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A Four Legged Miracle: How SPCA International Rescued 47 Military Pets From Iraq During Covid-19

Traveling during Covid-19 is tough. Traveling during Covid-19 with pets? Nearly impossible. 

A perfect storm of factors – closed borders, diminished frequency of international flights, higher cost of airline cargo – came together during the coronavirus epidemic stranding four legged companions all over the world. 

Some international high fliers have been able to re-unite with their pets, like this group of Americans and Canadian expats who chartered a private jet for their pets in China. But for many folks living abroad, pets were stranded internationally for months.

Luckily, for the tens of service members stationed in Erbil, Iraq who were separated from their furry companions in March, the Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) International is used to working in tough situations.

The international nonprofit runs Operation Baghdad Pups: WorldWide, a program designed to reunite US servicemen and women with animals they befriended during deployment. Over the past 12 years, they’ve successful brought over 1,000 animals to the United States.

For the servicemen and women who were stationed in the Middle East in March, the prospect of reuniting with their pets seemed extremely bleak. And once all cargo flights – the easiest way to ship animals during Covid-19 – were cancelled from Iraq, Executive Director Meredith Ayan knew that the international animal non-profit would be facing their most challenging situation to-date.

Flying 40 Dogs… Private

As part of their Operation Baghdad Pups project, SPCA was taking care of 47 dogs and cats in Erbil in March 2020, ahead of their planned transport back to the US where they would re-unite with their military owners.

But then Covid-19 hit. By mid-March, all Iraqi airports were closed and all cargo flights were cancelled.

“At the time the whole world thought it would maybe be a couple weeks or a month before normal travel resumed,” remembers Ayan. As the Executive Director of SPCA International, Ayan boasts years of experience in international animal transport and thought she’d seen it all – including a donkey transport – until the pandemic hit.

Explaining that the animals are not owned or officially sanctioned by the military, Ayan said that SPCA International continued to house the pets while they waited for transport options out of Iraq. Most of their owners were already back in the US or on a new deployment.

“We made a conscious decision to not shut down our program even though that would’ve been easier,” said Ayan. “It is a matter of life or death for [the animals]. ”

Iraqi airspace re-opened in August. But there still were no cargo shipping options out of Erbil. Typically, SPCA International would ask for volunteers to fly with pups, but in the age of Covid-19, that was nearly impossible. Even if they could find a volunteer, the group faced huge restrictions on routes, as the decreased frequency of flights around the world meant that there were less options to fly from the Middle East to the US in general.

“Animals are traveling with a lot of more restrictions,” said Ayan. “They can’t be in their crates for a certain amount of time.”

Explaining that they try to limit each leg of the flight to ten hours or less, they were boxed out of many long haul flights from the Middle East, like the popular Dubai-New York route that is around 13 hours. SPCA also had to navigate rapidly shifting airline carrier rules and individual country restrictions, like the fact that flying through the EU requires additional paperwork and tests for animals.  

Housing the animals abroad required organizational gymnastics during Covid-19. And as each month clicked by, SPCA International spent more money for the animals’ care, and still didn’t have a way to get the precious cargo to the United States.

Private Jet Charter… For Pets

And then Ayan had her lightbulb moment. She realized that if they could hire a private jet charter and take out all of the normal seats to accommodate kennels, the price of a private plane would be equal to flying each animal individually, especially considering housing costs for animals that wouldn’t be able to fly commercial right away.

Partnering with Puppy Rescue Mission, Pet Rescue Pilots, JFK’s The Ark Work and private jet charter Monarch Air Group, SPCA led the mission in August. With the private jet, they could re-fuel in Edinburgh, Scotland, turning a 20-hour journey into a 13-hour one.

Upon arrival, US Customs and Border Patrol, the Center for Disease Control and the New York Port Authority met their aircraft on the tarmac at John F. Kennedy International Airport. Once they cleared immigration, SPCA then sent the pets across the United States to re-unite with their owners.

Cost of Chartering a Private Jet for Pets

Describing the event as “organized chaos,” Ayan said that after Covid-19 shut the world’s borders, chartering a private plane for this mission was really the only option for repatriation. 

Before Covid-19, the average cost of animal repatriation for Operation Baghdad Pups would be around $4,125, with around $2,500 for transportation. Once the pandemic hit in March, the cost for boarding each animal rose higher and higher, as they literally couldn’t fly the pets back to the US. Given the infrequency of commercial flights, the group crunched the numbers and discovered that it would cost the same to fly all the animals in one private jet rather than slowly ferrying two at a time back to America. In total, SPCA estimates that their super mission cost around $8,315.

How Operation Baghdad Puppy Works

Describing the program as their “honor,” Ayan says that the program is SPCA’s way of supporting the troops. Explaining that Operation Baghdad Puppy is “not just about saving animals,” Ayan said that “these animals have gotten people in the military through the hardest times in their lives. They were in a war zone.”

Not only do the service animals go on to lead full lives in the United States, but Ayan said that “these soldiers don’t have the burden of worrying about what happened to the animal that they left on base.”

This program is only for active duty military stationed in war zones; SPCA’s Operation Military Pets works with military stationed in non-conflict zones and helps to subsidize the cost of moving military pets.

In addition to reuniting furry friends with their military owners, both programs take pressure off local shelters, something that is important to SPCA as they work with many partners around the world and in the US.

Flying Back a Donkey from Iraq

While 99% of the time SPCA rescues cats and dogs, there was one donkey rescue, said Ayan. 

Smoke the Donkey was repatriated in 2011, reuniting with a Marine Colonel who ran a farm program in Nebraska for parents of military veterans. Describing the trip as “biblical,” Ayan said that it took 40 days for the donkey to make it back to the United States from Iraw.

Tips for Civilian Pet Travel During Covid

The best modus operendi for international pet ownership is to “make sure your animals never fall behind on their vaccinations,” said Ayan, explaining that if your pet is behind on a typical jab, it could require the animal to stay in country longer than the owner. 

In general, the pet travel expert recommends to triple check all of animal’s paperwork, from vaccines to visas. “Don’t think that you can talk your way out of it,” said Ayan.

Four Legged Friends Bring Normalcy to Deployment 

“I am beyond grateful to this organization for getting my friend home,” said Cameron Martin, who was recently re-united with his pup Sunny in New Hampshire.

“This is their only connection to home,” said Ayan. Continuing, she said that for many servicemen and women, pets provide the only moment of normalcy during difficult deployments.

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