I often joke that I can’t go anywhere without bringing home a kitten. As a professional kitten lady—a rescuer and humane educator—I spend pretty much every waking hour focused on helping tiny felines. So when my partner Andrew and I booked a vacation to Peru, we thought that we were taking a break from kitten care, never expecting that we were actually embarking on one of our most adventurous kitten rescues yet.
It was our last day in Peru, and we had just come down the mountain from Machu Picchu to begin our long trip home. With 40 minutes until our train departed, I suddenly found myself running, almost reflexively, toward the sound of a screaming kitten. Scanning the area, I located the source of the sound—a terrified little kitten being passed around by local children. The children meant her no harm, but being young and unsupervised, they squeezed her and fought over who could hold her and by the time I got close enough to see her face, she was visibly trembling.
There she was: a one pound, filthy, emaciated, flea-covered kitten with dreadlocks in her fur, looking up at me with bright blue eyes. I approached the kids and began to ask questions—“Es tu gatito? Tiene una madre?” One of the boys had found her all alone and brought her to a football field to show his friends, but she didn’t belong to anyone and was barely surviving on the street. I pulled cat food from my backpack (rescuers always come prepared!) and offered it in my palm, and the kitten began to scarf it down immediately.
Unfortunately, there are almost no resources for cats in Peru. While I typically work in the United States where we have municipal animal shelters and a dozen rescue groups in nearly every county, Peru does not have these resources available and our only options were to leave the kitten on the street or take her with us. Andrew looked at me with a knowing expression, and I responded, “we’ll figure it out.”
On the walk back to the train station, we were both frantically asking questions. How will we sneak her on this train? Is it even possible to bring a kitten back to the United States on a plane and with just 24 hours of notice? Can we find a veterinarian who will help us? If none of this works, is there somewhere safe we can bring her? I placed her in my hoodie, and as we boarded the plane I felt her first purrs vibrate against my belly. She was already learning to trust us.
My rescue philosophy has always been to take action first and figure out the details later. With enough willpower, I’ve found myself able to overcome impossible odds to save an animal’s life. So, with great determination, we began an evening of research to work out the logistics of travel. We learned that in order to board an international flight with a kitten, you need a health certificate and proof of vaccination from a certified vet, a carrier that meets the airline’s requirements and a reservation on the flight for the animal. Andrew and I divided up our duties and after a few hours we were prepared for the day ahead.
When we got to our apartment, it was time to clean the kitten up. With gentle dish soap and warm sudsy water, I washed away her fleas and the grime from the street. I trimmed her dreadlocks and cleaned out her ears. She emerged a new kitten—fluffy and soft, purring and cuddly. We decided to name her Munay Michi (pronounced “moon-eye mee-chee”), which means “pretty cat” in Quechua, the beautiful native language spoken in the Andes. We tucked Munay in, and after just a few hours of sleep, the sun was up and we began our big day.
We would need to be at the airport at 10:00 a.m. for a flight from Cusco to Lima, so we showed up bright and early to a walk-in vet clinic that opened at 8:00 a.m. and hoped for the best. We purchased a carrier, waited our turn and excitedly received our Certificado de Salud. Paperwork in hand, we caught a cab to the airport and kept our fingers crossed that we had done everything correctly.
At the airport, we showed Munay’s paperwork to the airline agent, paid her ticket fee and made it through security with no issues. Breathing a huge sigh of relief, we celebrated as the wheels lifted and we took off for our first leg of the trip. This was a small victory, but the big challenge would come with making it from Lima into the United States.
Our second flight was much the same. An examination of paperwork, a ticket fee and a look of disbelief on both of our faces when we made it onto the airplane with relative ease. Munay did a beautiful job of staying happy and relaxed while I obsessively monitored her throughout the long international flight, taking bathroom breaks to help her pee, providing extra hydration and nutrients to ensure that she stayed healthy on the flight, and brushing her with a toothbrush to help her feel at ease.
The flight landed in the U.S. and it was time for the final challenge: customs and border control. I filled out my customs declaration form, indicating that I was indeed bringing “(b) meats, animals, animal/wildlife products.” Accepting my form, the customs agent asked “what food item are you declaring?” I nervously responded: “Well, I have a cat. But she isn’t a food item.” He laughed, I laughed and he stamped the form. I couldn’t believe it. Munay was officially a U.S. citizen!
The Peruvian princess adjusted immediately to her new life in our home, where she was afforded every feline luxury imaginable—fun toys, soft beds, expert vet care and new feline friends. For a month she thrived in our in-home kitten nursery, where she played with other kittens in our care, became healthy and well-fed, and soaked up lots of love and affection.
Munay’s story has a most happy ending. Two dear friends fell in love with her, and once she was ready for adoption, she made her final escapade to live with them—this time, just a short road trip from DC to Philadelphia. She now enjoys a life of luxury and is becoming fast friends with her big brother, Grendel, a big black cat who was found eating a hoagie on the Philly streets and rescued. The two of them make an adorable pair.
Even though Munay’s journey brought her out of Peru, she’s left a huge mark on the country she used to call home. Munay’s story inspired the Munay Moon-Eye shirt by artist Craig Horky, which has so far raised over $2000 for Albergue Temporal Oh My Cats, one of the few small organizations in Peru providing care to homeless cats and kittens.
For a two-pound furball, Munay’s already had more adventures and made more of an impact than many cats get during their entire nine lives. She traveled the world, raised money for cats in need and inspired people around the globe to believe in the importance of helping those who are vulnerable, even against all odds. We couldn’t be prouder!
Images via: Hannah Shaw and Andrew Marttila
Hannah Shaw is the founder of Kitten Lady. Her mission is to change the way we perceive & treat animals—especially orphaned kittens.