Just think of the cuddles! Image by Flickr user Sarah.

I never thought it was a good idea to adopt a pet while living in Togo.

I’m traveling once I leave, and I didn’t want to get attached to a furry pal I couldn’t take with me.

There is already a menagerie of animals in my compound. Plus, how was I going to feed the little varmint in a village with no market? Veternarian care isn’t stellar here, and several of my friends have lost pets to rabies, mysterious disappearances, or, in one instance, neighbors barbequing a beloved cat after it killed a chicken. Not to mention the hassle of a transatlantic flight with a four-legged friend in tow!

No, owning a pet during a temporary stay was not for me. Togolese and Americans have divergent approaches to animal care in general and household pets specifically. I didn’t want to deal with that challenge, and there are plenty of rescue animals who need adoption in the States.

I’ve long wanted a cat…

But my dream of living in sub-Saharan Africa for two years precluded any action on that front. Like any responsible person, I wasn’t about to rescue an animal only to abandon it. I am borderline crazy about cats and fond of most dogs, but as an adult I’ve had to content myself with visiting friends or house-sitting to cuddle a pet.

I’m sure you, savvy reader, have already been clued in by my use of the past tense that this resolve did not last. Last October, a friend had to leave her village for security reasons. She had inherited a dog from another volunteer, but because of the amount of territorial canines already living in her new home, she wasn’t able to take him. I found myself saying yes to adopting him for the remainder of my time here, rather than leaving him to fend for himself.

As the pick-up day approached, I got increasingly excited. I shopped for leashes in the capitol, gathered hard-to-find accessories, and envisioned the long walks we would take on my weekly commute to town for groceries. When it turned out that a neighbor in the dog’s original village volunteered to take care of him, the owner decided it would be less disruptive to leave him in the setting where he grew up. I agreed, but was crushed.

A friend offering to boost my spirits mentioned that a litter of kittens had just been born in her village. I impulsively agreed to adopt one of the little guys, fully intending to pass him on to another American volunteer before leaving Togo.


Pi! Image by Chelsea Clarke.

Perhaps predictably, I fell in love. Accelerating the process was the fact that when the kitten was delivered to me, I realized he was much younger than I had been told, too young to be taken from his mother, in fact. The trembling ball of fur quickly imprinted on me, and after an emergency vet visit in his first month, the deal was as good as sealed. I couldn’t leave him behind.

Challenges certainly exist.

Packaged cat food is only sold in the country’s capital, a 14-hour bush taxi ride away, and I can’t control his environment as much as I would with an indoor cat in America. He loves to eat balloon pieces that children leave lying around the compound, antagonize farm animals bigger than himself, and disappear when there is torrential rain. If he decides to kill a neighbor’s chicken or duck, it could mean a death sentence for him. Luckily, he seemed to develop a healthy fear of fowl as a kitten, something I did nothing to discourage.

But it has been totally worth it.

My host family can’t believe their eyes to see a cat who comes running when called, cries when I leave the house, and cuddles on my lap. The only interaction I’d seen the children have with cats before this consisted of them chasing a stray around the compound with sticks until I stopped them. Now, they will tentatively pet my cat, Pi, and even feed him cornmeal dipped in fish sauce, which he loves.

Having Pi with me in the village has not only abated my loneliness, but has been a small bit of cultural exchange – my Togolese host family and friends seeing what an animal can act like when you treat it affectionately, something that isn’t generally done here.

If you are living abroad long-term or semi-long-term, consider getting a pet.

There are challenges with an animal adoption, and you should consider in advance whether you plan to take the animal home or leave it with a responsible caretaker. But the rewards are big. I’ve even noticed that I spend less time in town now that I have a furry friend to come back to, something that also helps my integration into village life.

I’ve decided to take Pi back to America. After he has made the trip, I’ll write about the process of the preparation and logistics of flying internationally with a pet!

Have you owned a pet while living abroad? Did you take it with you or leave it with a trusted caretaker, and why?