How To Become an International Pet Smuggler

I moved to Panama from Toronto in July, 2007, but the airline I flew on would not take my dog Roscoe -- something about the summer heat being too much for animals in the cargo hold. So I ended up having to ship Roscoe by a different airline to San Jose, Costa Rica (at three times the cost of my own flight), and of course I then had to drive from my new home in Panama to San Jose to pick him up.
Thus began, innocently enough, my career as an international pet smuggler.
Roscoe is a Golden Doodle, half standard poodle, half golden retriever.  When I decided to get a dog in 2002, I spent months on the internet researching the right breed for me – a healthy and good natured one.  I settled on a golden doodle because, unlike retrievers, labradors and other purebreds, they seemed to have no genetic dispositions to disease—and they looked adorable.

Golden Doodles were becoming popular then in Canada, and I had to put my name on a waiting list with a Mennonite breeder. After several months, I was told to come to the breeding farm, about an hour from Toronto, where I was offered a choice between three or four puppies about eight weeks old.

Roscoe was the runt of the litter, small, caramel colored, and stunned looking, as though he had just woken up from a long nap. I knew he was the one. I picked him up in one cupped hand, and paid the breeder with the other. It was the beginning of a friendship that has lasted for eight years so far. The relationship got off to a slimy, smelly start, however, when he puked on me as we drove back to Toronto. 

As a young puppy, Roscoe was everything I wanted in a dog – affectionate, playful, endearing. Everyone loved him. And of course he was the smartest dog ever. There were occasional ‘accidents’, but he was soon house-trained and far better behaved than most of the customers in my furniture store.

His only vice, one he has never overcome, was that he despised other dogs, loathed them, held them in contempt, which he articulated by running up to them in the park and barking aggressively in their faces.

I chalked up his anti-dog attitude to an awareness of superiority. He was smarter and better looking than them, and he knew it. He was wonderful with people, though, and I had no doubt it was because he understood he was more like us than he was like other dogs. The full-body suit of hair and extra pair of legs were not signs of a profound difference between him and us. They were more like the characteristics distinguishing one human ethnic group from another – differences in hair and skin color. He was really just another person, albeit one who liked to chase squirrels and roll in poop.

People tell me that Roscoe and I are much alike, except that I behave towards peoples as he does toward dogs, and toward dogs as he does toward people. That is true, but I like to think of it a little differently. Aristotle said that, to a virtuous man, a friend is ‘another self.’ Scholars argue endlessly about what this means, as they do about everything else. That is how they make a living. What Aristotle seems to have meant was that a virtuous man seeks the company of other virtuous men, and takes pleasure in spending time with them. He befriends them because they seek the same thing he does—virtue – and in them he sees his own striving for virtue reflected as in a mirror. Thus is a friend another self.

I don’t strive for virtue—it doesn’t much interest me—but I do like to see it in others. Dogs have all the virtues I admire, with few of the vices of my two-legged friends. Dogs don’t lie, they don’t deceive, they are never false. Sometimes they steal food, occasionally they argue, and once in a while they bite, but they are never false. You always know where you stand with a dog. He loves you, ignores you, or bites you. A dog is always true.

It was early September when I set out to retrieve Roscoe from San Jose. My friends in Toronto had made the flight arrangements. Everything was ready. They got an international veterinary certificate, which was needed to bring him into Costa Rica and Panama. My friends checked with the Costa Rican embassy in Ottawa, which said the only fee would be a $50 dollar charge to process him at the airport at San Jose.

I left Volcan in Chiriqui Provice and drove to the border crossing at Paso Canoas. I had been to dozens of border crossings around the world. This was the worst I had ever seen – a swirling mess of cars, trucks and people. The border was marked by a garbage covered median between two streets. One side was Costa Rice, the other Panama. People walked across casually; cars went back and forth where there were breaks in the median. It was chaos. Like a giant flee market.

The only indication of an international border were the customs buildings. The Panamanian one was a grotesque, two story pile with rust stains running down the sides. The Costa Rican customs house was less noticeable, though just as ugly, a single-story jumble of small rooms covered in paint that had probably been a mustard color at some point in the distant past. To get there, you had to walk a few hundred meters from the Panamanian side through a no man’s land where pedestrians and vehicles from both sides mingled in a confused stew of bodies and traffic. 

The whole scene was a mess. But that was the least of my problems.  I had made sure I had all the documents I would need. I had my driver’s license, passport, vehicle ownership form, insurance policy, and certificate of mechanical fitness, which I had been told I would need to cross the border. I went to the Panamanian customs office and presented all my documents to a clerk behind a glass partition, who told me that although my documents were in good order, I would need another, special certificate of mechanical fitness because my truck was more than six years old.

