Just after Christmas, I was scrolling through social media with a belly full of roast potatoes and saw a plea for donations for shelter in Iraq run by a charity called War Paws. They were in desperate need of medical supplies, bedding and food to keep them going through the winter. After having a look on their website (and completely falling in love with the photos of the shelter dogs) I emailed immediately to ask if they needed any veterinary volunteers to travel to Iraq and lend a hand. I don’t think I’ve ever smiled so much as I did when I got a reply saying “yes, please! Can you come next month?”.
So, I went ahead and booked my flights. Telling my family was a tough conversation, of course they thought I was mad and were worried about it being too dangerous for me as it’s such a turbulent country. I spent a long time trying to convince them that I would be safe. The next day, we woke up to the news that a US drone strike near Baghdad International Airport killed the Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani. Great. Things only got worse when Iran retaliated with an airstrike on a US military base in Erbil, Iraq. The same place I was flying to two weeks later. As you can imagine, not a lot of sleep happened in the run to my trip!
Thankfully things calmed down and I made it to Erbil safe and sound. We arrived at 4am and headed straight from the airport to the shelter to meet the dogs and feed them their breakfast!
The shelter, called Animal Friends of Kurdistan, is located about 20 minutes from the city centre of Erbil; it’s up on a hill and surrounded by farmland. The farming infrastructure in Iraq isn’t great, so any animals from the farms (cows, sheep, etc.) who pass away from disease are removed and left on the wasteland around the shelter. Whilst this leaves an awful smell that hits you on your drive to the shelter, it has provided the stray dog population with an abundant food source; although, it does mean that infection, disease and parasites are spreading across these dogs, leaving them in need of veterinary care.
The shelter is made up of a series of shipping containers and purpose built kennels. It’s a long space that’s split into 3 different sections. The dog’s are tucked up in their kennels at night (they sleep on a wooden pallet and a fluffy blanket to keep them off the cold concrete floor) and have the run of their section during the day to exercise, socialise and sunbathe! There’s also a shipping container with some basic medical supplies and equipment that works as a makeshift clinic. However, the shelter doesn’t have a full time vet or nurse based there, so they rely solely on volunteers like myself and Ross (the vet I travelled with). This meant that when we arrived at the shelter, there was a long list of dogs who needed seeing to!
Unfortunately, Iraq isn’t a nation of dog lovers like the UK, so lots of doggies at the shelter have injuries from being hit by cars, which is heartbreaking. During our week there, we carried out 4 amputation surgeries on dogs who had severe limb fractures - although it sounds like a drastic surgery, the vast majority of amputees manage really well and it was fantastic to see them all recovering by the end of the week, moving around much more comfortably. They also have 2 paralysed dogs at the shelter, Caramel and Sylvia. Both have a brilliant quality of life despite having no use of their back legs; local volunteers created ‘drag bags’ for them, which are essentially tough, leather bags designed to attach to their harness and pop their back legs in, this allows them to move around without their back end dragging on the concrete floor, which can cause sores. I honestly couldn’t believe it when I saw both of them tearing around, quicker than all the dogs with four legs!
There’s also a huge amount of puppies at the shelter. As much as it filled us with joy to see the little bundles of fluff being all cute and playful, the main purpose of our trip was to neuter as many dogs as possible to try and control the local population of puppies as much as we could. The shelter is the only one in the city, so the demand for medical attention, preventative care (such as vaccination, flea and worm treatment) and food is huge. It’s imperative to try and reduce this burden as much as possible through neutering to provide the dogs in Erbil with a better quality of life.
It was an immensely busy week made up of long 16 hour days, a lot of heart-wrenching cases and plenty of tears, but more than anything it was hugely rewarding to know we were making a big difference to these dogs and their future. I've never met such a friendly and playful pack of dogs before, all desperate for cuddles and not a single one of them was aggressive or nervous (despite how they've previously been treated by humans). They all hold a very special place in my heart and I’m so excited to go back one day and see all their wagging tails!