When a solider goes to a war zone there is little respite. For the animals who live in that war zone, in a country where they are treated like vermin, there is little respite. But in the desert of Afghanistan, a profound and enduring rescue initiative has arisen out of an unlikely friendship between a Royal Marine and a dog he saved from the vicious reality of a dog fighting ring, a friendship that gave them both the solace they needed from daily mortar attacks. The Nowzad Dogs charity was founded by that Royal Marine, former troop sergeant Pen Farthing from Tiverton, and reunites strays with their soldier companions while operating crucial rabies vaccination and neutering programmes which are having an immeasurable impact on the lives of the Afghan people, writes Fran McElhone
Pen walks out into the garden and starts calling for Nowzad, who doesn’t appear at first. Then, after a minute or so, a burly, rough coated, heavy set, earless, tailless animal heaves its way up the stairs into the garden. He comes to the window and stares at me and I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the ugly, bow-legged creature before me. The desert coloured dog, who’s named after the town in Afghanistan’s infamous Helmand Province and who Pen rescued from a dog fighting ring, has, quite literally, been through the wars.
Another one, white, smaller this time, and excitable, has been staring at me through the patio doors the whole time. Pen lets her in and as I bend down to pat her, she sits between my knees clearly wanting a cuddle stretching up her nose to mine. I hold her for a few moments as images of her past fending for herself in the war zone flash through my mind. This one’s called Tali and she too has been rescued from the bombs by Pen, who, when he starts recalling the story of their rescue, which sparked what was to become an international effort reuniting war strays with their soldier companions, is completely self-effacing.
But if Francis of Assisi was a commando, I start to think Pen would have quite a lot on common. And even if Pen does insist on being modest about what has become his life’s calling, what the 42-year-old’s achieved this last six years, since founding the Nowzad Dogs charity in 2007, is astonishing.
But Pen’s initiative is far from solely being about saving strays – something you may find the cynics quietly mumbling about – through setting up a rescue centre in Kabul, the charity has been implementing crucial rabies vaccination and neutering programmes which are having a fundamental impact on the Afghan people.
And a few days before EX went to print, Nowzad linked up with another UK charity, Wetnose Animal Aid, to improve animal welfare awareness (of which there is none) among some of Kabul’s youngest generation. The Kick a Football not a Puppy or Kitten project saw a small team, including Wetnose ambassador actor Peter Egan, distribute 100 footballs to children at city orphanages to educate them that animals feel pain, and shouldn’t be used as footballs. Ricky Gervais part-funded the trip.
“Dogs are everywhere out there, there’s 100,000 in Kabul alone,” Pen explains. “There’s been no dog control since Soviet control. And there’s no welfare, people just ignore them – dogs can have rabies so people will throw stones at them and kick them to keep them away. There hasn’t been anyone willing to go in there and make a difference, it’s such a dangerous place.”
When Pen went to the desert in 2006, as the troop sergeant of 5 Troop, Kilo Company, 42 Commando, he was posted to the town of Now Zad, with the mission of providing stability to the Afghan civilians. The Marines were so far into Helmand, the soldiers were assigned an Afghan police contingent. Dog fighting is part of Afghan culture, and it was the police who started the fight in the Marines’ compound which they immediately broke up, and Nowzad, seeing his chance, escaped to a corner of their base where, despite Pen’s efforts trying to coax the young dog out with scraps, he hid for days.
“He was a very angry dog, still young and used to fighting. He had lots of scars round his head. All I wanted to do was get him out but I couldn’t just grab him. Eventually he began to associate me with food and gradually he came out and would walk with me. So after that we had a little bond,” continues Pen. “And for the time I was with him I’d forget about where I was for a few minutes.”
Then two others appeared, RPG and Jena, and another, under the fence one day, carrying a puppy which she dropped in the compound before disappearing. Repeating this pattern six times, the small white dog with the pointy face, returned and disappeared finally staying put once her whole litter was within its confines.
“Only the Taliban would sneak into compounds like this, except she was bringing us little puppy bombs instead. So we named her Tali, short for Taliban,” continues Pen who tells me when I enquire about their fate, that only one of her pups survived, the others succumbing to disease.
Then as Jena had a litter of eight, another injured dog, AK, joined too. All the dogs shared the marines’ handmade mortar shelter with them and the Marines fed them left over rations. The Marines’ company meant food and shelter. For Pen, looking after them provided some much needed respite and solace from the war surrounding him.
“Looking after them would give me five minutes of normality,” Pen explains. “You could sit with the dogs and pretend you’re not getting mortared or shot at. It was a few minutes of escapism. Some of the guys would write letters home, or play cards. I’d be with the dogs.”
For now, the dogs were safe. But Pen’s troop were due to move on and the animals, originally feral, had been virtually domesticated by the soldiers, meaning their new found trust in humans could have dire consequences among people who are brought up associating strays with the deadly disease.
Pen decided to follow-up on a lead he had about an American reporter, based 700 miles north in Kabul across Taliban “hell territory” who kept dogs in her back garden. The military had refused to assist but “anyone who’s owned a dog or a cat will know they become part of your family and your life”.
Eventually they found an Afghani taxi driver who agreed to get them there – a journey that involved two vehicle swaps – in Lashkar Gar and Kandahar – and numerous checks at Taliban road blocks.
“He could have let them out up the road and run off with the money,” continues Pen. “We had no way of knowing if we could trust him but we were clutching at straws. We thought if the dogs make it, it would be as likely as winning the Lottery.”
