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Operation Ark - A Remarkable 2021 Success Story

by Gabby Kuehn | 31st January 2022

I feel compelled to share my opinion and support for Operation Ark as I continue to find myself horrified at the anguish those who co-ordinated and supported this successful evacuation from Kabul have encountered!

Pen Farthing has found himself back in the news recently for all the wrong reasons, following the immensely successful Operation Ark. When Pen mobilised the team behind Operation Ark in August 2021, to highlight the plight of the Afghan people, and plead for help rescuing the staff and animals in his care, no one could have begun to imagine the chaos that would follow, and the abuse he would endure.

Pen Farthing, Operation Ark
Photo @penfarthing

How it all began

In August 2021 following the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan few predicted how quickly the civilian government would fall and the Taliban would take over the capital Kabul.

On August 13th Pen Farthing appeared on Sky News live from his Nowzad animal shelter and clinic in Kabul. He spoke passionately about the plight of the people; a generation who he said had had been given hope, and his despair at what was happening. His honesty, his love for the people whose lives would be changed forever and his anger at the situation was genuine and raw, perhaps too honest for some viewers! When asked if he would return to the UK, he said he would not leave his staff and his animals behind unless the option of staying would put them in danger. Why would he leave them, they were part of his extended family; people and animals.

Two days later the Taliban retook Afghanistan and Operation Ark commenced, a mission to evacuate Nowzad’s people and animals from Kabul. Pen shared video updates on social media whenever he could, he even managed to introduce us to his staff and some of the animals. It was a series of highs and lows, his frustration, desperation, and heartache for all those trying to escape apparent.

Like so many others I waited anxiously for news, often waking up in the middle of the night to check my phone for updates. Meanwhile an incredible team of campaigners lead by Dominic Dyer; wildlife protection and animal welfare campaigner, played their part in the UK. Operation Ark was national and global news.

Pen Farthing, Operation Ark
Photo @penfarthing

Operation Ark

Operation Ark touched the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people. I imagine there were many just like me who wanted to help save every single human in that city, everyone at those gates and all the animals being left behind. This was impossible of course, but we could do our bit to support this great operation. We donated, we tweeted, we re-tweeted, we told our friends, and we waited anxiously for a successful outcome.

Of course, much accomplishment at this point was down to the Nowzad team and campaigners that Pen mobilised and inspired in the UK. Donations reached a level where the team could fund a private plane to evacuate the Nowzad team, empty seats were offered to those eligible to travel to the UK. Things were looking positive.

The highs and lows continued, a tweet to say they could leave, often followed by another to say things had changed. We watched in hope as Pen left for Kabul airport with his staff and many of the animals in their care. We watched in horror as they were caught up in a suicide bomb attack outside Kabul airport, and had to return to the Nowzad shelter. They returned as they had left, united. He didn’t abandon them; he didn’t leave without them!

The campaign for a successful evacuation continued, with regular updates from an understandably frustrated Pen in Kabul, and Dominic in the UK. On August 27th Pen returned to the airport with his staff, their families, and his animals. A privately funded plane had been organised to finally evacuate them as the last of the British and American troops were preparing to leave Kabul airport. Pen and his animals were allowed to leave, the Taliban would not allow the Afghan staff entry to the airport despite having their paperwork. The plane left with animals in the hold and an almost empty cabin, seats which had been offered to those eligible to leave.

He left without them! Of course, time would tell that this was largely because he knew he could do more to help and protect them outside the country. On September 11th 2021, Nowzad announced that 67 of their staff and families were safe in Pakistan and on route to the UK. Pen's staff and their families are now safe and settling into their new lives in the UK.

Pen Farthing, Nowzad team, Operation Ark
Team Nowzad at the Naturo Super Dog Awards

Why was Operation Ark a success

Pens leadership skills were apparent from his first broadcast. A former sergeant in the Royal Marines, who served in Afghanistan, his ability to lead and mobilise kicked in. Not just any Royal Marine I might add, this one, like many others also cared deeply about the street dogs in the country, so much so he set up the charity Nowzad to rescue and reunite dogs with the soldiers who had befriended them during their service in Afghanistan.

Combine this with an amazing group of kind, caring, high-profile individuals back in the UK, who got behind Pen and campaigned for the success of Operation Ark. Embrace the power of social media, and the impossible suddenly seemed possible.

Of course one of key factors in the success of Operation Ark is the hundreds of thousands of regular people who supported it. Those who were horrified at the plight of the Afghan people but helpless to do anything. These people all had one other thing in common, they care deeply about animals and support all who speak for the voiceless. Operation Ark was never about 'pets before people', but it was very much about 'people who love animals'. It was predominantly animal lovers who campaigned on Pen’s behalf, it was animal lovers who tweeted, shared, donated, wrote to their MPs. It was animal lovers who believed Pen when he said he wouldn’t leave his animals to fend for themselves. He didn’t leave them behind, the reality is that many would never have forgiven him if he had, I'm pretty sure he knew that.

Perhaps it might be fair to consider that the animals played their part in rescuing 67 people. Those who have compassion for animals will understand. Pen understood, after all people and animals rescuing each other is the foundation on which Nowzad was created.

Pen Farthing, Operation Ark, Nowzad
Reunited, vets & pets. Photo @nowzad

Where did things go wrong

Essentially things had already gone wrong long before Operation Ark was conceived. Nobody really predicted how quickly Kabul would fall to the Taliban.

I imagine Pen's honesty didn’t go down particularly well in some quarters. He became an uncensored beacon of truth coming out of Kabul. Thousands of people watched his social media broadcasts and he featured on global news networks. Pen knew the city; he knew the county, he cared about the people, and he didn’t hold back expressing his emotions and frustrations. It was all very real, not always shrewdly articulated, but at least it was genuine.

As the world watched the heart-breaking scenes at Kabul airport the political blame game had already started. The ‘pets before people’ rhetoric evolved and was used to undermine Operation Ark and its supporters. Pen was accused of putting pets before people at every opportunity. Those who followed his journey knew this was never the case, but it was relentless, the dark side of social media emerged, and the operation has been vilified ever since.

Pen, Dominic, and Operation Ark have been back in the news this week, this time as part of another political agenda. Who knew what, who said what, why did the Prime Minister put pets before people. The 67 vulnerable Afghans who have started their new lives in the UK are rarely mentioned during the political point scoring.

Pen Farthing and Dominic Dyer through their work and compassion for animals are very fortunate to have high-profile, like-minded friends. This operation touched their hearts as well as those of ordinary people. I am proud to be a small part of its success. Let’s be realistic though, our Prime Minister may have his weaknesses, but his ability to read the crowd, read the public, is not one of them. If he did support Operation Ark (and I applaud him if he did), it's unlikely he did it just because a mate asked him. There are millions of animal lovers in this country, I would suggest we are quite an important demographic.

Operation Ark is a story of enormous accomplishment that changed the lives of 69 humans. The only failure is that a privately funded plane flew out of Kabul with animals in the hold and an empty cabin, that was not down to Pen or any of his supporters.

I would like to conclude by saying that I can’t begin to imagine the anguish experienced by those trying desperately to get friends and family out of Kabul since August 2021. I just don’t believe that Operation Ark or Pen Farthing is to blame for a system that failed them. I would challenge anyone to ask themselves what they would have done in Pen's situation.

PAAW House has no political affiliations; we admire all Members of Parliament who work in the realm of animal welfare and promote kindness towards our fellow humans, regardless of their politics.

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