressed that the animals would help create a sense of home in their new location. This was especially true for families with young children. When they didn’t, most of those interviewed expressed a sense of loss and guilt for leaving their animals behind. Indeed, not taking their animals to their new homes was not due to a lack of affection but often a highly conflicted, painful decision.
So how can advocates help those planning to emigrate find the best options for their companion animals? Though the scope of the article is limited and not immediately generalizable to all populations, a look at the issues raised in the article offers several ideas. People don’t always want to leave their animals behind, so financial and logistical support could help with those cases. Advocating for less restrictive rules on the importation of companion animals, along with greater consistency across nations, could also ease the decision-making process. For those who simply can’t take their animals with them, advocates could make education, sheltering, and re-homing resources available to emigres. That way, they can leave their animals knowing that they will receive good care and humane treatment for the rest of their lives, despite the difficult decision being made, and the animals would surely benefit from such a transfer of care as well, rather than simply being surrendered to a shelter.