I live an unconventional lifestyle. It's not what you think. I'm not a polygamist or a nudist, not even a terrorist. To the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, however, I might as well be. A terrorist, that is. Although their stance on big love and bare butts is pretty unforgiving, too.
No, my particular modus vivendi, I recently discovered firsthand, is so odd, so shocking, that the hyper-vigilant organization had no recourse but to summarily ban me from their country. You see, I'm a pet-sitter. I know it's hard to believe; Homeland Security certainly didn't.
How did I get tangled up in a style of life so sordid it put the U.S. government on high alert? A year and a half ago, my husband and I sold our home in the Vancouver area, where we'd lived all our lives, and moved to the interior of British Columbia to run a small publishing business.
We arrived without a new home to go to; we had planned to sponge off relatives while we scouted for property. Before we had time to wear out our welcome, however, my sister-in-law told us her neighbours were on the hunt for a house-sitter to care for their home while they wintered in Mexico. Why didn't we do it? We'd have more time to get our bearings, suss out neighbourhoods and gauge the real estate market without having to make any rash decisions. Plus, all we'd have to do is pay the phone, cable and electric bills in exchange for living in a four-bed, four-bath home overlooking a golf course while keeping burglars at bay - win-win. We'll do it!
As it turns out, house-sitters - and pet-sitters in particular - are in high demand. One gig begot another. Then another, and another. We'd heard about a website where homeowners post ads looking for sitters, and sitters post their availability. So we signed up, and were soon caring for critters in British Columbia and Mexico.
Pet owners who jet off on holiday or business appreciate the peace of mind that comes with having their prized possessions cared for in the comfort and familiarity of their own homes rather than the cold confines of a kennel. Besides, it's cheaper. The pet-sitter does the job for free in exchange for a place to stay; quid pro quo, if you will.
By the time we drove up to the U.S. border in mid-April en route to Seattle to care for a Lab-Boxer mix with leash aggression and his trio of feline housemates, we had a stable of sits under our belt. We had calmed the nerves of a Thai Ridgeback scared of storms, coaxed a wild cat in for breakfast and convinced a kitten in Mexico that boa constrictors don't play nice. We were professional, we were capable, we exuded calm and assertive energy.
But standing at the border with our pet-sit story and our no-fixed-address passports in hand, we were about as welcome as mad cows. We were ordered inside the customs building, where we were detained, scrutinized and interrogated by several agents, each asking the same questions over and over in slightly altered ways, in hopes of tripping us up. Surely this cockamamie pet-sitting tale could be cracked under sustained pressure, they thought.
Meanwhile, somewhere in a dimly lit backroom, a squadron of special agents sat in cubicles, checking out our "story." They even called the Seattle pet owners (who were flying to Europe the very next day) to verify our alibi.
Now, we understand the need for heightened security measures after Sept. 11, and maybe even more so now that Osama bin Laden has been killed, but surely not even the most imaginative al-Qaeda operative could conjure something as preposterous as pet-sitting as a cover to bring down the world's only superpower?
No matter what we told these Jack Bauer wannabes - that we have travelled to the U.S. for business and pleasure hundreds of times; that we both have family living there - we couldn't convince them we weren't trying to sneak into their country under the guise of cuddling kittens. With all due respect to your great nation, you are indeed a lovely country, but Canada is lovelier. And yes, pet-sitting is real. I even showed one guard an ad for a book I'd written on the subject. He leaned in, squinted at it, then shook his head and walked away. Perhaps he was stunned at the lengths we'd go to cover our tracks?
In any event, they could find nothing on us. One agent even whispered to us that he believed us. That we did not have our own home in Canada, however, was just too much a risk for them to allow us in. In their eyes, we were rootless, shiftless ne'er-do-wells determined to sap the U.S. welfare system for our own gain.
So, three hours later, we were fingerprinted, photographed and escorted back to the Canadian border under armed guard. We were officially pronounced undesirable, unsavoury, persona non grata, until we could show proof of Canadian residency at a fixed address for at least six months. Thankfully, the Seattle pet owners had a backup plan.
I don't know what was more shocking to us: that we were viewed through the same blinders as a terrorist, or that having no permanent address for more than six consecutive months is grounds for banishment from the United States. Regardless, our gravy train had been derailed. At least in America. Mexico, release the hounds. We're coming for you. Arriba!
Robin Roberts is a B.C.-based writer whose book, Adventures in Pet-Sitting, is available from Amazon.com and Smashwords.com.