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War-Zone Animals Win Hearts, Minds and Homes

U.S. troops, aid workers and journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan are opening their wallets and breaking some rules to rescue dogs and cats.

September 26, 2004|Julie M. Bowles | Times Staff Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan — He was an orphan and an amputee, an Afghan runaway with a badly infected wound surviving on his wits in the dusty alleys of this war-shattered capital. She was an independent American woman with a soft spot for the downtrodden.

She nursed him back to health. Their bond grew. One thing led to another -- shots, paperwork, airplane tickets. Finally, this summer, she brought him to a place he could have scarcely imagined: a farm in Vermont.

Though his voyage sounds unusual, Mr. Stumpy the three-legged cat is just one of dozens of homeless animals being rescued by Americans in strife-ridden countries halfway around the globe. In Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. troops, aid workers and journalists are going to great lengths, spending extraordinary sums -- and in some cases even putting their jobs in jeopardy -- to give stray cats and dogs new lives stateside.

"Afghans are often incredulous and sometimes disapproving of all the time and money I spend on nonworking animals," said Mr. Stumpy's patron, Pamela Constable, a journalist who forked out more than $700 for the journey and also shipped a dog, Dosty, home from Afghanistan this year. "My answer is always that there are hundreds of ... charities in Kabul to help people and especially children, but none for animals."

Whereas Constable braved frowns from some of her Afghan associates to rescue Mr. Stumpy and Dosty, Maj. Susan Washington risked her good standing in the Air Force to bring home Annie, a black-and-white mutt she became attached to while serving in Afghanistan.

Washington sent the dog to New Jersey in March, despite General Order No. 1, a military regulation that governs all U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Saudi Arabia. In addition to barring drinking alcohol, it prohibits giving "comfort or aid" to domestic animals.

But Annie was too special to ignore, Washington said, and once the two became companions, impossible to leave behind.

"She's adapted great to life in America and enjoyed the fireworks on the 4th of July immensely," Washington said of her dog. "She didn't get excited, but she was obviously watching them. My neighbors chalk it up to her Afghan upbringing."

Although enforcement of the no-pets part of General Order No. 1 seems to vary from unit to unit, a number of troops in Iraq have reported that their dogs and puppies have been confiscated and destroyed in "vector control" roundups, said Bonnie Buckley of Merrimac, Mass., who runs a group called Military Mascots.

Buckley's organization helps military personnel with a multitude of pet issues, including sending care packages to cats and dogs adopted by U.S. troops in Iraq, raising thousands of dollars to help ship animals to the States, and finding foster homes for pets whose owners are deployed.

No one keeps close track of the number of animals that have been shipped back to the U.S. from Iraq and Afghanistan, but Buckley said she knew of more than 40 soldiers' pets that had found new homes in America. All pets, including those sent by military personnel, must take commercial flights because the Pentagon doesn't allow nonofficial animals on its planes.

The process isn't easy. Getting dogs and cats home from Afghanistan and Iraq is complicated by the lack of veterinary facilities in the two countries, where keeping dogs and cats as pets is uncommon.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires dogs entering the country to have rabies vaccinations and certificates. Some animal lovers in Iraq have taken their pets to Kuwait or Jordan for inoculations before flying them home, and others have sought out animal doctors at the Baghdad Zoo. A few Americans in Afghanistan have gotten their pets shots from a center for mine-detection dogs in Kabul, and many more have crossed into neighboring Pakistan to visit vets there.

Westerners who go to such lengths to help dogs and cats often face questions from people who wonder whether caring for animals in places such as Afghanistan shows a callous indifference to the human suffering at almost every turn.

But freelance writer Vanni Cappelli, who brought his black-and-white cat, Queen Soraya, home to the U.S. from Kabul, said pets could alleviate the depression and despair that might set in when working in war-ravaged countries. Bonding with an animal, he said, can help reconnect people to "all the goodness and beauty of the universe."

Laura Salter, U.S. director of the World Society for the Protection of Animals, which fields many inquiries from soldiers in combat zones, said many military personnel felt the same way.

"So many of them tell us that tender moments with a scruffy little dog or cat are exactly what they need to lift their spirits while they are so far from home and under such great stress," she said. "Knowing that those animals would be lost without them, the soldiers are going to extraordinary lengths to save the lives of the dogs and cats who have brought them joy on their darkest days."

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