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Saturday, 14 April, 2001, 11:09 GMT 12:09 UK
New York cat's Atlantic adventure
Mark Devenport
Melinda liked to take part in Mark's broadcasts
By Mark Devenport

There comes a time when a BBC correspondent draws to the close of a tour of duty and feels ready to take the long view - to analyse the broad themes which he or she has explored.

In my case at the United Nations headquarters, for instance, I might ponder the future of peacekeeping, the prospects for conflict prevention or the economic consequences of globalisation.

Melinda: Good company, but picky
One New York cabbie took a dislike to Melinda
So why, I asked myself, was I standing on the steps of my Manhattan brownstone building embroiled in a stand-up row with a pet-hating New York cabbie?

"You got a cat!" he yelled at me. "You didn't tell me you had a cat.

"I don't take animals in this automobile".

It is true that I hadn't tipped off his firm about my extra piece of luggage over the phone. However this wasn't an act of crafty subterfuge, but a reflection of the fact that in more than a year of transporting my pet Melinda around New York, no yellow cab driver had ever so much as raised an eyebrow. I naively assumed the same rule would apply to the city's other car services.

Eventually, after what UN diplomats might call a frank exchange of views, my driver relented and drove sullenly towards the airport, his windows histrionically rolled down. As we sped through the Lincoln tunnel, Manhattan disappeared behind us and, in her carrier beside me, Melinda miaowed at the top of her voice.

Global offers

Melinda is a stray New York tabby fostered by my girlfriend, then adopted by me. Melinda made a habit of sitting on my head when I broadcast reports from my apartment, and I did not know what I would do with her when I returned to the UK.

A security guard blocked my way and demanded to see Melinda's ticket

But after I described Melinda's mischievous ways on air, I started getting e-mails and letters from Hong Kong and Paris, southern Spain and Switzerland. Some expressed concern about Melinda's future; others offered her a new "foster" home so she could qualify for the British pet passport scheme. That would enable her to avoid the UK's six-month quarantine period which, frankly, I didn't believe she'd survive.

In the end I took up a very kind offer from Elizabeth, a teacher living in Amsterdam. I set about carefully planning how to travel home via Holland, together with all my worldly goods plus one cat.

Mark Devenport
Proud foster parent
A New York vet gave Melinda her rabies jab. Then I discovered, much to my surprise, that Dutch and American airlines allow passengers to take their pets in the cabin, in carriers which fit under the seat in front.

All was going smoothly when, the day before my flight, an airline reservations clerk told me that all animal movements into Amsterdam had been stopped until further notice because of the foot-and-mouth outbreak in Europe.

I would have to leave my cat with a vet or whoever else would take her, she insisted.

I made a series of panicky phone calls to long suffering friends and cat sitters, then put my journalist's head back on and decided to double check the information. After conversations with the Dutch consulate in New York, the embassy in Washington and finally the government vet in Schiphol airport I had my definitive answer - there was no foot and mouth ban in force. Melinda's trans-Atlantic trip was back on.

'Excess baggage'

At the airport, a ticketing mix-up delayed me checking on to the flight for two hours. Eventually Melinda and I hurtled down a moving walkway whilst the tannoy demanded we board immediately or face being put off the flight.

Sweeping swiftly through the 'nothing to declare' route did not seem an option

A security guard blocked my way and demanded to see Melinda's ticket. It took the intervention of an airline employee to convince the guard that Melinda had indeed been categorised as "excess baggage".

I must confess that I had been dreading the flight, fearful that the other passengers would take a similar attitude to my New York cabbie. But Melinda seemed to enjoy the soothing hum of air travel, and made considerably less noise than the baby opposite or the man in the seat behind who insisted on singing to himself at various stages of the journey.

The place beside me was free so I hoisted Melinda and her carrier onto seat 16B where she became something of an instant celebrity with the air stewards.

Final hurdle

On the ground in Amsterdam I hurried through immigration without raising any questions about the former US resident I was clutching under my arm.

But by the time I got to customs I had a mountain of luggage teetering on my trolley and sweeping swiftly through the "nothing to declare" route did not seem an option.

I tentatively approached the most sympathetic looking Dutch customs officer and enquired whether I should take my cat through the red or green channel. The female officer closely inspected Melinda, then turned to me.

"Didn't you know that with this foot-and-mouth outbreak you cannot import these animals into Amsterdam?" she said.

The blood momentarily drained from my face, and I started feverishly searching for the piece of paper on which I had written the name of the Dutch government vet I had spoken to.

I looked up to see the customs officer smiling.

"Only joking" she said "Of course you and pussy are welcome to the Netherlands".

And with that Melinda and I made our way through the automatic slide door and out into the arrivals hall, still savouring the suitably cheesy Dutch sense of humour.

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02 Dec 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Life as a feline foster parent
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