Crucial animal welfare projects under threat in Afghanistan

Animals Afghanistan
6 min read
23 July, 2021

Tahera Rezaei, 31, is the vice president of Kabul Small Animal Rescue which works in partnership with US charity Puppy Rescue Mission. The organisation had started with a big focus on working with foreign soldiers and military contractors who adopt animals on their bases, but this has shifted now almost all foreign troops have departed from Afghanistan. The facility rescues dogs and cats from all over the country, provides veterinary services, runs neutering and rabies vaccination programmes and rehomes animals overseas. 

Lately, the organisation has had an influx of animals whose owners have left the country and need to be sent onto them when their paperwork is ready – particularly cats from the US embassy, says Rezaei. 

An inquisitive puppy waddles around the clinic floor as she talks, sniffing at other staff members’ shoes. 

Animal project Kabul
Puppies are tended to by a staff member at the Nowzad animal shelter in Kabul [Charlie Faulkner]

The Taliban has been emboldened since US President Joe Biden announced an unconditional withdrawal of American troops by September – though the majority have already left the country. The insurgents swept across the country in recent weeks, capturing hundreds of districts, surrounding provincial capitals and taking control of key border crossings. 

Temporary ceasefires have been called by the Taliban during previous Eid holidays, however, no such respite from the conflict has been announced this week. 

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“We moved two dogs recently who were stuck in Mazar-i-Sharif in an area surrounded by the Taliban,” says Rezaei, demonstrating the lengths the staff will go to to help animals. The two dogs in question greet Rezaei enthusiastically at the fence of their pen.

But this is not always possible as access becomes increasingly limited across Afghanistan – the organisation is aware of a further pair of dogs who are currently stuck in Herat. 

“We just can’t go there, it’s not safe,” she says.

For Rezaei, it’s also a personal battle. Born in Iran after her parents fled the war, the sight of injured animals on the streets fuelled her passion to become a veterinarian

The temporary ban on dogs entering the US from countries considered high rabies risk which began this month has only added further pressure to the organisation. 

“Our goal is to rehome the animals we rescue. We moved 74 dogs to the US in one week [ahead of the ban]. Since November we’ve relocated 300,” says Rezaei.

Animal welfare Kabul
Veterinarian Tahera Rezaei, 31, is the vice president of Kabul Small Animal Rescue. She says she would die if she could no longer work [Charlie Faulkner]

Another concern is if commercial flights are stopped as a result of increasing violence. It would be impossible to rehome rescued animals or reunite pets with their relocated owners if that were to happen. 

For Rezaei, it’s also a personal battle. Born in Iran after her parents fled the war, the sight of injured animals on the streets fuelled her passion to become a veterinarian. The family moved back to Kabul in 2004 and she went on to study her field at university. 

“I was the first female vet to open a clinic and I’m worried I’ll become a target. It is also a vocation that is seen as being a man’s – I’ve fought hard to get to this point and I’m not willing to give it up. That is my biggest fear if the Taliban regain power here,” she says. 

“I will die if this clinic closes. I love my job.”

Battered by the impact of the Covid pandemic in the form of reduced funding, hindered relocations and increasing costs of medical supplies and equipment, some organisations are concerned that the instability caused by the spiralling conflict will result in financial support diminishing further. 

"I was the first female vet to open a clinic and I’m worried I’ll become a target"

Abdul Jalil Mohammadzai is the country director of UK-based charity Mayhew International – which has been working in Kabul since the early 2000s but was officially registered as an NGO in Afghanistan in 2016. The organisation has vaccinated 70,000 dogs against rabies and neutered almost 17,000.

“Our big concern is that the programme is designed for five years and we are only in the second year, and we’re worried we won’t find the funding we need for the remainder of the programme,” says Dr Mohammadzai. 

“We are working with the Kabul authorities so that after five years we can hand over the responsibility at the end of the programme. We have 29 Afghans working for the project and 38 municipality staff who are working with us because one of the strategies is to build the capacity of authorities so they can manage it in the long term. If we have to end it before then, it will be a waste of our time and effort.”

If programmes like this do end prematurely, it could also put the population at risk again.

“Rabies kills 60,000 people around the world and the majority of cases are in Asia and Africa. Afghanistan is one of those countries where rabies exists and every year takes human lives,” says Dr Mohammadzai.

The World Health Organisation describes Afghanistan’s rabies problem as “endemic”.

“As a vet and human charity, we try to stop one disease in the country. We cannot stop the war, but we can help save humans and animals this way,” says Dr Mohammadzai.

In the west of Kabul, animal charity Nowzad not only helps cats and dogs, but it also has a rescued bull, goat and a handful of donkeys in its midst. Founder of the charity and former marine who served in Afghanistan, Pen Farthing, says the strong support the organisation receives has meant it has recently been able to expand the quarantine and isolation facilities at their headquarters.

Yet, that doesn’t mean he is not concerned about the future of the organisation. 

“We have 140 dogs housed here and many are waiting to be rehomed,” he says as he walks through a second facility on the outskirts of Kabul. “Being a foreigner, I’m worried what that might mean if the Taliban regain power.”

Pen accepts he may have to leave the country, but, just like the other organisations, Nowzad offers something beyond animal welfare – it provides a space for Afghan vets to carve out a career doing something they love.  

He is also concerned that if the Taliban do gain power, it could mean any projects helping dogs may have to stop operations due to strict interpretations of Islam depicting dogs as being forbidden. 

For now, these organisations say they have no choice but to continue their work and remain hopeful.

Charlie Faulkner is a freelance journalist based in Afghanistan. She has previously lived and reported from Turkey and Jordan. Her work focuses on migration, economics, conflict, human rights, gender issues and culture.

Follow her on Twitter: @Charlie_Faulk