Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide Rescue Flight Behind the Scenes – New York to Home

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

After months of planning it was such a relief to see our plane full of rescued dogs and cats touch down at JFK last week. Each animal had been rescued by a service member months earlier, before life was so drastically altered by COVID-19.

The animals had made the long journey from Iraq, with 6 hours of load-in time, and 13 hours of flight time. The plane arrived in NYC at just about 2 am. Our team members, partners and volunteers were there to greet the dogs as they bounded down the steps of the plane, and took their first steps on US soil. The cats remained safely in their carriers and each animal was given a health check-up and monitored during their short stay before continuing onto their forever homes across the country.

The next morning our call time was 4 am and I was was fortunate to get a short night’s sleep before joining Pilot Julian from Pet Rescue Pilots for a trip along the Eastern United States to deliver seven dogs and three cats to their homes. I had expected a noisy plane with anxious animals, but the pilots assured me the animals would simply sleep once we were at cruising altitude. Amazingly, they all travelled peacefully and slept, exactly as the pilots said they would.

Without Pet Rescue Pilots’ help, it would have taken us weeks to coordinate these reunions through ground transport and commercial airlines. They made over a dozen stops over the next few days, delivering more cats and dogs to their families that anxiously awaited them. Typically, this amazing organization transports animals from high-euthanasia areas to shelters that have more space in different parts of the country. So, while they are absolute experts at transporting pets, they had never made a trip quite like this before.

Our journey down the East Coast was a truly incredible experience. After about an hour of load in, we taxied out at 7 a.m. and by 11 p.m. we were back in New York after delivering nine animals to six different locations where service men and women along with their families excitedly reunited with their pets. There were so many smiles and tears of joy. It was a truly incredible day.

Fitting 10 animals, 2 pilots and one passenger on a Cessna aircraft is a big like playing a high stakes game of Tetris. Our biggest dog, Feral Bueller, was in such a large crate that we couldn’t get it on the Pet Rescue Flight plane. The experienced pilots took this in stride and allowed Feral Bueller to sit by my side, right behind them. He behaved amazingly well in the air, disembarked at each stop with us, and charmed each and every member of the ground crews at every airport.

You might remember Feral Bueller. We told you about this sweet boy who was found with a gunshot injury to his leg in early 2020. By March, he was recovered and ready to travel to the U.S., but the air space in Iraq closed just days before he was scheduled to leave. His journey home to his adopter was drawn out and complicated, but he was finally reunited with his Dad at our very last stop of the day in Alabama.

I had been involved with Feral Bueller’s rescue since we first heard about him being shot, so getting him home filled my heart with joy and closed a chapter on the incredible work of many people who helped him get there.

You may have also noticed that I mentioned starting the day with ten animals, but only delivering nine. We returned back to New York with Shakira the cat, whose owner was unable to meet us before we had to fly on to our next stop. On our return trip, we let Shakira roam the plane because she needed time out of her crate, and just as the rest of the animals had travelled so well, Shakira peacefully gazed out the window.

Once again, this successful day of happy reunions was made possible through our partnership with Pet Rescue Pilots and the many people who donated for these pets’ care while they were stuck overseas and their trips home.

Our team here at SPCA International will be keeping in touch with the soldiers and we are looking forward to sharing updates about these rescue pets with you soon.

Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide Rescue Flight Behind the Scenes – Iraq to New York

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

When life as we knew it began to grind to a halt in March, I was naive to how long this situation would last. I thought perhaps a few weeks or months of social distancing would slow COVID-19 enough for the world to resume a semblance of normalcy.

By May it became apparent that we would need to make changes to the way we accomplish our work here at SPCA International. With no commercial flights between Iraq and the U.S. and our kennels and foster homes in Iraq full of waiting dogs and cats, our team started to think outside the box. Our incredible Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide team came up with a solution – a special rescue flight just for the dogs and cats of U.S. service members.

We were a bit skeptical at first. I wondered if it could really work. We asked for quotes from numerous airlines, and in the end, only one company said they could do it. Our initial flight date was changed multiple times due to unforeseen red tape, but our team’s resolve never wavered. Days and nights were filled with international WhatsApp messages, phone calls to government agencies, charter companies, pilots and so on.

