By Emma Koeniger, Content and Digital Media Coordinator
As you are reading this our executive director, Meredith Ayan, and program manager, Lori Kalef, along with eight volunteers are en route to Beirut, Lebanon. Awaiting their arrival are 25 dogs ready to finish their long journey to their forever homes in the United States.
These 25 dogs have not had an easy time in the Middle East. Born strays with little chance of survival, they were miraculously rescued by U.S. service members deployed in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. One puppy’s mom was killed by an IED, another litter’s mom was found dead and so the soldier moved the group to their living quarters, and another was found in a building recently abandoned by ISIS and others were simply found starving and about to die. Their beginnings gave no indication of the loving families that are awaiting them today all over the United States. And their journey home has been challenged by political unrest, closed airports, dangerous ground transports, fifteen checkpoints on the road from Erbil to an airport 10 hours away, and suicide bombings.
Normally, when SPCAI rescues dogs and cats from Iraq, Syria and surrounding countries through our Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide program they stay at a secure kennel facility in Erbil and they fly out of the Erbil International Airport nearby. In Erbil we also have trusted veterinarian, kennel staff, and our Iraq representative - all of them help us care for the animals and prepare them for entry into the U.S.. It is a perfect system, but due to the independence vote in Iraq, in September 2017, all international flights at the Erbil airport were grounded (for months), the borders to adjacent countries were shut and the roads surrounding the kennels became unsafe.
Suddenly, we were forced to rethink our entire rescue strategy. With more U.S. troops deploying to Iraq and Syria we knew that closing the program wasn’t an option, these animals needed our help and the thought of letting down their heroic U.S. service members was not an option. The only way out was to somehow get all of the dogs to the an airport, 10 hours away. where they could fly to our partners in Lebanon. But, getting to the airport was also full of obstacles.
Before attempting to transport the animals to the airport we faced another huge problem. After claiming Kirkuk the Iraqi army was making it’s way to Erbil. The road they were traveling down would take them right past our kennels, putting all of the dogs in immediate danger. In the middle of the night, dedicated kennel workers transported all of our rescues to a new, safe and secure facility. With the dogs out of harm’s way, our team set about tackling the next big obstacle – the dangerous road to the airport.
Getting the dogs to the airport is much easier said than done. It involves paperwork for each individual dog and getting through sixteen checkpoints, four of which are very volatile. We were able to secure the paperwork for each of the dogs and a driver. However, the night before they were set to leave we learned that the paperwork we had could result in the death of all of the dogs. On all of the paperwork the dogs were listed as being adopted by U.S. soldiers. We were told that if any of the people commanding the checkpoints along the road to the airport found out that these dogs belonged to U.S. soldiers the dogs would likely be killed on the spot. Our fearless Iraqi team lead by our Iraqi representative sprang into action to acquire new paperwork so that the dogs would be safe.
At 2:30 AM on January 13, 2018 all of the dogs were settled down in airline kennels and left for the airport in a box truck. The driver took incredible care of the dogs, stopping every few hours to give them all water and food. They made it safely through all sixteen checkpoints and arrived at the airport safely. (Whew!)
On January 13th in the evening, the first five dogs boarded a plane to Lebanon! Due to airline restrictions, our staff and our trusted Iraqi veterinarian worked in shifts to personally accompany the dogs on multiple flights to Lebanon, five dogs at a time until all had been delivered to our partners in Lebanon.
Stay Tuned! We will be posting updates as these patriot pups embark on the final leg of their journey – from Lebanon to New York. Make sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter so you don’t miss a moment!