No one had mentioned this before, and I did not believe there was any such requirement. If the clerk was so concerned about the mechanical condition of my old truck, shouldn’t she be happy I was taking it out of Panama? But of course mechanical fitness was not the issue. The issue was money.  Where exactly, I asked, could I get this special certificate of mechanical fitness?  It could only be obtained back in David, she told me.
The problem was that the government office where I would have to get the special permit closed at 1 p.m. This was part of the government’s effort to reduce energy costs. To lower air-conditioning expenses, many government offices were closing at 1 p.m. instead of 4 p.m. It occurred to me that a better plan would have been to eliminate energy costs entirely by keeping the offices permanently closed, although I did not mention this idea to the clerk   
I was facing a dilemma. I could go back to Volcan, get the certificate the next day, and return to face the clerk, or I could negotiate with her now. Roscoe was due in San Jose the next morning, so I had no choice.
The dance began. I tried appealing to her maternal instincts. My son Roscoe was flying into San Jose the next morning. I had to be there to pick him up. Couldn’t she make an exception? No, she could not.

Every developing-world border crossing has ‘fixers’, local men who know how to deal with situations like this. A young man had been watching me while I tried to persuade the clerk to let me through. He now offered to help solve my problem. Maybe they were working as a tag-team. Maybe this was a set-up. It didn’t matter. I needed his help and told him to go ahead without discussing the price.

Our first stop was the local police station, where I paid $40 and received a piece of paper with lots of squiggles and official stamps. Then we went to another office where I paid $20 and received another piece of paper with more squiggles and official stamps. There were a couple more stops, with additional squiggles, stamps, and cash payments. Finally, we returned to the clerk's window, and, after my fixer discreetly slipped her a $20 bill, the problem was solved. All in all, it had cost $140 and taken several hours. 

It was now mid-afternoon and I was anticipating a similar round of bargaining on the Costa Rican side. After all, they were the ones who should be worried about allowing my old pile of junk into their country. But, no, it was a breeze. In less than ten minutes, without a single attempt at extortion, I was on my way.

It is hard to describe how bad the roads are in Costa Rica, which is puzzling given that Costa Rica is the richest country in Central America. On one occasion, I was driving through the mountains between San Vito and Paso Canoas, parallel to the border with Panama. As I rounded a bend, with the road hugging the mountain side, my lane suddenly disappeared. It must have fallen off the side of the mountain during heavy rains. But that was some time ago, a few months at least, because tall grass was growing where the missing lane had been.  How many people had driven off the side of the mountain while local officials considered whether to rebuild the missing lane? How many wrecked cars lay at the bottom of the valley a few hundred meters below?

The drive from Paso Canoas to San Jose is one of the most remarkable I have ever seen. You travel along the coastal plane for a while, then the road shifts inland to the right. By the time you reach San Isidro del General, you are climbing into the central mountain range, which forms the spine of the country. Soon, you start to pass through banks of fog and clouds that blanket the winding road. You begin to notice the forest-covered peaks and the deep valleys below, laced with zig-zagging rivers. This continues for two or three hours, until you reach the highest point and start descending to the central valley where you arrive first at Cartago, then San Jose.
Cartago is one of many towns in Latin America and Spain named after the North African city-state  -- Carthage – which was destroyed by Rome twenty-two hundred years ago.  Spain had hosted the Carthaginian leader Hannibal for many years, not exactly voluntarily, and served as his base-camp during the famous elephant raid across the Alps into Italy, known as the Second Punic War. After many happy years pillaging up and down the Italian peninsula, inflicting defeat after defeat on Rome, including its greatest ever military catastrophe at Cannae, Hannibal was finally chased back across the Mediterranean to Africa.
It had been a good run for Hannibal, but the Romans had long memories—very long. The Roman statesman Cato went on record as saying that Carthage must be destroyed. And it was, several decades later, during the Third Punic war. I didn’t understand why so many towns would want to name themselves after a city that had been completely destroyed by the Romans, razed to the ground and never rebuilt. It hardly seemed the right message for civic boosters to send about their home-towns. I guessed that they had probably only read as far as the Second Punic war in school history classes, missing the crucial Third.

Passing through Cartago, I soon arrived in San Jose and checked into a boring, generic, American chain hotel near the airport. San Jose is one of those places no traveler spends time if he can avoid it. Driving through San Jose, I was reminded of what the US Supreme Court said about pornography, that it is utterly without redeeming social value.     

