USA

Lawyer helps fellow Peace Corps volunteer save dog from being sent back overseas after COVID-19-forced separation

Audra Elam with her dog, Socrates, on her porch in western Africa before attending a local festival in 2019.

Audra Elam with her dog, Socrates, on her porch in western Africa before attending a local festival in 2019. (Ian Fingado)

A Peace Corps volunteer feared her beloved dog would be sent back overseas Friday because of issues with his paperwork.

Then, a former Peace Corps worker used his legal expertise to help stop the separation.

Audra Elam, the 27-year-old dog owner, originally from western Illinois, was teaching children in Togo in western Africa when she had to leave in mid-March because of the spread of coronavirus.

“He would follow her to school,” Andrew Orland, another Peace Corps member, said of the dog. “When she did English classes in the afternoon, he would come hang out with the kids.”

Elam left behind the terrier mix, Socrates, with the hope she could return to the village and extend her stay. But when it became clear she couldn’t go back, she arranged for her dog to receive a required rabies vaccination in Africa.

A company then flew the dog to the United States. Socrates arrived June 26, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention initially barred the dog from staying in the United States for his required quarantine, citing inaccuracies in his rabies documentation.

The CDC requires that anyone bringing a dog to the U.S. from countries at high risk for rabies — including most countries in Africa — provide proof the animal received its rabies vaccination.

Terrier mix Socrates and owner Audra Elam look at one another on a community soccer field in western Africa during a 2019 festival to honor ancestors.

Terrier mix Socrates and owner Audra Elam look at one another on a community soccer field in western Africa during a 2019 festival to honor ancestors. (Ian Fingado)

Elam said she provided proper rabies documentation, translated from French to English with all the requested information. The dog also received a rabies vaccination Tuesday at an animal care facility at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Elam appealed the CDC decision, but at first, it looked like the agency would stand firm.

It wasn’t until Washington, D.C., based attorney Reginald Brown got involved that the situation changed.

“Her tenacity just represents the best of the Peace Corps,” Brown, a former Peace Corps volunteer himself, said of Elam.

Someone following Elam’s story on social media alerted Brown to the situation, and the lawyer soon put together a seven-person team that volunteered to help. They located a federal statute that allows dogs more than 3 months old to be vaccinated in the U.S. after arrival and confined for 30 days after. According to the CDC, the vaccination requires 28 days to be fully effective.

“They weren’t even following their own rules and regulations,” Elam said of the CDC.

Brown said he contacted the Department of Health and Human Services, of which the CDC is part, for help resolving the matter. The CDC referred to Health and Human Services when asked for comment.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar’s official account tweeted a statement Thursday afternoon from his chief of staff, Brian Harrison, about Socrates.

After reviewing the case when Socrates’ plight was brought to Azar’s attention, the agency has “determined there is nothing within the law that requires Socrates to return to Ghana for the duration of his quarantine,” Harrison said in the statement.

“The Trump Administration has once again shown a dogged determination to pursue deregulation and unleash some common sense,” Harrison said in the statement. “Happy 4th, and welcome to America, Socrates!”

At first worried her dog would be sent to Ghana, Elam cried when Brown called her with the news. Socrates will stay on American ground for his quarantine and she can pick him up July 28 from JFK.

The dog was her rock overseas, Elam said. When her grandfather died in March 2019, she relied on Socrates for support.

“Socrates was my lifeline during those moments,” Elam said. “It’s really hard to express your emotions fully when you’re speaking in another language that’s not your native language.”

Elam, originally from Beardstown in western Illinois, drove 15 hours straight to the New York area last week to be closer to Socrates.

She’s staying with a friend about an hour outside New York City and gets calls regularly from the animal care facility where he’s staying, which she says is taking good care of him.

“They love him so much,” Elam said. “Every time I call, they’re like, ‘Oh, he’s such a cutie pie.‘”

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