BOOKS: One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Afghanistan

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  June 2012:

One Dog at a Time:  Saving the Strays of Afghanistan  by Pen FarthingThomas Dunne Books (175 Fifth Ave.,  New York,  NY 10010),  2012. 308 pages,  paperback.  $14.99.

British Army sergeant Pen Farthing,  now retired,  first deployed to Afghanistan in 2006. He had no idea what awaited him, beyond fighting the Taliban.  He found the living conditions in Afghanistan shocking:  “There was no electricity and sanitation was non-existent.”

Apart from the heat,  Farthing decided on first impression that the worst aspect of Afghanistan was the dust.  This was notorious even in 1897,  when the dust on Dr. Watson’s clothing caused Sherlock Holmes to observe,  as his first words in Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes story,  “You have been in Afghanistan,  I perceive.”

Farthing soon perceived the stray dogs of Now Zad,  the town where he was stationed.  They were “hard to miss,”  he writes, “especially during the dark hours as they roamed the town and perimeter of the compound.  There were dozens of them,  all types of breed of dog.  All had one thing in common:  they all looked bedraggled and unfed.”

Soon afterward Farthing saw Afghan soldiers among a crowd cheering on dogs as they tore each other apart.  The Taliban suppressed all forms of animal fighting,  which was forbidden by Mohammed.  Since the end of Taliban rule,  however,  animal fighting may be more popular in Afghanistan than ever.  Cockfighting and songbird fighting are again common;  transporting birds for fighting has contributed to the spread of the H5N1 avian flu.

Traditional non-lethal Central Asian dogfighting,  in which herding dogs rush at each other until one dog knocks the other one down,  has largely been supplanted by western-style fights to the death between “bully kuttas,”  the regional pit bull variant.  Bred in Pakistan for more than 200 years for use in dogfighting and bear-baiting,  bully kuttas are at least partially descended from fighting dogs imported by British troops.

But Farthing knew nothing of that.  “I wasn’t going to stand by and watch the dogs fight. No matter what someone else’s culture allowed,”  he recalls.  Though pushed,  shoved,  and threatened, Farthing broke up the fight,  and saw the dogs run away. Eventually the British compound became home to 14 dogs.  The first arrival was named Nowzad.  Tali was named after the Taliban. Jena gave birth to puppies.  Farthing and other soldiers build a special area for the dogs,  including a fighting dog they bought from a local Afghan.  For the first time the dogs ate regularly,  slept on discarded bedding,  and were treated with kindness.

Unable to leave the dogs behind when his tour of duty ended, Farthing enlisted his wife Lisa to help rescue them.  Lisa eventually located a shelter in northern Afghanistan,  more than 700 miles from their base.  With time,  effort,  and lots of luck they found a local to drive the dogs to a mid-point where volunteers from the shelter picked them up for transport to their shelter.  Two of the dogs later flew to England with Farthing.

Farthing since his retirement has devoted his life to the street dogs of Afghanistan,  heading a charity called Nowzad dogs.
–Debra J. White

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