Photos courtesy of Carol Hawley.
When John Steele decided on a name for his Afghan rescue German shepherd mix puppy Kaiah in September, he merged two distinct and contrasting components — the site of the first base (Kabul) he frequented in the mountainous, war-torn Southcentral Asian country with the a Hawaiian name (Native American origin) meaning “rare beauty.”
Like a growing number of Afghan street dogs being brought to United States by returning military personnel and civilian contractors, Kaiah is your consummate underdog.
“I didn’t go over there planning to bring back a dog,” said Steele, an electrician working for an Afghan construction company in Kabul, about 8,000 miles from his University Place (Tacoma) home he returned to during the holidays. “It just kinda happened. She just dropped in my lap.”
Steele’s wife Tammy likes to refer to it as “destiny,” after an emotional roller coaster of a year in which the couple’s cherished 11-year German shepherd Rommel died earlier and Steele headed for Afghanistan shortly afterward. “We are German shepherd owners through and through,’ she says.” We love the breed, but I could not have predicted how the past year would have unfolded.”
In September, Steele and his Afghan boss went to a Kabul equipment yard to check out supplies when he was shown two female German shepherd mix puppies in a wood box from a litter of three. “They were terrified,” he recalled. “Dogs are not a high priority in Afghanistan. The big males often find themselves in a dog-fighting ring, and the females usually end up on the street searching for their next meal.”
Steele had been in the country several months at the time, and his boss recognized his love for dogs. “We continued to move about the compound checking on supplies,” he recalled, “and when it was time to leave I wondered what happened to the dogs. I asked my boss as we were moving down the road in his Toyota Corolla and he said, ‘Oh, one’s in the trunk, in the box.’ “
The temperature was in the upper 80s – and much warmer in the trunk — so the animal’s survival became an instant concern for Steele, as they motored toward his office/apartment compound about three miles away.
The dog defecated en route, producing a horrid odor, Steele recalls. Upon reaching his apartment, he cradled the listless, emaciated little creature in his arms and took her to his second-floor apartment to rest, cool down and drink some water.
She showed little improvement the next morning, so Steele began searching for a veterinary hospital, which took three days to find one open. “There are few veterinarians in the area and most of the hospitals have few or no vaccines and lack medical equipment,” he explains. “Working there, you quickly realize Afghans have a very different attitude toward certain animals than we do, but it’s important not to judge them by Western standards, either.”
The next challenge was finding a store that carried dog food. The only ones offering such in Kabul cater chiefly to foreigners. Steele was able to find food, which the famished dog gulped down. “Shortly after she ate, it was like turning a switch on,” he recalls. “She began moving around, even jumping, like she was suddenly given a new life.”
The Steeles visit regularly via Skype, a software application that allows users to make voice/video calls worldwide. A day or two later during a Skype conversation, Steele told his wife, “I want to introduce you to someone special. “
Quickly, Tammy began fluffing up her hair for a best presentation. As the video segued to the dog, a shocked Tammy responded, “Oh, it’s a dog. What are you going to do with it?” A few seconds later he detailed the story behind the 30-pound animal’s rescue.
“John’s a very caring person and has always been a dog guy,” says Tammy. “Rommel’s death was devastating to both of us, and this little girl had that German shepherd face that I felt might become a part of our family some way, somehow.”
Tammy instantly kicked into fast-forward gear on the Internet, seeking to uncover a means via which the young dog could be brought to the United States. She found Nowzad (www.nowzad.com), a charity formed to help animals of Afghanistan and Iraq find new homes and promote animal welfare both within and outside the two countries.
The United Kingdom-based organization was founded by Pen Farthing, a retired Royal Marine, who along with fellow soldiers, began rescuing strays in Afghanistan during his service there, writing a stirring book, “One Dog at a Time: Saving Strays in Afghanistan” (see review on this web site). Farthing has toured the U.S. promoting and reading the volume, including an Oct. 13 Tacoma stop.
Here’s where Tammy’s characterization of “destiny” kicks in again. She and the couple’s daughter, Tasha, attended the reading and left in tears. “Who would have thought that Pen would be in Tacoma shortly after John rescued Kaiah,” Tammy says. “After hearing his story, I was committed to bringing Kaiah home.”
Thousands of miles away, Steele was suffering a little guilt leaving the dog in the compound courtyard alone for 12-hour days while he was working, particularly knowing Afghans’ attitude toward dogs. “She was there to greet me every evening when I came back. And when it came time to getting on my laptop in the evenings, she began tossing her Kong toy on top of it like it was a game. You couldn’t blame her, for she probably received little attention all day.”
After visiting with Farthing in Tacoma, Tammy Steele wrote the Kaiah story on her Facebook page, which attracted the attention of many. To adopt an Afghan dog, complete all necessary paperwork, assure all immunizations are updated and arrange for air travel, Nowzad asks interested parties to fund-raise as close to $3,000 as possible.
Steele began a drive on her Facebook page to acquire funding to bring Kaiah home and promote the Nowzad mission in the process. Her friends responded quickly and within two weeks she raised the $3,000.
One of those assisting was Carol Hawley, an Olympia photographer who shot the photos for this story.
“We met through the Lakewood Chamber of Commerce, and we instantly had a friendship,” says Hawley. “We have so many things in common, the biggest of which is our love for animals.” Hawley, a South Sound Tea Party member, began reaching out to members about Steele’s mission. Several of them, none of who even knew Steele but recognizing a chance to help someone in their community, donated. “The donations (tax deductible) received from everyone relates to people helping people,” explains Hawley. “Traditional values are not gone and when the opportunity presents itself people rise to the occasion.”
Upon reaching her funding goal, Steele contacted Nowzad officials to initiate arrangements for flying the dog to the U.S.
Initially, her husband had no plans to bring the dog to the U.S. “I saw her as my companion and a friend I could come back to after my short trips home.” But that changed with the imprint of the locals’ attitudes toward dogs.
One of his co-workers, a Pakistani, complained to Steele after he bathed the dog in the shower at their apartment compound. “I assured him I would have the shower cleaner than ever when I finished,” he adds, “so we had an uneasy truce on that matter.”
After funding was raised to bring Kaiah to Tacoma, Steele’s attitude changed. “It made sense to get her over here,” he adds. “My long work days and the possibility something could happen to her there were a clear message that if I wanted to rescue her, now was the time.”
The original plan was to link Kaiah’s arrival in Tacoma with Steele’s trip home for the holidays. But the pair’s Nowzad contact in Kabul needed to ship the dog sooner. They move quickly and quietly with little fanfare, explains Tammy. Kaiah was crated, picked up at Steele’s compound at 5:45 a.m. and taken directly to the Kabul airport for a seven-hour flight to Frankfurt, Germany, where she was overnighted, and then another 12-hour flight to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where she arrived Dec. 10.
“She really had it good,” Steele emphasizes. “She was with me all the time and never had to be quartered at Nowzad’s rescue shelter with all the other dogs.”
Kaiah was terrified when Tammy Steele picked her up at Sea-Tac airport “but has settled in nicely in her new home,” where she had two friends, Buddy, a 9-year-old Shetland sheepdog, and Louie, 2, a Shih Tzu who considers himself the alpha figure.
Asked what reception Kaiah gave him when returned home Dec. 22, John Steele replied, “It took 15-20 seconds for her to recognize me from a distance but once she did, she was all over me.
“This is a very memorable holiday season, thanks to my wife’s efforts and some very special people who helped us bring Kaiah home,” he concludes. “It will be very difficult to leave all of this in early January and return to Afghanistan, but I can rest easily now knowing Kaiah is safe and secure.”