People Are Risking Their Lives To Save Pets In Afghanistan

A lot has been written about the 15-year-long war in Afghanistan. But often overlooked within this narrative of colossal pain and suffering are the animals of the country - the dogs, cats, birds and even donkeys who have found themselves left out of development and aid efforts.

Wonder is one such dog, who not only survived the streets of Kabul while blind, but also raised a little pup of her own. She was found in a drainage ditch, huddled close to her little puppy, now named Serac, in need of urgent medical attention.

A kindly expat working in Kabul found her and brought her over to Nowzad, one of the first and few capable veterinarian clinics and shelters in Afghanistan. "When we found Wonder, she was severely blind due to glaucoma," Pen Farthing, founder of Nowzad, tells The Dodo. "We had to operate upon and remove her eyes to to save her life."

Today, Wonder is in much better health and Serac is training to become a service dog for survivors of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in Canada. For now, though, Serac is still figuring out how to use a water bowl.

Dogs aren't the only animals rescued by people stationed in the war-torn country. A kitten named Marble was found by a U.S. soldier who grew too fond of her during his deployment in Afghanistan to leave her behind.

"It may seem odd to some, to be sentimental over something as trivial as developing a fondness for a wild orphaned kitten, but that is exactly what has happened," according to the soldier, who asked to remain anonymous, on Nowzad's Facebook page. "The highlight of my day is spending time with Marble. I cannot imagine leaving Marble behind in Afghanistan when it is time for me to go home, as Marble has been my comfort."

In a country where resources and facilities are sparse, animal care is not often prioritized. Nowzad started its work in this vacuum. Farthing, who was stationed in Helmand province in Afghanistan, in 2006, close to the small town of Now Zad for which the shelter is named, met a young dog being used for dogfighting. "Animal welfare was not even on my mind," he says. "I was just concerned with that one dog, so I brought him back with me."

He named his new furry little Afghan buddy Nowzad (after the town), and, along with another dog, brought him back to England. "But that was also when I realized there were other animals in Afghanistan I could help," he adds. Nowzad lived a happy and full life with Farthing and his family for seven years before he passed on.

Founded in 2008, the Nowzad clinic and shelter houses over 120 dogs and about 40 cats (and four donkeys!) today. "Being the only animal shelter in Afghanistan, we do get an eclectic mix of animals here," Hannah Farthing, cofounder of Nowzad and Pen's wife, tells The Dodo. "But we have a dynamic staff of five extremely caring and experienced doctors and six animal caretakers, all Afghans, who look after the animals in the shelter and new cases that come in every day."

Sadly, a majority of the animals brought into the shelter are victims of abuse and assault. Dogfighting is culturally embedded into the Afghan society, and many canine rescues are victims of the practice. "But many times, the abuse is not intentional; it's because many locals don't know how to care for the animal," she says.

"Creating awareness among locals is the need of the hour and what we are focusing on," explains Hannah. While there aren't government agencies or departments in Afghanistan dedicated to animal care, the Kabul University does run a graduate course in veterinary science. "But due to a lack of facilities, these students don't receive any hands-on experience," says Hannah. Nowzad offers its facilities to the university students to gain practical experience in animal care. It also runs programs, in collaboration with local schools and orphanages, to educate young kids on animal care.

Educating more people about animal welfare could help save dogs like Sharif, who was found in the city of Mazar-i-Sharif, in the province of Balkh, with a rope tied tightly around her neck. The rope had cut through her skin and the wound had become severely infected. She was also suffering from mange. The local who found Sharif put the lovable creature into a cab and made the journey to Kabul to bring her to Nowzad's vets, who immediately addressed her wounds.

"We don't know who left her with the rope around her neck, but it was clear they had no experience or knowledge of raising a dog," says Hannah. "Once Sharif is healthy, we will begin search for a new and loving home for her."

Although Sharif is faring much better now at Nowzad than on the day she first arrived in Kabul, she is still in so much pain that she is unable to lift her head. But that doesn't stop her from approaching people for a friendly pet.

Nowzad attempts to help the animals it has rescued find loving homes in the U.S. and across Europe. Typically, the shelter processes about two adoptions a month, mostly to homes abroad, but adoptions are increasingly taking place among locals in Afghanistan, even though pet culture isn't as widespread. "We've placed around 850 dogs and cats from Afghanistan in loving families abroad," says Hannah. But it can be expensive. It costs around $4,000 to transport a dog to an adopted family in the U.S. or Europe, and about $2,500 for a cat.

To fund these rescues, Nowzad runs individual fundraising campaigns for each animal. Sometimes, the rescuers and families who adopt the animals help out, too, by donating personally. To learn more about how you can help, visit Nowzad's Facebook page and website.