Roscoe was supposed to arrive around one in the afternoon, so I went to the airport to wait for his plane. It turned out that this was a religious holiday in Costa Rica—the Feast of the Blessed Virgin of Something-or-Other.  Planes were flying and landing, but the baggage handlers were not working. Trying to unravel the situation, I discovered that my friends had dropped Roscoe off early in the morning at the Toronto airport. The people responsible for loading him onto the plane had not known about the Feast of Blessed Virgin in Costa Rica, so they accepted him without realizing he could not be shipped that day. Sunday, two days from now, was the earliest he could be flown to Costa Rica.
I was stuck at the generic hotel for two more days, eating generic breakfast buffets, cooling my heels. I sat in my room and read a book. On Sunday, I went back to the airport. This time Roscoe had arrived. While he was waiting to be cleared through customs, I was allowed to see him in the freight warehouse. He looked fine and was glad to see me, but was anxious to get out of the warehouse.
My next stop was the customs office. Although the Costa Rican embassy in Ottawa had told my friends there would be only a $50 charge to let Roscoe into the country, I was now being advised that the entry fee was $350. I protested that we were going directly to Panama the same day, and would be out of Costa Rica before nightfall. Big mistake. I had given them an opening to tell me, as they proceeded to do, that if I planned on taking him out of Costa Rica, I would also need an exit permit costing another $350.
And so began my second dance with customs officials. Inevitably, there was a fixer hanging around. I was now sure that customs officials and fixers worked together like a good cop-bad cop team –first, one tells you the horrible news about how much it is going to cost, then the other softens the blow by negotiating a lower payment. The system works well for them. But, again, I had no choice. I had two options: pay $700, or work with the fixer to reduce the amount of extortion. The choice was obvious. There followed several visits to important looking officials, with much whispering in Spanish that I didn’t understand. Eventually, a deal was struck. I would pay $300 to the officials and $100 to the fixer.
With Roscoe settled comfortably in my truck, we set off for Panama. We only made it a few miles, back to Cartago, before my truck broke down. All of a sudden, the engine stopped. There had been electrical problems with the truck before, and I guessed this was another. But the Feast of the Blessed Virgin was still being celebrated in Cartago, at least by mechanics, and I could find no one to fix the truck. I started to think that Cato had been right—Cartago must be destroyed.
First, though, I had to figure out where Roscoe and I were going to sleep that night. No hotel would take him, so we ended up sleeping in the truck. He didn’t seem to mind. I did. On Monday morning, I found a mechanic, who diagnosed the electrical problem and fixed it. Again, we set off for the border. 

The drive was uneventful—for a few hours. Then I saw a skinny, sick-looking dog on the side of the road. My empathy for humans is limited, for dogs unbounded. I pulled over. There, in front of me, was a female beagle mutt with a beautiful face. Her ribs were sticking out and she was covered with sores. I pulled out a package of hot dogs I had brought for Roscoe. She wolfed them down whole, not bothering to chew. Then she devoured another package. Then she vomited up the whole mess. This wasn’t working.

Something about her face told me that I couldn’t just leave her there. I loaded her into the truck. Roscoe was not thrilled. He growled, then ignored her. Now I had another problem. I had all the official papers I needed to get Roscoe across the border at Paso Canoas, but not the beagle mutt, whom we later named Sophie. What was I going to do about her?

The answer came in a flash—smuggle her into Panama at a little used border crossing near Rio Sereno. We resumed the journey, all three of us. I made some calls and a friend arranged for a woman she knew, who owned a store on the Panamanian side of the border at Rio Serena, to meet us and sneak Sophie into Panama.

I was about to become an international smuggler, not the lowly mule who carries contraband across borders, but the Master Mind who pulls the strings behind the scenes. It put me in mind of Richard Burton’s great performance in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.  

The smuggling venture was planned for tomorrow. Today, I had to get us close to the border and find somewhere to sleep. We ended up staying at a $10 motel near the border. Roscoe was accustomed to sleeping in bed with me, but I didn’t want to share a bed with Sophie. She looked awful with all those sores. I tried locking her in the bathroom, but she started howling as only a beagle can howl. I knew we would get thrown out the motel unless I quieted her down, so I let her in the bedroom. A struggle for the bed ensured. Roscoe claimed his usual position curled up next to me. Relentlessly, Sophie kept climbing onto the bed and I kept pushing her off.  I was about to learn something every beagle parent discovers sooner or later: when a beagle sets her mind on something, resistance is futile. Just let her have it. There is nothing else you can do. Sophie slept on the bed that night.

 In the morning, I met my contact, the woman who had agreed to help get Sophie across the border. Everything went according to plan. She drove Sophie across the border in her own car, as though Sophie were her own Panamanian dog. Then I followed with Roscoe in the truck.

I had heard about this border crossing, but had never used it. It hardly fit the image of an international border crossing. It was a sleepy place, nearly comatose. There was a customs building on the Costa Rican side, and another on the Panamanian side.  A guard was visible on the Costa Rica side, lounging against a post. He waved as I passed, not even asking me to stop. On the Panamanian side, there were no guards to be seen. The officials must have been inside. I drove across the border without being stopped and parked the truck. Leaving Roscoe inside, I walked first to the Costa Rican customs office to get an exit stamp, and then to the Panamanian one to get an entry stamp on my passport.    

I could have driven Sophie across the border without anyone bothering to stop me.   I could have driven anything across without being stopped. It was all a bit anti-climactic. There had been no real challenge smuggling Sophie into Panama.

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