Our Iraq based team members graciously completed and submitted all the paperwork with the new flight date for each and every animal, even while navigating COVID-19 restrictions to care for and maintain the socialization of the animals in the program.

On the day of the flight, our team expected to drive a truck full of crated animals onto the tarmac and load them onto the airplane, but all was not as expected. The airport would not allow the truck onto the tarmac and only granted authorization for two people to load the animals.

The SPCA International team took this in stride. They planned to have most of the team members stay with the animals on the truck while the two authorized individuals moved animals to the airplane. However, they were presented with another challenge.

Due to airport restrictions, only two members of our team were allowed on the tarmac. Coupled with a steep set of stairs leading to a narrow passenger door this created a whole new set of challenges with the load in.

Because of the size of the cabin door, almost every dog had to be removed from their crate, and while the dog waited on a leash, the crate had to be disassembled outside the airplane then reassembled on the airplane before the dog could be reloaded. The two authorized team members did this over and over until every dog was loaded. The entire process took over six hours on a 110 degree tarmac.

Writing this, the thought of their dedication still brings tears to my eyes. They could have so very easily given up and decided the effort wasn’t worth it, but they persevered to get each and every animal on the airplane and on their way to the U.S.

The original landing time of the plane was 4 pm ET at JFK. After a lengthened load-in time, the arrival was pushed back to 2 am ET. Our entire dedicated New York team all made the choice to be there to greet the dogs and cats after their long journey. I am celebrating my 10th anniversary at SPCAI this year, and after 1,000 rescues, the sight of the plane taxiing up to the drop off point still gave me goosebumps and a familiar lump in my throat.

Thankfully, every animal made it to JFK safe and healthy. For more details about the final leg of their journeys, see my next blog entry – Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide Rescue Flight Behind the Scenes – New York to Home.

Animal Wellness Action Partnership: Kangaroos Are Not Shoes!

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

SPCA International works to build strong partnerships with organizations doing important animal welfare work around the globe. This model brings strength to our sector and increases our impact. I am thrilled to announce a new partnership with Animal Wellness Action on a new campaign Kangaroos Are Not Shoes! This vital advocacy effort calls for ending the use of kangaroo leather in shoe manufacturing. I invite all animal welfare advocates to sign the petition and join us as we raise our voices for the protection of kangaroos.

The following Q&A is a conversation I had with Wayne Pacelle, the founder of Animal Wellness Action, about our work in Australia and the new partnership between our organizations.

Wayne Pacelle: We’ve had so much alarming news in the last six months, and it seems that the cataclysmic fires that burned Australia during its summer are a fading memory.  The infernos had enormous effects across the continent, including on its animals.  One scientist said that more than a billion animals perished.  But the underlying causes of the fires are still there, and we may see more of these macro-ecological disasters, including in Australia again.  What do you say to animal advocates who don’t consider climate change an animal welfare issue?

Meredith Ayan: Climate change is undeniably a huge issue for wildlife. On both land and sea, it creates habitat loss, causes massive declines in animal populations, disturbs ecosystems, and increases the likelihood of disasters like this year’s catastrophic fires in Australia, which killed more than a billion animals. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is also a sobering example of the impacts of climate change. High ocean temperatures stemming from climate change have destroyed much of the reef, displacing its animal inhabitants. To seriously address animal welfare, we must also seriously address climate change.

Wayne Pacelle: When we respond to disasters as they are occurring, we cannot turn off climate change — we just don’t have those kinds of tools.  But it is not impossible to help the victims of climate change, and that’s exactly what SPCA International did.  Tell us a little bit about your response on the ground and your efforts to help orphaned kangaroos.

Meredith Ayan: We are firm believers in supporting and partnering with local animal organizations domestically and worldwide to increase our collective impact for animals. In Australia, through the generosity of our supporters, we deployed much-needed aid to the vulnerable wildlife of Western Australia through grants to several partner organizations, including Wildlife Care WA Inc., Friends of the Western Ground Parrot, and Bluebush Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation. These organizations are true experts in the areas in which they work and the animals that they serve and so, our goal was to provide them with funding to carry out and expand the important work they were already doing.

