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Charity helps foreign troops take Afghanistan pets home

Nowzad was founded by a former British marine. It helps departing soldiers recover their forbidden pets from bases and fly them to their new homes.

January 19, 2013|By David Zucchino, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — She was just an ordinary brown mutt, a stray, but Pvt. Conrad Lewis loved her.

Lewis, a British paratrooper in Afghanistan's Helmand province, adopted the dog and named her Pegasus. Everyone called her Peg.

In his letters home, Lewis described Peg as a member of his military family: "I have taught her to sit and give me her paw.... She patrols with us, she is not afraid of the Taliban or their bullets."

When Lewis was on Christmas leave in Britain in 2010, he told his father, Tony, that Peg was so important to him that he wanted to bring her home when he returned from his deployment. "That's your job, Dad," he said.

Two months later, in February 2011, Pvt. Lewis was dead at 22, shot by a sniper.

Tony Lewis and his wife, Sandi, were determined to honor their son's wish. A friend put them in touch with Pen Farthing, a former British Royal Marine whose charity, Nowzad, helps reunite adopted pets with soldiers and contractors after they leave Afghanistan.

The parents, the charity and Conrad's fellow paratroopers hatched a plan: Peg was slipped aboard a military helicopter, then disguised as a military working dog. Afghan army soldiers were paid to deliver her to Kabul.

The Nowzad kennels in the Afghan capital nursed her back to health. Six months later, in November 2011, Peg leaped into the arms of Tony and Sandi Lewis in Claverdon, Warwickshire.

"Having her here means so much to us," Tony Lewis said on Thanksgiving Day. "She is a link to Conrad's time in Afghanistan, a symbol of his sacrifice. She is something he loved, and we love her too.... She has his spirit."


Obia, a skinny white mongrel, was packed up and ready to travel from the Nowzad kennels.

A computer chip had been implanted in his neck to identify him. He'd been given a rabies shot and vaccinations. He was free of distemper, parvo virus, mange, ticks and worms. And, although Obia protested, his manhood had been surgically removed.

Obia was headed to the United States along with Stan, an excitable tabby cat. Obia will be reunited with an American soldier who had adopted him. Stan, freshly neutered, was headed back to an American security contractor who had transferred home.

"And here's Bruno — yes, hello, Bruno! You're going next!" Nowzad kennel manager Louise Hastie cooed to an eager, slobbering mastiff soon to be reunited with a soldier now in Italy.

Rescued dogs and cats yowled and meowed at Hastie, a former British soldier, in the noisy Nowzad compound on Kabul's dusty western shoulder.

Hastie hustled from cage to cage, tending to pets whose owners apparently can't bear to live without them. "Re-homing," she calls it.

More than 400 dogs, and a few cats, have been flown to new homes overseas by Nowzad. But first, most have to be recovered from military bases, where pets are technically against regulations. Then they are driven along insurgent-infested roads to the capital by an underground network of hired Afghan drivers.

The dogs don't travel in pet containers. That would give them away as pets of Westerners. They ride freely in the vehicle, the Afghan way, barking furiously until they're safely in Hastie's arms.

Nowzad's efforts "are almost like military operations: They require a lot of planning and precision," Hastie said as she stroked the ears of Ladybug, a lazy stray dog who wandered into her kitchen one day and never left.

Most pets go to the United States or Britain, but some have been flown to Australia, Germany, Canada, South Africa and Italy. Hastie negotiates the exhausting business of health certificates, blood tests, quarantines, customs clearances, manifests and pet flight containers.

In addition to Peg, the charity has delivered Lexie, a small white stray, to the family of another fallen soldier. Lexie was sent in June 2011 to the Michigan family of Marine Sgt. David Day, 26, who had contacted Nowzad for help in sending her to his home a month before he was killed in combat in April 2011.

More typical are dogs like Rio, the malnourished pup of a stray, adopted by U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Bob Cook in Afghanistan last year. Cook called Hastie just in time to save Rio from euthanasia at his base.

Hastie cared for Rio at Nowzad while Cook raised money from friends and strangers to send the dog to Cheektowaga, N.Y., where Rio joined Cook's wife, Kristin, in November 2011. Rio was waiting for Cook when he returned from deployment in March.

"She greeted me at the door; she's the love of my life," Cook said.

Rescuing a dog costs $3,500 to $4,000. A cat rescue costs about $2,500. On average, soldiers, contractors or families contribute $500 to $1,000 per rescue. Donations from animal lovers worldwide take care of the remainder.

"It's bloody expensive," Hastie said, citing flights, food, boarding, medical treatment, wages for Afghan staff members.

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