Left behind because of COVID-19, a tiny dog travels 10,000 miles to rejoin her owners

Author: Tamara Hardingham-Gill, CNN
Pipsqueak was left stranded in South Carolina after her family was forced to head home to Australia. (Zoe Eilbeck)

All the best dogs find their way home eventually. Sometimes, like Pipsqueak the wiener dog, they’ve got to embark on a journey of more than 10,000 miles to get there.

Little Pip was stranded in South Carolina at the height of the pandemic after her owners were forced to abandon their round-the-world sailing trip and fly home to Australia.

With borders closing quickly, Zoe and Guy Eilbeck, and their sons Cam and Max, had less than 48 hours to pack up everything from their 40-foot yacht after docking in Hilton Head Island.

Australia’s tough pet import rules meant their loyal dachshund Pip couldn’t come with them.

That’s OK, they thought. They’d be able to return in no time at all for a tail-wagging reunion before heading back out on the ocean.

So Zoe made a few last-minute phone calls to arrange for Pip to be looked after by a friend, and the family said goodbye for what they hoped would be just six short weeks.

But that’s not quite how it worked out.

Left behind

The Eilbecks first encountered Pip in 2018 in Messina, Sicily, when they were midway through their four-year sailing tip.

Pip quickly adapted to life onboard, enjoying deck time and hanging out with her family.

Zoe says she was always aware that arranging to take the dog back home would be a lengthy and drawn out purpose due to Australia’s very strict border regulations.

“I knew we’d have to import Pip and that she’d have to do 10 days quarantine,” Zoe tells CNN Travel.

When the time came, they planned to fly her from the South Pacific island of Vanuatu, a relatively short hop to Sydney.

Of course, this wasn’t to be. As coronavirus began to spread in early 2020, the Eilbecks decided to head for South Carolina to find a safe berth for their yacht — and for Pip.

On March 27, Zoe hired a rental car and took an eight-hour drive to North Carolina, where she handed the dog over to her friend Lynn Williams before the family caught a flight back to Sydney.

“Pip went from living on a sailboat to living on a bison farm,” laughs Zoe. “That’s something that really tickles me.”

Unfortunately, Williams already had two dogs on the farm and was not able to take in another for very long, so she advertised for someone to replace her as Pip’s guardian.

Ellen Steinberg, who lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina, was one of three people to answer the ad.

“The deal was that Pip would decide who she would go to live with,” Steinberg tells CNN Travel. “We [her and her dog Frankly] won the shootout, and Pip came a few days later.”

As the advertisement had gone into very little detail about why the Eilbecks had left Pip behind, Steinberg admits to having made some harsh judgments about their decision.

“I heard that a family who were living on a boat abandoned their dog and flew back to Australia and immediately formed impressions about who these people were,” adds Steinberg.

“But as soon as I talked to them, I realized they couldn’t be more caring. I just got the wrong impression from not having all the details.”

While Steinberg took care of Pip, Zoe was getting up at 4 a.m. every weekday to deal with the endless paperwork involved in importing a dog from the United States to Australia, while keeping up to date with Pip via video calls and messages.

“I was always taking photos all the time and posting them on social media,” she says. “Pip started to develop her own fan base.”

It soon became clear it wouldn’t be possible for the Eilbecks to return to the United States because of COVID-19 travel restrictions. Pip would have to make the long journey to Australia alone.

Lengthy import process

The red tape was made more complicated due to the pandemic-related disruption.

“To export a dog from America, you need to get a US declaration to say the dog is in good health and has had particular blood tests to do with rabies,” Zoe explains.

“This was being done in New York, which was now closed. So trying to get anything like that done was extremely difficult.”

Steinberg was also having to constantly take Pip to her local veterinarian for paperwork, vaccinations and blood tests in order for her to meet the requirements.

Once they finally received an import permit for Australia, Qantas, the flag carrier of Australia, announced it was no longer flying dogs to the country.

After many phone calls, Zoe discovered that the family could import Pip if they went through New Zealand and managed to get their little dog on a flight from Los Angeles to Auckland by booking via pet transport company Jetpets.

By this point, Steinberg, who’d looked after Pip for three months, had to make a trip to visit her family and had passed the dog onto her friend Stacey Green.

“When Stacey got Pip, she actually fell in love with her, to the point where I didn’t think I was going to get her back,” jokes Zoe.

But they still had to get Pip from North Carolina to Los Angeles. And while flights were operating, they were constantly being canceled.