Our local partners on the ground reported that many kangaroos perished trying to escape from the fires while others survived but were left starving and dehydrated with burns on their feet and tails. Countless young animals, including kangaroo joeys, were orphaned. Our grant to Bluebush Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation specifically supported the organization’s care and treatment of orphaned and injured joeys. Every rescued joey must be specially rehabilitated and released back into the wild, which can take about 18 months per animal. With Bluebush’s monitoring coverage area spanning a million acres, Bluebush had dozens of rescued joeys in their care during the fires and found themselves at capacity. We’re thrilled that our grant allowed them to expand and accept more joeys by fencing a new two-acre area and by supporting the cost of two much-needed water tanks.

Through our grant to Wildlife Care Western Australia, we supported the purchase of two mobile water tanks and generators, and food supplies. This group covers hundreds of miles per week refilling wildlife food and water stations, for Australia’s iconic wildlife like kangaroos, on an all-volunteer basis. 

Wayne Pacelle: Now you are joining the Center for a Humane Economy and Animal Wellness Action in its “Kangaroos Are Not Shoes” campaign to get the major athletic shoe companies to stop sourcing kangaroo skins for their shoes.  What is that?

Meredith Ayan: The “Kangaroos Are Not Shoes” campaign is about raising awareness of a shocking but little-known animal welfare issue: the commercial killing of millions of wild kangaroos each year in their native habitats, largely for the sake of using their skin to craft soccer cleats. Nike and Adidas have been manufacturing “k-leather” soccer shoes for years, and Nike, specifically, has been caught illegally selling and delivering these shoes to California residents.

We at SPCA International and many other caring organizations and volunteers have worked hard to rescue and rehabilitate kangaroos – a fascinating and beloved Australian national icon – after this year’s devastating bushfires. It would be tragic for these animals to be released back into the wild simply to be swept up in a mass cull and made into soccer cleats and yet, at the moment, we know that this is a risk.

I think of Clover, a seven-month-old, orphaned joey, whom our partners found malnourished, dehydrated and burned. Seeing her recovery gave me hope amid overwhelming heartbreak as the fires took so many animal lives. We cannot allow joeys like Clover to be turned into shoes, and we’re glad to join advocates like the Center for a Humane Economy and Animal Wellness Action to speak out for kangaroos.

Wayne Pacelle: In getting to know you and the work of SPCA International, it’s clear that you have a collaborative philosophy when it comes to dealing with other groups.  That’s logical to me, but many other groups have a hyper-competitive attitude toward animals.  Why do you embrace other groups and join with them in so many efforts?

Meredith Ayan: Partnering with other organizations is fundamental to our approach. We see our work as complementary and believe that we can further our missions together, by sharing our learnings and resources with fellow animal advocates.SPCA International supports animal welfare efforts all over the world through financial grants that fund animal rescue programs, provide crucial veterinary supplies, and education initiatives. Our support builds the capacity and reach of grassroots organizations working to improve the lives of animals across the globe, to help as many animals as possible. We are dedicated to these partner organizations and to each and every donor that makes our work possible. This approach has dramatically increased the worldwide impact we’ve had for animals, including in Australia and other parts of the globe. There is certainly enough work to go around and by working together we are making each other stronger and better and, ultimately, saving more lives.

The City of Agadir: A model for animal welfare in Morocco

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

A new partnership with Le Coeur Sur La Patte in Morocco is saving lives and changing the way the city of Agadir approaches animal population control. The city was overwhelmed by the number of street dogs, and city authorities dedicated themselves to sheltering them.

Municipal resources were stretched thin to care for so many animals and many litters were born in the shelter. SPCA International is proud to be partnering with Le Coeur Sur La Patte and the municipal shelter to improve their facility to segregate male and female dogs, support a massive spay and neuter effort and provide a six month education campaign aimed at schools and community groups.

Le Coeur Sur La Patte will work closely with the municipal shelter to keep the number of animals appropriate for the existing facility and will work with authorities to identify adoptable dogs and those that need specialized care. These steps are just the beginning of implementing a sustainable model of animal population control.

The city of Agadir stands as an example in a region where stray dogs and cats are often killed. The city is taking a proactive approach along with Le Coeur Sur La Patte to ensure stray animals are sterilized and vaccinated. This will greatly reduce the number of unwanted litters and will improve the health and safety of existing animals. With the additional focus on community education, Agadir is sure to also see an improvement in stray animal treatment, more sterilizations of family pets and higher adoption rates.

