07/29/2011 10:46 EDT | Updated 09/28/2011 05:12 EDT

Afghanistan Stray Dogs: Canadian Hopes To Find Homes For Neglected Animals

Jane Armstrong

KABUL — Alberta schoolteacher Spencer Sekyer fell in love with a mother of eight on Kabul's dusty streets. When it came time to leave Afghanistan, he couldn't leave the family behind.

Now Sekyer wants to find Canadian homes for the white-haired stray he met scrounging for food outside his Kabul guesthouse. Teacher and dog — later named Emma — formed an instant bond.

"It broke my heart," said Sekyer, 44, who was in Afghanistan last summer teaching street children.

"She is the sweetest soul I have ever met. I walked over to her with some food. She rolled over on her back like she wanted a tummy rub," he said in an interview from Addis Ababa, after a climb to Kilimanjaro in Tanzania earlier this month to raise awareness for the Afghanistan-based charity that later took in the strays.

"She just wanted some love."

Emma led him to a gutter, where her eight pups huddled.

Sekyer scooped up the puppies and took them to his school, then to a vet. Emma followed.

A year later, Emma and her young brood are safe and healthy in a rambling dog kennel on the outskirts of Kabul. But their future is still uncertain.

A British charity, devoted to reuniting soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq with their wartime dogs and cats, took them in. Two of Emma's pups have already found homes.

The animal charity, called Nowzad, spayed, neutered and vaccinated the dogs. All are fit to travel, but it will cost about $4,000 to ship each dog to homes outside Afghanistan.

Sekyer and his wife considered bringing the dogs to their home outside Edmonton, but they already own three dogs. He is willing, though, to foster the dogs until they find permanent homes.

Meanwhile, Nowzad volunteer Louise Hastie feeds and cares for the dogs at the Kabul shelter, where they're housed with dozens of other dogs and cats waiting for an airlift out of the country. The animals are well fed and get lots of attention, but Hackie said an Afghan kennel is no life for a dog.

"They're lovely," Hastie said, opening the cage door to the Kabul kennel. The white dogs leap on Hastie, their tales wagging in joy at the sight of a friendly face.

Life for Afghanistan's stray dogs and cats is harsh and short. They don't enjoy the pampered companion status they hold in Western countries. There are no official statistics, but Hastie estimated there are tens of thousands of stray dogs in the capital.

The scrawny animals are often seen in packs outside embassy and guesthouse compounds, feeding on garbage. Some are raised for brutal dogfights. Many are abandoned. In Kabul, it's not uncommon to see people — including children — swat and kick street dogs.

In Kabul, municipal authorities had taken to poisoning the animals with strychnine to reduce their numbers.

Nowzad, which set up an office outside Kabul last January, does the bureaucratic legwork of reuniting soldiers with the stray animals they befriended on tour.

"Soldiers find these dogs and kittens. It keeps them going while they're here," said Hastie, a former Royal Marine, who served in Iraq.

There, she took in a menagerie of cats and dogs. She said the animals helped her through a difficult assignment.

"It's a little bit of comfort for the time they're here. For a few minutes a day you can forget where you are."

When her tour ended, she brought home to Britain her cat, Simba al-Trikriti (named after the Iraq city of Tikrit). It was a costly, bureaucratic exercise. After that, she vowed to help other soldiers reunite with their wartime pets.

Sima-al-Trikriti arrived in England in 2006, but was hit by a car in 2009. "He had a good three years at home," said Hastie, now a fulltime volunteer with the Nowzad shelter in Kabul.

"Three years he wouldn't have had if I left him in Iraq."

Nowzad is named after the town in Helmand province, where British soldier Pen Farthing arrived in 2006 with his Royal Marines troop.

There, Farthing broke up a dog fight outside the military compound and befriended one of the fighter dogs and named her Nowzad.

Within months, he had taken in other Nowzad dogs and pups.

When his tour ended, Farthing arranged an elaborate scheme to transport all the animals to the West. He hired drivers and fixers. On the car trip out of Helmand, two dogs escaped and one puppy was stolen. Farthing penned a book about the saga called One Dog at a Time and founded the charity.

Today, Nowzad has expanded its mandate beyond reunification to animal protection advocacy. It is urging Afghanistan city officials to stop poisoning strays and introduce a spay and neuter program to control the feral dog and cat population.

Hastie said it will cost nearly $30,000 to transport the dogs to homes outside Afghanistan. Sekyar has donated $1,300. He hopes to see Emma and her litter on Canadian soil one day.

"She's been tortured and abused and yet she's still such a sweet dog," he said. "She's a survivor."

Jane Armstrong is a Toronto freelance writer who is in Kabul for the summer. She is the recipient of the 2011 Michener-Deacon fellowship.