Importing Exotic Felines
Importing exotic felids is a complex process, but it can basically be broken down into four segments: 1) locating and purchasing the cat 2) obtaining permits 3) arranging transport and 4) clearing US inspections.
Dealing with suppliers outside the US can be risky business, as you have limited ability to verify the truthfulness of their statements or the existance or condition of the cats. Finding references can also be difficult. Payment is sent prior to the shipment of the feline and there is little recourse if the supplier never ships. Once you do locate a cat, then begins the exporting process.
First find out the requirements from the exporting country and if any state or local permits are required from that country in addition to the national permits. All cats are protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, an international treaty) and require an export CITES permit issued by the exporting country.
Once these permits have been applied for, the USA regulations must be checked. Some species of cats require a CITES import permit and/or an Endangered Species Act import permit, depending on their official classification.
State and local agencies must be contacted to see if they require any import permits. The time it takes to get some of these permits can vary from a day to a year or more. Another thing that may pop up is a transit permit required by any country that the cat might travel through in getting to the USA.
The most common mode of transport is commercial airlines, although some animals are driven from Canada or Mexico. All wild felid species coming into the USA must first land at a US Fish & Wildlife Service designated port. There are about 10 airports with this designation and all have full time USF&W inspectors on duty. There is another relatively short list of non-designated airports that USF&W may let you use by obtaining a special permit. You have to pay for the travel of a USF&W inspector to that port because these ports do not have full time inspectors. When someone drives a cat back from Canada or Mexico, a non-designated port must be used.
You must book a flight and many airlines will not carry live animals or have temporary embargos. Other airlines simply do not have good connections and take entirely too long to get the cat here.
The crate the cat is shipped in must meet IATA LAR requirements (International Air Traffic Association Live Animal Regulations). These international requirements regulate crate construction, ventilation, feeding and watering, labeling, etc. Some species require specially constructed crates that are metal lined and have specific strength requirements. Individual airlines may have their own requirements in addition to those set forth by IATA.
If your supplier doesn't meet the requirements, the airlines may not accept the shipment, or once it arrives in the US, and you may be fined by USF&W if your shipper does something wrong. Importation falls under the Lacey Act. USF&W enforces it and you are the one causing the shipment so you are responsible for what your shipper does. Fines can be as high as $20,000.
You also have to make sure that the shipper doesn't put any raw meat or hay in the crate. These are considered agricultural products and require permits from USDA even if they are being used for food and bedding. Depending on the country of origin, they may return the shipment back to the sender if there is something in the crate that requires a permit and there isn't one, or if it is banned from import from that country. Sometimes something as miniscule as if the wood the crate is made of contains bark on it will cause huge problems.
After the flight has been booked, you must pre-notify USF&W and submit copies of all permits and other documents that are required. They will arrange for an inspection time to inspect the cat, crate, and documents to see that everything is in order and then stamp it cleared if everything is ok.
Once all of these inspections are complete, you must get final clearance from US Customs service. Once Customs does this, the cat is free to go. If you live close enough to the arrival port to pick the cat up you are now headed home. If not, you must arrange a flight to your airport. This shouldn't be done before hand because you never know how long all of the inspections and clearances are going to take. You might need the services of a licensed holding facility to hold the cat overnight if a flight can't be booked the same day.