SPCA International is absolutely thrilled to support Le Coeur Sur La Patte and the city of Agadir as they pave the way for other cities in Morocco to adopt humane animal care and population control practices.

New York Moves to Ban Animal Sales in Pet Stores

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

Here at SPCA International, we are thrilled that the New York State Senate has approved a bill to prohibit the sale of cats, dogs and rabbits in pet stores. The bill still needs to pass the Assembly and be approved by the Governor, but it is now well on its way. You can follow the bill on the state senate’s website and if you are a New York resident, it always helps to make your voice heard.

If approved, this legislation will ban the sale of dogs, cats and rabbits in pet stores with a goal of increasing adoption rates and reducing the demand for animals bred in puppy mills and similar situations. As someone who adopted a momma dog from a shelter after her pups all found homes, I am thrilled with the prospect of this change.

Pet stores will still be able to offer animals for adoption which will help match animals with families and greatly reduce the demand for animals bred in unsafe and unhealthy conditions. Because most pet stores earn the majority of their revenue from the sale of supplies, the legislation is expected to have minimal financial impact on pet stores. 

I am so heartened that my home state is taking this step to increase adoptions. My sincerest hope is that animals bred for pet store windows will become a thing of the past. We know that animals adopted through a thoughtful and purposeful process are more likely to stay in loving homes than animals bought without thorough consideration.

With this legislation, New York would join Maryland, California and hundreds of U.S. cities with similar legislation already in place. I am hopeful that more states and cities will follow and help further support a culture of animal adoption in the United States.

Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide The Incredible Impact of Saving Soldiers’ Pets

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

Here at SPCA International, our Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide program is constantly helping soldiers stationed around the globe rescue their pets when their overseas tours of duty end. This work can be extremely complicated, but our talented staff members always find a way to help soldiers and their battle buddies.

Although this work never grows old, it does become second nature to see successful missions carried out on a regular basis. This familiarity can mean that we start to take for granted just how difficult and unique each story is. Working with a well-oiled machine, you forget about the individual parts that come together to create the end result.

Recently, we asked some of the soldiers who have been helped by our program to share their experience in a short video. Their videos reminded me just how life-changing the Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide program is and how vital our work is not just for the animals it saves, but the humans we serve as well.

When soldiers contact us, they are typically doubtful about the possibility of rescuing their animal. Most have already researched many options and come up without any viable way of getting their dog or cat back to the U.S. on their own.  

The roadblocks are numerous; the military prohibits adopted pets on military planes, private pet transportation companies don’t serve the countries where many soldiers are stationed on active duty. These soldiers hit dead end after dead end until they find our program.

As I reflect on the Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide program, I feel honored to give back to U.S. service members who sacrifice so much for our safety, proud of our program staff at SPCA International, and immensely grateful to each and every person who supports this important program. By sharing these experiences, we hope to give people more insight into our program by hearing from the soldiers directly.

Right now, due to the worldwide coronavirus outbreak, our Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide program is grounded. We can’t transport pets because so many airports and borders are closed. So, dogs and cats in the program are being cared for at facilities and in foster homes in Iraq, the Philippines, Poland, Kenya, Jordan and Somalia. We are hearing rumors of airports and international travel opening soon. The moment it becomes possible, we’ll reunite these pets with their soldiers and celebrate their homecoming.

I hope these videos warm your heart as much as they warmed mine.

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COVID-19 Reflections

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

With our SPCA International headquarters located in New York City, we have felt the profound effects of COVID-19. Our staff members have done their part to slow the spread of the virus by working from home and only leaving for the most essential tasks. We have known neighbors, former classmates and friends who have fallen ill and even passed away. Our hearts and thoughts are with all those here in New York, across the country and around the globe who are healing, grieving, job searching and getting by any way they can.

I am immensely proud of the work our team, our supporters and our partners across the globe have continued to achieve, even during these difficult times. As we begin to transition toward a “new normal”, I am reflecting on some of the positive effects of this pandemic.

The global community has been forced to slow down, reconnect with family, and remember how to live without constantly running from one task to the next. We have strengthened communication strategies and business systems to accomplish our work even when we can’t be together.

