Hundreds of Pets Got Out of Afghanistan. Their Rescuers Didn’t.

More than 100 veterinarians and animal shelter volunteers are still hiding in Afghanistan or a third country, waiting for U.S. visas. One vet was killed in Kabul in July.
Mariam Amini, a vet from Afghanistan, holding a dog.
More than 300 dogs and cats landed in Canada in February after being evacuated from Afghanistan. But their rescuers, including Mariam Amini, are still waiting to reach safety. (Photo Courtesy of Mariam Amini)

Earlier this year, a family of Afghan women who had fled the Taliban’s takeover walked into a makeshift animal shelter in Vancouver, Canada. Before them were Air and Bella, their two cats they were forced to leave behind during the fall of Kabul. It was an unexpected reunion; they had no idea they’d be reunited with their pets. 

“So many months of tumultuous uncertainty and then lo-and-behold these cats you thought you'd never see again are there waiting for you and happy to see you,” said Owen Laukkanen, one of the volunteers in charge at the makeshift shelter who witnessed the reunion. 

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In February, about five months after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, Air and Bella were just two of about 300 cats and dogs that landed in Vancouver aboard a charter plane from Kabul. Part of a massive international effort dubbed “Mission Possible,” some were reunited with their old owners: military personnel or Afghans who had managed to flee the country when the Taliban seized control one year ago. Others were adopted by Canadians. A coalition of shelters helped raise additional funds alongside SPCA International and a local shelter in Kabul to get the pets to Vancouver.

But while the animals have reached safety, most of the people who looked after them in Kabul have not. Instead, they’re still in hiding in Afghanistan or in a third country, waiting for U.S. visas.

Animals from Kabul, Afghanistan, arrive in Vancouver, Canada, in February.

Animals from Kabul, Afghanistan, arrive in Vancouver, Canada, in February. (Photo by SPCA International)

“One year later all the animals have been evacuated, reunited with their owners, but the staff including vets and animal handlers are still stuck in a third country. Children are not going to school, men and women are not working,” a vet who helped care for the animals and who’s now waiting in a third country told VICE World News in a text. His identity has been concealed for protection.

More than 100 people, many of whom worked or volunteered with Kabul Small Animal Rescue (KSAR), are currently navigating different versions of the same fate. For many, the clock is ticking: If their visas in third countries expire, they say they could face deportation to Afghanistan, where their lives would be in danger. The group is made up of women, ethnic minorities, and people with past ties to U.S. forces—all targeted by the Taliban.

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According to a GoFundMe in support of the team, “The refugees have been beaten and assaulted in Afghanistan, one of them had her face burned with hot water, one suffered a severe concussion, one had his spine injured so badly from a beating he had to have corrective surgery, and there were several who barely escaped after attempts on their life.” 

In July, one of the KSAR veterinarians still living in Afghanistan was stabbed to death. 

A veterinarian with the group, Mariam Amini, said the first time the group faced the Taliban while trying to get the pets out last summer was “the most dangerous part of my life.” 

Now, she’s in a third country, where she’s unable to work and where living costs are prohibitively expensive. “A year of my life has been wasted,” said Amini, who is one of the first female Afghan veterinary surgeons. To pass the time she teaches English to child refugees.

“I am so disappointed that they forgot us. They forgot the team who worked for those animals.”

Meredith Festa, founder of Long Island-based dog shelter Paws Unite People (PUP), has been coordinating donations to support the rescue team and is overseeing their visa applications. According to PUP, it costs about $20,000 per month to support those who made it out but are waiting for countries like the U.S. to work on their visa applications. 

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Festa said money is running out and “every person in the group… is in danger” if they do.

Despite promising to prioritize Afghan refugees, the US has experienced major delays when it comes to processing visas for them, including for those particularly at risk of execution by the Taliban because they worked closely with US forces. Last month, the New York Times reported that processing of special immigrant visas for people who worked alongside Americans could take three years.

About 250 to 300 people have been arriving in the US every week, and almost all of those folks applied for visas before the Taliban seized control over Kabul, the Times said. 

In an email to VICE World News, the US State Department confirmed that tens of thousands of Afghans have applied or expressed interest in applying for visas.

A State Department spokesperson said that in order to speed things up, the department increased staff processing special immigrant visa applications “by more than fifteen-fold.” The pandemic also caused delays because interviews were previously put on hold, but they’ve since restarted. 

It’s not the only example of animals getting out before people. Last year, controversy went to the top of the UK government after Paul “Pen” Farthing, a British ex-marine who ran NOWZAD, another animal shelter in Afghanistan, evacuated nearly 200 cats and dogs while his staff was initially left behind. Farthing said that outcome “wasn’t my choice” and a NOWZAD social media at the time called it a “devastating blow” and committed to helping the staff, who escaped Afghanistan a few weeks later in September 2021. 

The first KSAR vet said he’s worried about what will happen if his visa is denied and he has to return to Afghanistan. 

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“Just imagine the trauma and anxiety we are facing every day and living in limbo. It hurts everybody’s souls,” he said. “We never thought, and no Afghan thought, a day like today would come.”

One of the dogs that was flown out of Afghanistan and into Canada earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Owen Laukkanen.

One of the dogs that was flown out of Afghanistan and into Canada earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Owen Laukkanen.)

Another rescuer, whose identity is withheld for safety reasons, has been moving from village to village in Afghanistan, trying to evade the Taliban while waiting to get out. Access to the internet and electricity is spotty at best. 

“I am so happy that those animals are safe now,” the 24-year-old who helped evacuate the animals and is now hiding in Afghanistan. “In the meantime I am so disappointed that they forgot us. They forgot the team who worked for those animals.”

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated to reflect additional context surrounding the escape of NOWZAD's staff from Afghanistan.