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Pet Owners Struggling To Reunite With Their Furry Family Members Amid The Pandemic

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Countries around the world have closed their borders to try to stop the spread of the coronavirus. That has left some people stranded in places where they happen to be studying or taking vacation. So some are separated from spouses or parents. Others are separated from a different kind of family - their pets. As NPR's John Ruwitch has discovered, many pet lovers are refusing to roll over.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Before Justinian Huang left Shanghai for some beach time in Malaysia last winter, he took his dog Swagger to stay with a friend.

JUSTINIAN HUANG: I dropped him off. I kissed him goodbye. I was like, going to see you in six days. That was January 23 of this year.

RUWITCH: That week the coronavirus spread with alarming speed in China, so Huang decided to wait it out in Malaysia a few days. Then he flew to Taiwan and finally home to the United States. But the pandemic worsened. Borders closed. A week away from Shanghai turned into a month, then two. Swagger stayed with Huang's friends. They occasionally FaceTimed.

HUANG: He would, like, get excited, and his, like, tail would start wagging. And he would smile. He, like, smiles a lot and - gosh. But, you know, I have to tell you. Afterwards, we both would be sad.

RUWITCH: Huang missed the pooch who he'd rescued from a shelter and who he says rescued him from loneliness while living by himself away from home. In March tried to get Swagger on a flight to America, but that fell through as travel restrictions got tighter. Then last month Swagger made it on a plane to San Francisco.

HUANG: Oh, Swagger, come here (laughter).

RUWITCH: Huang paid $4,000 to get Swagger to the United States. Another expat paid around $14,000 to be reunited with a corgi. That's a lot of money. Steven Feldman is executive director of the Human-Animal Bond Research Institute. He says if you can afford it, it's worth it.

STEVEN FELDMAN: The more we invest in our relationship with our pets - spending time with them, caring for them - there's good evidence that that will come back to us in terms of better mental and physical health.

RUWITCH: Not everybody can afford it at those prices, but Kyla Robertson is trying to help. She's connected with hundreds of people trying to get their pets to North America from China and is organizing a charter flight out of Shanghai. People with cats will be riding in the back. Those with dogs will be in the front.

KYLA ROBERTSON: The dogs kind of go, like, every second row just because we don't want, you know, one dog to, like, look underneath the seat and see another dog and maybe start, you know, growling or be upset at it.

RUWITCH: They're still raising money to make it happen. When the flight takes off later this month, Kyla and her husband plan to be onboard with their dog Sugar. They're also bringing back a spunky mutt named Ted.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Teddy, be nice.

RUWITCH: Ted's owner Kait Hooper taught in China for five years but has had an exceedingly rough few months. Her father died in December, and she's been stuck outside China since late January, when she travelled home to Canada. A few weeks after arriving home, her mother was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer. Hooper tried to get Ted back.

KAIT HOOPER: My mom was really, you know, excited. She really want to meet him.

RUWITCH: But by the time Hooper got the money together, it was impossible to get Ted on a flight. Her mother died in early June.

HOOPER: Yeah. I just - it sucks, you know? I had the means to get him home and ready to get him home. But it's not possible.

RUWITCH: At a park in California, Swagger is chilling by Justinian Huang's feet, tongue out.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG PANTING)

RUWITCH: Bringing Swagger out of China fixed one small thing in a crazy world, Huang says. And maybe it'll do a little bit more than that.

HUANG: He's a good force, man. Like, I think bringing him to America makes America a little better (laughter). I just want him to spread the love that he's always given me, you know?

(SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

RUWITCH: John Ruwitch, NPR News, Santa Clara, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF CITY OF THE SUN'S "I'M WITH POLLY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.