Like many of the British expatriates scattered around southern Spain, Cecilia Riber and her husband moved to this coastal town when they retired, drawn to its warm climate and relaxed way of life. But her husband died six years ago, and now, after 15 years away from home, Riber is ready to go back.
But as eager as she is to return to England, Riber, 68, is one of a number of displaced Britons here and around Western Europe who are caught in a strange sort of limbo, one that has forced them to weigh love of country against love of animals.Under Britain's 77-year-old rabies law, if Riber took her mixed-breed hound, Scruffy, back to England with her, he would be required to spend six months in quarantine, serving his time in solitary confinement in one of the 80 or so kennels licensed by the British government. He wouldn't be allowed to play with other dogs. He wouldn't be allowed to go for walks. And, Riber says, she just won't do it to him.
"I know I can't go back to England because he wouldn't be able to survive in a kennel for six months," Riber said of Scruffy, who is no youngster himself, nearing 13 and suffering from an enlarged heart that has left him short of breath and slow on his feet. "He's very important to me, particularly as I'm on my own now. And that's why I'm staying here. I won't leave him. I can't leave him."
There are people like Riber all over southern Spain, in France, in the Netherlands, in Switzerland. The painter David Hockney and the actor Rupert Everett, who are both British and live abroad, have refused to move back to England because of the rabies law. Probably the most famous anti-quarantine campaigner is Christopher Patten, Britain's last governor in Hong Kong, who moved back to London last year but left his beloved Norfolk terriers, Whisky and Soda, with dog-loving friends in France.
The quarantine law, which applies to all domestic mammals, dates from a time when rabies was a serious problem. But now, with the disease eradicated in some parts of the world or kept at bay by vaccinations in others, anti-quarantine campaigners say it is time for Britain to scrap its law. They are bitterly opposed by the country's $14.5 million-a-year quarantine kennel industry, which argues that it would be foolish to change a law that has been so apparently successful (and so lucrative).
There are signs that years of anti-quarantine agitation, from people both within and outside Britain, are finally, slowly paying off. On Sept. 23, a government-appointed committee of scientists is to issue a report that is expected to recommend a number of al-tern-a-tives.
One possibility would be to institute a "pet passport" system, in which pets coming from the European Union and other rabies-free places would carry documentation proving they were healthy and had been inoculated against rabies. The system would entail placing electronic chips under the animals' skin for easy identification.
Even if the government accepts the need for change, it will probably be at least a year before anything actually happens, said a spokesman for the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which administers the law. Until then, people like Riber are simply waiting.
Up in the hill town of Alhaurin el Grande, Elizabeth Collins put it this way. "I'll wait until he dies," she said, speaking of her dog, Sam, "or, I guess, until the law changes."
In desperation, more and more people are turning to smuggling to skirt the quarantine law. Some conceal their pets in bags or boxes and sneak them through the Channel Tunnel. Others pay professional smugglers upward of several thousand dollars to bring the animals in by boat or truck.
"It's surprisingly easy," said Peter Harrison, a British writer and kennel operator here in Spain, who by way of testing the system recently flew to London carrying a box stamped "Live Animals," which he occasionally opened and put in food (no one stopped him).
As many as 10,000 dogs and cats are smuggled into Britain each year, according to one estimate.