Rewarding experiences offset challenges for veterinarian working in Afghanistan

Detailing the challenges faced by veterinarians in Afghanistan could take up a series of articles, but the same can probably be said for the rewarding experiences.

During her many trips to the country since 2005, AAHA member Dr. Susan Chadima has had profound, sometimes emotional experiences that arise when working in a country where veterinary medicine for companion animals is still in its infancy.

The veterinarian from Maine shared some of the eye-opening experiences she has encountered during her efforts to improve veterinary medicine in Afghanistan.

Discovering the power of transformation

Chadima told the story of having a dog brought in that she said “literally was probably looking for a place to lie down and die. I’ve never seen a dog so close to death.” They successfully treated that dog and he is now healthy and thriving except for some chronic skin issues, she said.

Feral dogs around Afghanistan find themselves in similar tough circumstances, and many have become too wild to become pets, Chadima said. She often encounters dogs that are beaten, injured, extremely dirty, and so scared that veterinarians can't even get near them.

But for those dogs that are young enough and haven't been permanently scarred by their hardships, Chadima said some veterinary care and affection can produce remarkable results.

"Some of these dogs transform into really friendly, wonderful, loyal animals that have exceeded my expectations,” Chadima said. “So that’s really opened my eyes to the power of possibilities, the power of transformation. I think what works for animals, it can work for people as well.”

Keeping troops connected with their dogs

Military bases in Afghanistan expressly forbid soldiers from having dogs, and there is usually a standing order for dogs on base to be shot.

Despite the rule, soldiers sometimes still become attached to dogs they find wandering and adopt the animals, whether it's with the commander’s blessing, because the commander turns a blind eye, or through a complete violation of protocol, Chadima said.

“For many soldiers, they (dogs) become a really important source of emotional support. That’s their connection that helps them get through it,” she said.

Though beneficial for both soldiers and dogs, military base adoptions present complications when the soldiers want to send the dogs back to their home countries.

Soldiers often have to undertake covert and expensive operations involving hiring drivers to smuggle the dogs through Taliban territory for up to 24 hours, sometimes covering the dogs with blankets and taping their muzzles and legs to prevent discovery. Once dogs reach Kabul, they are cared for and shipped to countries including the U.S., Australia, Canada, and the U.K.

The mission to export dogs takes on even greater emotional importance when a soldier dies before his or her dog is sent home, Chadima said.

“I think the most difficult situation is there have been a number of times where the dog's gotten to Kabul, the soldier’s been killed, and then the family’s last request is, ‘Can you please get the dog to us because it’s the last connection we have with our son?’” Chadima said. “And that is not only incredibly important, but incredibly difficult and very, very emotional.”

Taking time to have some fun

“The Kabul golf course is, in my opinion, one of the great golf courses of the world,” Chadima said.

She described the course as packed dirt without even a blade of grass, covered in weeds, and populated by a wandering herd of sheep.

Besides being a source of entertainment, Chadima said playing a round of golf at the course is a good way to catch a breath of fresh air, away from the “horrible” air quality in Kabul.

During one golf outing, she had an experience that truly illustrated the difference between the circumstances of Afghanistan's dogs and those in Western countries.

When Chadima's group reached the third tee, she looked down and saw a den under the edge of a hill where a dog was tending to her litter of puppies.

“We talk all the time about crate training dogs, that the crate is their den, that they feel safe and secure. But to actually see a dog in this dirt den in the middle of the Kabul golf course was kind of amazing,” Chadima said. “It puts things in a different context. We kind of talk about it, but we don’t have that (in the United States) and it’s so far out of our experience. These dogs really have to struggle to survive.”

How to help

One of the most helpful ways people can contribute to the effort in Afghanistan is by donating supplies, Chadima said. She explained that they aren't able to get important basic veterinary supplies in the country, so the supplies need to be donated and brought into the country.

She listed worm medication, vaccines, suture materials, anesthetics, pain medicine, and flea and tick control as the most-needed supplies.

For anyone interested in donating supplies, Chadima mentioned one caveat to consider when deciding what to give.

“Lots of times people - out of the very best intentions - will give you things they don’t need anymore at their clinic,” she said. “Well, there's probably a reason they don’t need it at the clinic, and if you didn’t need it at your clinic, believe me, nobody in Afghanistan needs it. We get weird sizes of sutures that nobody uses for anything, whereas what we need are basics - good-quality basics.”

Chadima advised people to contact her directly if they are interested in donating.

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series. You can read the first part here.