Two weeks later the Marines found out Nowzad, Tali, Jena and 13 of the 14 pups arrived safely, but sadly RPG and AK had escaped and one of the puppies was stolen. “We just started jumping up and down and running around like idiots,” Pen is smiling now but explains that this was just a temporary solution and this is when he decided he wanted to bring them home to England.
“It’s a paper trail more than anything,” he says. “But once you’ve got the money to pay for the vaccinations and transportation, they go on a normal cargo flight.”
During his downtime, in between cleaning his weapons and drills, Pen would be writing letters and becoming bogged down in what proved to be a “long and complicated” process which included contacting the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Pen was home long before they’d left Afghanistan and his dishevelled pets finally arrived three months later where they were quarantined for six months.
“Going up to London to get them was pretty special,” he tells me. “I wasn’t sure if Nowzad would recognise me but as soon as I walked in his stumpy little tail was wagging. And Tali went absolutely crazy.
“Afghanistan gets under your skin. I think that’s why a lot of guys have issues when they return. You can be on the front line and the next you’re in the supermarket – the guys come back and they’re out shopping and it’s like, hang on, I was fighting the Taliban a few days ago.”
Pen tells me about the surreal feeling of returning to Devon for his 10 days rest and recuperation (R&R).
“We were getting mortared by the Taliban and had a great big fire fight for two hours,” he says. “Once that finished our resupply helicopter came in and it was my turn to go on R&R. So it took me back to Bastion just in time to get on the Hercules transporter plane back to the UK. I got off in Brize Norton a few hours later and was standing in my combats having a pint in a bar, still covered in dust – and no one batted an eyelid. That was bizarre. It was a weird feeling.” I start to cringe at what I’ve just heard and tell him I wouldn’t have ignored a soldier in desert combats covered in dust doing anything but blending in. He laughs but doesn’t seem particularly reassured.
“In six months, we lost two guys and five were seriously injured. For me, it was a case of, I’ve been there, now I’m back, what else can I do to help. Nowzad was mortared and shot at as much as me. I didn’t want to leave him out there. Ultimately it was about doing something positive.”
Pen tells his story in One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Helmand, published in 2009. His book is available from Amazon and money from its sale goes back into the charity. But he says it’s mainly been through the soldiers’ stories making the headlines, rather than his own, which have generated the publicity which has in turn generated much-needed funds – it costs around £5,000 to bring an animal back from the war zone. Because it’s their stories which really help civvys understand the deeper effect of Pen’s work.
Pen tells me about Conrad, a soldier who looked after a dog called Peg. He was killed by the Taliban and a while later Pen received a letter from his father asking for his help in tracing the dog that his son loved so much, who he’d write about in all his letters home, and who gave him comfort from the war he was fighting. Pen tracked him down and got Peg home to Conrad’s father.
So far 550 dogs and cats have been re-homed with the soldiers that befriended them all over the world including the UK and Europe, America, Canada and South Africa. And the office in one of Pen’s spare rooms in his house in Exmouth, was soon outgrown. “The publicity that the soldiers’ stories generated helped raise the funds,” adds Pen. “And it exploded from there.”
But this is one strand in a multifaceted operation. The setting up of the rescue centre in Kabul, which provides the base in which to temporarily home the rescued animals, a central aspect. There are now two vets based at the centre who implement the charity’s vaccination and neutering schemes, which, contrary to the views of those who believe charities should only exist to help humans, are having an evident, though perhaps unquantifiable impact on the Afghan people.
“The biggest problem is rabies and the population isn’t controlled,” Pen affirms. “The dog population is controlled by putting poisoned meat out. But then the bodies lie there decomposing. And then other dogs come in and fill that space.”
Pen explains that within two years, a pair of dogs will be responsible for the production of a staggering 64,000 dogs. So, the neutering programme is having a vast impact in reducing the number of strays plaguing the streets of Kabul. Pen reaches for the salt and pepper pots to present a tangible diagram of Kabul City for me while explaining that dogs live in packs and are very territorial, controlling particular areas.
“If you take a pack of dogs from one area and neuter them and vaccinate them and then put them back, that area will be sorted,” he adds. “People are very disappointed that the government isn’t doing anything to control the dogs. A pack of them may own a street where kids are walking to school. So when people know they’ve been vaccinated they know that if they were to bite, they wouldn’t be at risk from Rabies.”
The day after I meet Pen, he was flying out to Kabul to visit the centre. He goes out every couple of months. “I love it – it’s a phenomenal place,” he says. “The scenery is breathtaking and the people are so friendly. I know it’s still a war zone but Kabul is a normal city.”
Pen’s efforts have not gone unnoticed by animal welfare charities. He was recognised in the prestigious Crufts competition, with Nowzad and Tali selected for the Friends for Life award in 2008. Pen won this year’s Wetnose Animal Aid, Hero Rescuer Award, Nowzad Dogs is the Animal Transport Association’s Charity of the Year, was a finalist in the CEVA Animal Welfare Awards in 2011 and 2012 and was IFAW International Animal Welfare person of the year in 2010.
And Nowzad Dogs has just won Just Giving Charity of the Year 2013, beating 9,000 other charities. And with that, Pen plonks two gongs down on the table. “It’s great to have the recognition,” he continues. “It goes to show how much support there is for what we’re doing.”
After hearing Pen’s story, and meeting his four war dogs (Patchdog is another rescue from Afghanistan and Maxchat is from Baghdad, Iraq), I find it hard to believe his story isn’t better known. It is one of deep compassion, stemming from an experience most of us will never have, and therefore can only ever try to understand the motivation for salvaging this bond between a man and his dog.
(Image by Matt Austin)