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North Vancouver volunteers help hundreds of Afghan animal evacuees

Close to 300 dogs and cats are in need of forever homes.

Inside a 17,000-square -foot helicopter hanger at the south terminal of Vancouver International Airport, there are close to 300 dogs and cats that have travelled more than 10,000 kilometres in search of a safe home.

There, amid the wet noses and wagging tails, are North Vancouver dog lovers Rick Crook and Mary Milton. The husband-and-wife team have been volunteering in the rescue effort of international proportions.

“We've got dogs to walk here, and things to clean up after dogs, and get organized for this that and the other,” said Crook, jack of all trades, for Thank DOG, I’m Out Rescue Society, one of a coalition of non-profits aiding evacuation. “I’m looking at one right now who is just happy to be walking on the grass.”

Kabul to Vancouver

In August, there was a mad rush for people to evacuate from Kabul before the Taliban seized control over the country. Not everyone made it. And people who’d planned on bringing their pets with them found themselves separated. As a result, hundreds of dogs and cats were released into the airport area and left to fend for themselves.

Kabul Small Animal Rescue spent months capturing the strays, attempting to get them identified and working with non-profits from around the world that could help track down their owners and get the lost pets out.

Overseen by SPCA International, volunteers sorted out the considerable logistics of airlifting a planeload of animals to other countries, all of which have different rules for documentation and quarantine for animals. It wasn’t a small task. They were originally planning to stop to refuel the plane in Siberia but tensions over a possible war between Russia and Ukraine meant they had to pick a new route. They then opted for stops in Turkey and Iceland, where animals could get a walk, kibble and water.

Before they arrived in Vancouver, it took about two months of work to put down new floors and build individual kennels, which was made possible by a discounted rental price from Modu-Loc fencing, Crook said. Each animal has required hours of planning and labour even before they arrived.

The plane landed with 154 dogs and 133 cats just before 6 p.m. on Feb. 1. Customs officials and a veterinarian were waiting to process each one and volunteers took them to their new temporary home.

“It went phenomenal,” Milton said.

Crook said he was in tears when they were bringing the last pup off the plane, a dog named Soldier.

“There’s the old adage ‘no man left behind.’ This was no dog left behind,” he said.

The group thinks they can reunite about one third of the animals with their owners – those who can be tracked down. One lucky U.S. Air Force member who lives in California was on hand to collect his kitty when the plane landed.

“He was overjoyed,” Crook said. “Overjoyed to get this cat back.”

An instant bond

A few of the animals have been a little “testy,” but overwhelmingly, they’ve been easy, if not grateful, Crook said. They haven’t had one biting incident or one escapee in the first week.

“It's amazing to me… Maybe it’s just my imagination. They just seem to have a calmness that is general, in spite of what they've been through,” he said. “You figure there's got to be some sort of trauma involved but they almost seem to understand that this was being done for them.”

Inside, there’s a mix of every breed, size and shape imaginable, everything from Pekinese to German shepherds. Ironically though, no Afghan hounds.

They’ve been putting in long hours but it has been rewarding, Milton said.

“There's a lovely little system here, where we have dog walking three times a day. We're trying for four times,” she said. “It's just fun.”

Crook said he gets questions from people flummoxed by the effort to save animals from Afghanistan, especially when Canada already has animals who deserve the forever homes. But his group, and others like them, work tirelessly on behalf of all dogs, Canadian and otherwise.

Since he retired from the Vancouver Police Department 10 years ago, Crook and Milton have been making trips to Baja, Mexico to find dogs in need of care.

“We don’t have borders,” he said. “We’re looking after them.”

What motivates him, and others like him, he suspects, is the innate ability for dogs and humans to understand one another.

“It’s just natural. I love ‘em,” he said. “The bond happens very quickly”

And, he added, he’s been heartened by the warm response they’ve received in emails and social media. One woman wrote to them saying “Thank you for creating the kind of world I want to live in.”

Is four enough?

Crook and Milton already have four dogs of their own, all of them rescues, obviously. Milton agreed for the two of them to join the Afghan rescue effort but it came with some very clear instructions for him:

“‘Do not fall in love with any of them,’” Crook said with laugh. “It was too late because I had already seen, oh, this beautiful German shepherd.”

For that one, Crook brought in doggy bed that belonged to one of his own dogs, who sadly passed away last year.

“He landed on a soft bed when he got here,” Crook said. “I've been watching him. But Mary's been watching me to say, ‘No more dogs.’”

In the coming weeks, pictures will start popping up on the SPCA website as the dogs and cats are eligible for adoption. Speaking Pashto isn’t necessary as many of the dogs seem to respond to basic commands and hand signals, Crook said.

Anyone who wants to help the effort, apart from taking a dog or cat or two into their home for the rest of their lives, can support through donations and volunteering, Crook said. North Shore Gifting provided a massive load of blankets and towels, which the animals have been grateful to snuggle up on, and they could certainly use more.

Mission accomplished

Crook doesn’t have any doubt their Afghan mission will be successful. Already, the number of dogs and cats in the kennel does down a bit each day. Thanks is owed, he said, to all of the groups around the globe that have made it possible: The SPCA, Thank DOG I’m Out, RainCoast Dog Rescue, Marley’s Mutts, No Dogs Left Behind, War Paws, Kabul Small Animal Rescue, and their team veterinarian J.J. Rawlinson.

“It's an overused phrase that ‘It takes a village’ and I mean, we're a damn city that’s been put together here to pull this off,” he said.