In addition to the effects on people, our planet is also healing. Pollution and noise are down, and many animals are thriving and taking back their natural habitats. Animals are coming out of hiding in US national parks, and populations are increasing in unprecedented numbers. When we look back on COVID-19, I hope we remember the good that came out of this harrowing situation. I hope we remember to reduce our pollution, slow down our lives, and generously share our planet with animals.

At SPCA International, we are as busy now as we ever were. We have gotten our commute time back, quieted our lives and rededicated ourselves to new ways of problem-solving. We remain committed to our mission, advancing the safety and well-being of animals.

Hunting Regulation Rollbacks Target Wolf Pups and Bear Cubs

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

On May 20th, the National Park Service removed hunting and trapping prohibitions on Alaska national preserves.

I am deeply concerned about this change. The new guidelines remove protections implemented in 2015 and will allow hunting and trapping practices that are being opposed by conservationists and many hunters. The rule change allows for:

  • Using artificial light (such as spotlights) to hunt and trap black bears in their dens, including cubs and sows with cubs.
  • Using bait to hunt and trap brown and black bears.
  • Hunting and trapping wolves and coyotes (including pups) during the denning season.
  • Hunting swimming caribou and using motorboats to do so.
  • Using dogs to hunt black bears.

Personally, I don’t understand hunting for sport, and I am appalled at the idea of hunting bear cubs and wolf pups. Proponents of this rule change say it supports state hunting guidelines and gives tribal members the right to hunt traditionally. These statements may be true, but I believe the coming years will show many sport hunters taking advantage of this ruling.

Unfortunately, the new rules have already been implemented. Here at SPCA International, we’ll be keeping an eye on the situation and letting you know if there is any way to get involved in the future. In the meantime, you can find the ruling in the federal register here. https://www.regulations.gov/docket?D=NPS-2018-0005

Earth Day: Good for the Environment, Good for Animals

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

Here at SPCA International, we’re celebrating Earth Day this April 22nd, and we hope you are too. Granted, we aren’t throwing a big bash, but we’re taking a few minutes to recognize the importance of caring for the environment.

Keeping our planet healthy and sustainable is intrinsically linked to animal welfare. Conserving forests and grasslands keeps natural habitats intact. Removing plastics from oceans and rivers provides cleaner water for animals at all levels of the food chain. Reducing emissions keeps the air pure for all of us.

We remember that each day, every single person can take small steps to mitigate climate change and care for Planet Earth. Here are a few simple ideas to give the environment a symbolic hug:

  • Use reusable grocery bags and keep plastic bags out of landfills and waterways
  • Walk, bike or carpool to drive less and reduce air pollution
  • Recycle paper, metal, batteries and everything else that you can
  • Buy sustainable foods and products, more companies are sharing this information
  • Eat less meat to reduce the byproducts of meat processing
  • Use a reusable water bottle and coffee mug to reduce single use cups and bottles
  • Turn out the lights when you don’t need them to save energy
  • Turn off the water when you don’t need it, like when you’re brushing your teeth
  • Print less paper at home and work to save more trees

With all of us taking a few simple steps like these, we can make a huge collective impact on our planet.

New York Legislation to Ban Puppy Mill Sales

By Meredith Ayan, Executive Director

Animal shelters across the nation house thousands of dogs and cats in need of loving homes. That’s why I am heartened by the newly proposed New York State Senate Bill that would ban pet stores from selling dogs, cats and rabbits. Instead, pet stores would be encouraged to offer spaces to local shelters to showcase available rescue animals.

This is an exciting opportunity for the state of New York and other states that may enact similar legislation. Just imagine, instead of walking by a pet store window and seeing puppies and kittens for sale, we’ll see dogs and cats available for adoption. Coupled with strong federal regulations to combat puppy and kitty mills, legislation like this could change the way Americans acquire pets.

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal, D-Manhattan sponsored the bill and says, “by ensuring that pet stores can offer only rescues for adoption, this legislation will protect consumers, help to shut down the mills and end the puppy to-pet store pipeline,”

New York would join Maryland, California and hundreds of U.S. cities with similar legislation already in place. You can read the bill and follow it here:  https://www.nysenate.gov/legislation/bills/2019/s4234