Source: ABC News (Extract)
Posted: March 12, 2023

Distraught pet owners say the implementation of strict new rules governing how companion animals can be brought into the country have been bungled and badly managed.

The new rules have been brought in to boost Australia’s protection from the deadly rabies virus.

Under the changes, more stringent testing, documentation and animal identification are required.

An online petition calling for a fairer process has attracted more than 12,000 signatures.

According to the petition, the retrospective application of the rules has left owners feeling “stressed, confused and hopeless”.

Jiayi Shen is among them.

She recently moved from China to Australia for work and study, and had planned to bring her labrador Hotpot with her.

It was already a big undertaking to import a pet from China as it’s not an “approved” country.

Owners must send their pet to an approved country for a period of time first and have all rabies free verification and identity checks done there.

Ms Shen had just sent her dog to South Korea to undertake that process when she was informed of the rule changes.

She said Hotpot had been stuck in limbo in a boarding kennel in South Korea ever since.

“Every day I am so anxious,” she said.

Ms Shen contacts the federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) most days to try and find out what is going on with her permit application.

“I send emails and they just copy and paste the reply, I can see that because other people on Facebook have the same reply.”

Changes to the rules were flagged in January and came into effect earlier this month.

People who already had permits to bring their pets to Australia protested loudly and were granted exemptions to continue under the old rules.

But people who had applied for a permit or were in the process of applying for a permit say they have been blindsided by the retrospective changes.

Pet owners’ plans up in the air

Software engineers Sean and Frances Rees are planning to move from Ireland to Australia this year and both have jobs lined up.

They undertook the immunisation and blood test requirements and applied for a permit to bring their two 17-year-old cats, Max and Alex, to Australia in November last year.

But Mr Rees said more than four months later, they still didn’t have a permit.

Mr Rees said in February the department informed them the cats could come if they stayed in quarantine in Australia for 30 days, rather than 10, or they could start the application process again.

“Restarting the process also means resetting the six month clock, for a repeat round of blood work,” he said.

“It’s cliche, but they’re furry family.”

The couple’s plans to relocate are now up in the air.

Department acknowledges ‘distress’

In a statement, a DAFF spokesperson said the department recognised the importance of family pets and that the policy change could be causing some distress.

“To facilitate imports as safely as possible, transitional arrangements have been agreed for managing applications submitted prior to 1 March 2023, providing options for people to import their cats and dogs to Australia whilst balancing the biosecurity risks with the need for fairness and equity,” the statement read.

One of the concessions being made is extending the validity of the key rabies test to two years, instead of one.

That will help some people for whom that date was critical to meeting permit conditions in time to travel.

But many affected owners say the transitional options being offered aren’t helpful or fair.

Another option being offered to pet owners who submitted applications prior to 1 March 2023 is to provide documentation that a pet originated from Australia.

It is also possible to provide formal government identification of the animal prior to when the “pre-export preparations” started.

This must be done by an official veterinarian in the country of origin, which also needs to be an approved country.

If a pet owner can’t meet any of the options offered they must agree to extend the usual 10-day quarantine to 30 days

For Sean and Frances Rees and their two elderly cats, that’s a distressing prospect.

“After much reflection, no, it’s not really an option,” Mr Rees said.

“Were they younger and healthier, we might decide differently.”

The system is ‘not in place’

Long-time Afghan hound breeder Paul Hewitt said in many cases it was simply not possible to find the official representative required by the new regulations.

Dr Hewitt said he bought and tried to import two dogs from California and was unable to find anyone who could do the formal identification.

“You can’t do it, because they don’t know anything about it … the system is not in place. It may well be in place in six months time, but it’s not there now.”

Dr Hewitt said he was unable to accept the 30-day quarantine period as it wasn’t suitable for the pedigree dogs’ care and grooming.

He said he had to abandon the sale and lost many thousands of dollars in the process.

The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry said it was actively working with authorities in countries approved to export companion animals to Australia to put in place an ID declaration process.

A spokesperson said many approved countries were already providing ID declarations to the department.

They said the department had agreed to a process with the US and was currently working the with UK to agree to a process.

None of this is any help to Jiayi Shen and her stranded labrador Hotpot.

Similar to the the Rees, she said 30 days’ quarantine was unacceptable for a beloved pet that had already been separated from family for a long time.

“I do not want to accept 30 days because I want my dog to come here as soon as possible,” she said.

Implementation has been ‘botched’

National Party Leader David Littleproud said the whole process had been botched.

He said the rule changes had been upsetting for families wishing to come home to Australia and it had hampered people filling critical skilled job vacancies here.

“We’ve actually had numerous people from overseas come to us asking us to make representations on it,” he said.

“One of them was an individual wanting to come back to take up a job opportunity in Australia that in fact is passed,” he said.

“So Australia has lost an Australian coming back, there’s been a brain drain of our own people because of a botched biosecurity system.”

Mr Littleproud said the National Party supported strong biosecurity measures, but was critical of how the changes had been implemented.

He said there were 1,300 applications waiting to be assessed when the new policy was announced.

Pet owners are also angry about how long the application process is taking.

The ABC has been told places at Australia’s only pet quarantine facility were in strong demand and getting a timely booking there was also a challenge.

Thousands of applicants waiting

One pet owner provided the ABC with correspondence from the department saying it was now working its way through more than 2,000 applications.

The department said it was working as quickly as it could to process all outstanding applications.

The 12,000 signature-strong Change.Org petition calls on the Australian Government to scrap the retrospective pet importation rule changes altogether.

One of the petition organisers, Jasmine Yeung, is fighting to bring her poodle Ruby from Hong Kong to Australia with her.

“New pet importation rule changes are being applied retrospectively which means most of us are forced to start the costly application process again – which can take more than six months,” she said.

“I’m a health professional registered in Australia and I’m ready to return but I’m stuck due to unreasonable measures.

“We’re calling on the Australian government to show fairness and remove the retrospective measures on the policy.”