Audra Elam with her dog, Socrates,
on her porch in western Africa before
attending a local festival in 2019. (Ian Fingado)
A Beardstown woman reunited with her dog today after a fight with the federal government over pet importation rules at the CDC. 27 year old Audra Elam (Togo 2019-20) of Beardstown reunited with Socrates after a month-long quarantine at The ARK at JFK Airport in New York. Elam’s journey with Socrates stirred public concern about how the government handles the importation of pets and possible policy changes on the issue with the CDC.
The story of Elam and Socrates began in 2018 when Elam arrived in Togo, Africa, as a Peace Corps volunteer. A common practice in the Peace Corps program is that volunteers will inherit the house, furniture and even pets from previous volunteers in their host country. Such was the case when Elam began her duties on June 1st, 2018 in Togo. Socrates had been purchased by a Peace Corps volunteer in 2014. The dog then belonged to the next volunteer in 2016 and then was passed to Elam. Elam has told multiple news sources that her bond with the dog was immediate and she knew that she wanted to bring the dog back home to Beardstown when her time in the Peace Corps was finished.
In mid-March of this year, Peace Corps volunteers were directed to return to the United States immediately due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Elam had to leave the dog in the care of a family in Togo while she worked out ways to get the dog to the U.S. The family notified Elam a short time after she left that they no longer could care for the dog due to their own situation; so Elam paid to have Socrates flown out of the neighboring country of Ghana with Mayden Pet Air, a pet transport company.
On June 26th, Socrates’ entry into the U.S. was denied by U.S. Customs agents due to paperwork required by the CDC. The CDC claimed the paperwork was initially incomplete. The customs agents were going to deport the dog back to Ghana by the end of the week. Elam contacted 18th District Congressman Darin LaHood’s office for help, and they had the deportation halted until an investigation was completed into the issue. Upon initial investigation, Socrates’ paperwork was correct but the CDC had issues with the dog’s vaccination record.
The CDC had denied the dog’s entry to the U.S., stating he must be sent back to Ghana for another rabies vaccine, held for 28 days, and then shipped back, again, to the U.S. They maintained the decision even after being shown that his most current rabies vaccine had been given by a U.S. Veternarian and that he had been malnourished overseas.
The situation was then made aware to U.S. Secretary of Health & Human Services Alex Azar via a social media post made by Elam. Azar used to Twitter to re-tweet a statement by Health & Human Services Chief of Staff Brian Harrison that the dog would remain in the United States for the entirety of his quarantine. Lawyer Reginald Brown also became involved and discovered that the CDC rules and regulations allowed for the vaccination of an incoming animal and its subsequent quarantine in the United States. Azar intervened on Elam’s behalf, talking with the CDC director who reversed the deportation decision on Thursday, July 2nd. Socrates was allowed to spend his quarantine at JFK Airport’s animal care facility The Ark, where Elam told the Cass County Star Gazette that she received almost daily updates to the dog’s well-being.
Elam told the Star Gazette back in early July that she believes that the policy was discriminatory because Socrates came from an African country rather than a European country. Elam has returned to Beardstown with Socrates, and has begun work for the Cass County Health Department, according to the Star Gazette. Holly Gann, Director of Federal Affairs for the Animal Wellness Foundation and Animal Wellness Action said in a press release today that the foundation will currently work with policymakers at the CDC to create permanent policy changes so that future importation of pets will never face this situation.