01/09/2012 12:44 EST

Afghanistan Stray Dogs Find A Temporary Home In Alberta

It was love at first sight when Spencer Sekyer stumbled upon a litter of stray puppies in a sewer ditch in Kabul. Eighteen months later, the 44-year-old Alberta schoolteacher has been reunited with the grown Afghans hounds on the Canadian prairies.

“I almost broke down,” Sekyer said after catching the first glimpse of the white Labrador cross dogs at an airport hangar at Calgary Airport on Friday night. “It was one of the happiest days of my life. I can’t begin to tell you what these dogs have endured.”

The dogs landed in Calgary after a grueling journey that began in Kabul Wednesday with stops in Dubai and Frankfurt.

Their arrival marked the end of Sekyer’s year-and-a-half long bid to find permanent refuge for the animals.

He was teaching street children in Kabul in the summer of 2010 when he stumbled upon the crying puppies and their mother outside his downtown guesthouse. The dog lover was instantly smitten. He scooped up the pups and took them to his school. The white-haired mother – later named Emma – followed.

A British-run dog shelter called Nowzad has cared for the dogs ever since. It spayed and vaccinated the puppies and found homes for two of the dogs. During an interview last summer at the Nowzad shelter on Kabul’s outskirts, volunteer Louise Hastie said the animals were healthy, but an Afghan kennel was no place for a dog.

A former Royal Marine, Hastie adopted a slew of stray animals during her tour of duty in Iraq. In Kabul, she played with and fed Seyker’s dogs, but their future was uncertain.

Kabul’s dusty streets are filled with stray dogs. Some are bred to fight. Others are poisoned with strychnine. They’re often seen in packs outside Western guesthouses, scrounging for scraps.

Sekyer knew he had to get the dogs out of Afghanistan. But the price tag was steep: about $4,000 to fly each dog to a Western country.

Last summer, Sekyer and his wife Christie raised about $5,000 climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. He put together a YouTube video, posted Facebook pleas, and sent dozens of emails to airlines, animal shelters and private corporations.

The publicity blitz paid off. An Air Canada employee saw the YouTube video and paved the way for the dogs – dubbed the Super 7 – to fly from Frankfurt to Calgary. In Kabul, Hastie arranged for the animals’ transport to Dubai and Frankfurt.

Now, Sekyer must find permanent homes for seven rambunctious, but untrained young dogs. Emma, Snowy, Buffy, Flossy, Suzie Q, Tara and Sadie will stay at Sekyer’s acreage outside Edmonton while he searches.

While many Canadians have responded to Sekyer’s efforts to bring the Afghan dogs to Canada, others have criticized the animal airlift, arguing that people – not pets – should be the top priority. Animal welfare activists have said there are already too many abandoned pets here in Canada.

Sekyer, who spends his summer vacations volunteering in developing countries, disagreed.

“You want to help all these kids. But you can’t show up at Kabul airport with a child.” You can, however, rescue a family of dogs, he said.

The volunteers in Kabul who cared for the dogs agreed. Marnie Gustavson, an American aid worker whose charity shares its Kabul property with Nowzad, said in an email:

“I think that living in a place like Afghanistan, when you are able to accomplish one thing to alleviate suffering, dogs or people – it somehow pushes us all toward a certain special peace and creates possibility.“

The dogs will stay with Sekyer and his wife until he finds permanent homes for them. They appeared to enjoy their first weekend in Canada, galloping across Sekyer’s snow-covered property.

He said he’ll be a tough screener. The last thing he wants is for any of the animals to wind up in a Canadian shelter.

“I’ve been fighting to get them a better life. I’ll make sure they get good homes.”

Jane Armstrong is a Toronto freelance writer. She spent last summer in Kabul.

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