Flying cargo was also now an issue. Many US carriers don’t allow pets to be shipped from May to September, the hottest months for animals to travel in the Northern Hemisphere.

Zoe decided to post a message on social media searching for anyone who was traveling from the east to west coast.

This is when Melissa Young, who works for dog rescue foundation The Sparky Foundation, stepped in and volunteered to fly across America with Pip.

After making sure Pip felt comfortable with her, Young flew from Greensboro to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then from Charlotte to Los Angeles with the dachshund under her seat.

Pip was then handed over to Jetpets, who had her for the night to deal with all of the declarations and paperwork, before putting her on a flight from Los Angeles to Auckland.

Once she was on board, all of her temporary carers, along with the Eilbecks, were on the edge of their seats, tracking her flight as it made its way across the ocean.

“All over the world, we’re watching this flight inch across the screen,” says Zoe.

Pip arrived in Auckland on July 23 and went into quarantine overnight before flying to Melbourne, where she spent a further 10 days in quarantine, as is mandatory for every pet that comes into Australia from overseas.

She was scheduled to fly to Sydney on August 3, but the state of Victoria imposed a strict lockdown once Pip arrived and the borders between Victoria and New South Wales were closed.

Zoe’s brother Rob, who lives in Melbourne, agreed to take Pip in for a few days, and the dog was booked on no less than four flights to Sydney, but all were canceled.

By now the story had been picked up by local media and after a report in the Sydney Morning Herald, Virgin Australia stepped in and agreed to fly Pip home.

New beginnings

When Pip finally arrived at Sydney Airport on August 11, five months after they’d last seen her, the Eilbecks were there to greet her, along with a film crew and several local reporters.

It was an emotional reunion.

“Our greatest fear was that she wouldn’t remember us after all that time,” says Zoe.

“My kids were so worried that they got a hotdog and rubbed it on their hands. And then this tiny dog walks out through the hangar, strutting along…”

“When she heard our voices, she came barreling into our arms. It was absolutely amazing to have her back after all that time.”

After so long apart, the Eilbecks are thrilled to have their “crew” back together.

“I’m conscious that she’s a dog, but we think of ourselves as a bit of a crew,” says Zoe.

“Living on a boat you really have to work together. And even though she just lazed about and didn’t really do anything, we still consider her a member of our crew.”

The family has since moved to Scotland Island, an island and suburb on the Northern Beaches of Sydney, in order to continue their “water lifestyle” and their sons are back in school.

They travel back and forth to the mainland on an aluminum fishing boat, known as a “tinny.”

“Pip is embracing that because she’s a boat dog at heart,” adds Zoe.

“She’s gone straight back to what she loves best, which is lying on our deck and contributing licks and joy.”

Selling up

If they’d been able to continue on their journey, Zoe believes they’d currently be in French Polynesia, or on their way to Fiji.

However, their yacht, called No Plans Just Options, remains docked in the same place they left it back in March.

The family has accepted that they will not be able to sail it back to Australia, which remains closed to travelers, anytime soon.

They recently made the difficult decision to put the yacht on the market and are now focused on making the most of their new life in Scotland Island.

“This is our next adventure,” says Zoe, stressing that travel restrictions and mandatory quarantines have made international sailing “slow and tricky.”

“We’ll go sailing again in a few years’ time,” she adds.

The Eilbecks have kept in touch with all of Pip’s carers, who continue to follow her adventures via the family’s Instagram account.

“I feel like we’ve made lifelong friends,” says Steinberg, revealing that people often comment “we miss Pip” on her social media posts.

“It’s been a really lovely story to be a part of. Especially during a pretty horrific time in the world for most people.”

Pipsqueak’s journey home

March 27: The Eilbeck family dock their boat at Hilton Head Island, South Carolina. Zoe Eilbeck drives to North Carolina, where she hands Pip over to her friend Lynn Williams.

April 4: Pip moves into Ellen Steinberg’s home in Hillsborough, North Carolina.

July 19: With pet rescuer Melissa Young as her companion, Pip flies to Charlotte, North Carolina, and then on to Los Angeles.

July 21: After a night in a hotel suite, Pip takes a 13-hour flight in cargo from Los Angeles to Auckland, New Zealand.

July 24: Pip flies from Auckland to Melbourne, Australia, where she goes into mandatory quarantine for 10 days.

August 11: Pip flies from Melbourne to Sydney, and is finally reunited with the Eilbecks.

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