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.