Saving two street dogs in Iraq war zone

Two former Iraqi street dogs are now happily adjusting to life in a Michigan suburb. Mama, a black Lab mix, greets visitors with a wagging tail, and her four-month-old puppy, Boris, has chosen his new favorite possession: a blanket from the Salty Dog Cafe.

Iraqi street dogs in their new home

It doesn’t surprise Carey Neesley that Boris likes the blanket. Her brother, U.S. Army Sgt. Peter Neesley, who cared for and fed Mama and Boris while on duty in Baghdad, bought the blanket when he visited the Salty Dog Cafe in Hilton Head, South Carolina. "Peter gave it to us before he left for Iraq," Carey says. "Boris took to it immediately. He cuddles his face into it." The Salty Dog lore is that a Labrador retriever saved a man at sea. Peter, Carey says, would be pleased that the blanket now belongs to Boris.

 Iraq dogs at home

Honoring a soldier's wishes

Peter’s wish was to send the dogs back to the states, but he died in his sleep in his Baghdad military barracks on Christmas Day. His family, along with a network that included soldiers on the ground, a private airline, a 12-man security unit, a veterinarian with an Iraqi animal welfare group and Best Friends’ rapid response team, honored Peter’s dream that his dogs live in his family’s home in Michigan.

Getting the dogs home was the right thing to do, says Best Friends’ executive director Paul Berry. "When we talked to the family and heard about Peter’s story, we knew we had to help them," he says. "Peter’s compassion for these homeless dogs, in the midst of all the violence there in Iraq, shows us what a special man he was."

Lebanon animal rescue

It’s not the first time Best Friends has airlifted pets from a war zone. Three hundred dogs and cats were rescued in 2007 from Lebanon and taken to the Utah sanctuary. In some ways, Berry says, that effort was easier than getting two dogs out of Iraq, because of bureaucratic red tape and setbacks along the way.

Even so, Rich Crook, Best Friends’ rapid response manager, volunteered to go to Baghdad. "Rich just wouldn’t give up," Paul says. "He felt Best Friends was the best hope this family had to get these dogs, and he didn’t want to let them down.... We’re very proud that all his hard work paid off for the mama dog, her pup and Peter’s family."

Picking up a Lab and her puppy in Baghdad

Rich picked up the dogs in Baghdad and they were flown by charter plane to Kuwait City, and then on a commercial flight to America. It was more than worth it, Rich says: "To see the family’s faces and Peter’s dogs in their hands – it brought closure for them."

Since the pair arrived February 8 in Gross Pointe Farms, Michigan, Carey has seen signs that indicate Mama and Boris are very much a product of her brother’s affections. "They’re so loving," she says. "Boris loves being hugged; he cuddles in. That’s how he cuddles with his mom, too. There’s a lot of Peter in them."

A warm welcome for the dogs

When they first arrived, the Neesleys’ front yard was swarming with local and national media. A banner and red, white and blue balloons welcomed the dogs to the two-story brick home as neighbors looked on. Mama and Boris are now settling in and catching up on sleep.

Both dogs are more social than the family thought they’d be. "They’re so friendly and gentle," Carey says. "They’re not what you’d expect strays from a war zone to act like. I know Peter did that. He cuddled with them and loved them. Without his touch, there’s no way they could have leapt into our arms after being on the streets of Iraq and then flying 10 hours. He had that affinity with animals and babies. Peter was a protector."

It’s why they decided to try to get the dogs out of Baghdad. Twenty-four hours after learning of Peter’s death, his cousin, Sarah Kelson, told the close-knit family, "We have to bring them home."

Veterinary care and love for street dogs

"It’s so good to see Boris act like a puppy and play with his mom," she says. "They talk to each other and do the bark thing, and they wrestle. Hopefully, in the next couple of weeks, they won’t look like street dogs from Iraq but just regular dogs."

Both have seen the family veterinarian and are being treated for mites, which have caused their skin to itch. The vet says Boris needs to put on 10 pounds and Mama about the same.

But while they’re underweight, Carey notes, "They’re safe now and happy and loved, and they have a soft bed to sleep on." Their bed – which she describes as "a giant dog bed," so they can sleep together – is on the floor of her room, and the Salty Dog blanket is there, too.

"I can’t imagine them being apart," she says. "Even when they’re in different rooms, they start looking for each other. The first night, I took the puppy up to bed first. I called for his mom, and Boris started whimpering for her. She mothers him and keeps him clean. It’s so cute."

Peter’s nephew, 10-year-old Patrick, has been spending time playing with Mama and Boris. "They’re really cute," Patrick says. "It makes me feel like Peter’s back home."

After losing Peter, the dogs are exactly what the family needs, Carey says. "It’s important to have the two things that kept Peter going in Iraq here to keep us going. We all needed a hug, and this was it."

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Photos of the dogs arriving in Michigan and at home with the Neesleys by Molly Wald