Animal Planet’s “Dodo Heroes” highlights those who go to great lengths to save, protect, and rehabilitate animals — and this Saturday’s subject Pen Farthing takes that “heroes” part of the show title to a whole new level.
The man, who as a Royal Marine used to spend his days saving humans in war-torn Afghanistan, now spends them saving dogs (and cats, and donkeys, and now a horse) there. But Farthing is still saving soldiers in a way, as his mission through his charity Nowzad — named after his own pooch from the war zone — is to reunite American military personnel with their unofficially adopted local four (and sometimes three)-legged friends.
The lengths that Farthing and his organization go through to export these forgotten street dogs from Afghanistan to their specific soldier in the United States is remarkable — as is the cost. TheWrap spoke with Farthing about his very worthy, dangerous, and inspirational mission, which readers can catch a glimpse of above via our exclusive sneak peek. They can watch much more this Saturday night at 9/8c on Animal Planet.
Our conversation with Farthing took place over email, as he is in Afghanistan this week.
TheWrap: How did you smuggle Nowzad out of Afghanistan?
Pen Farthing: As the military have a clear “no feral animals” policy, I was left with no choice but to seek local Afghan assistance in transporting Nowzad across extremely dangerous terrain — almost certainly controlled by the Taliban — a journey of over 300 miles from our forward operating base in the town of Nowzad to the capital Kabul.
I had no idea whether the journey would be a success. I had to completely put my trust in an Afghan taxi driver I had only just met. For all I knew he could have driven down the road; kicked the dogs out and kept my money. But he was a true man of his word and delivered Nowzad to Kabul.
I could not bear to leave Nowzad behind when I returned to the U.K. but the success of it all was out of my hands. For whatever reason, everything came together — against the odds. Nowzad arrived in England on June 24, 2007.
Did people just kick their dogs into the streets when the Taliban took over?
PF: The Taliban banned people from touching dogs as they deemed them to be dirty animals — there was also a health issue as dogs can carry rabies (and most Afghan hospitals do not carry the rabies vaccine).
There has always been an issue of dogs on the street in Afghanistan — there has never been any formal animal control program and the dogs have just continued to breed. Nowzad now operates a humane “Trap-Neuter-Vaccinate-Return” (“TNVR”) program to control the stray dog and cat population preventing the spread of rabies.
Have you ever had to pull your pistol during this work?
PF: Now that I am a civilian working for the Nowzad charity I carry a pistol — mainly for protection against kidnap rather than being caught in a terrorist attack — I have thankfully never had to pull it. However, as a serving Royal Marine in Helmand back in 2006/2007 there were many occasions we were forced to engage with the Taliban. And the day I rescued Nowzad from the dogfight being organized by the local Afghan police then, the fact that our guns were bigger (and outnumbered) the police guns allowed me to break up the dogfight.
How much does it cost to get each dog to its new home in the States, on average?
PF: Sadly, it is not cheap. The airlines charge a premium to transport a dog. On average, each flight is around $5,000. Nowzad manages our clinic (which employs the first female Afghan nationals who are fully trained veterinarians), our animal shelter which houses over 150 dogs and 40 cats, the first donkey sanctuary in Afghanistan, and our educational and animal welfare programs — including TNVR — on a budget of less than $900,000 per year. All of it supported by our incredibly generous Nowzad supporters. We would love to expand but we just do not have the funds to do so.
What’s the process of tagging a dog for a soldier? In other words, if it’s a litter of puppies and three look the same, do you tag them if a soldier wants a specific one?
PF: How do we make sure the right dog goes to the right soldier from start to finish? That is actually quite easy to answer! All our dogs are microchipped — we ensure we have a photo of the puppy or dog from the soldier and then at the point of the first rabies vaccine the dog is microchipped as well as being neutered or spayed.
Farthing’s “Pen and the Dogs of War” episode of “Dodo Heroes” airs Saturday night at 9/8c on Animal Planet. Our readers can donate to Nowzad here.