How a war orphaned Afghanistan stray kitty won the heart of a U.S. Marine

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Panzer and her new owner, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Mike Gehrki.
Panzer is in good hands with her new U.S. Marine Corps “dad.”

Gabby Dog

Panzer the stray cat turned up in a base camp in Afghanistan where she made new friend connected to the U.S. military.

Even though befriending Panzer meant breaking the rules, everyone’s heart went out to the scrawny little kitten with the tiger stripes and big head, according to Dr. Negeen Pegahi.

Dr. Pegahi, who sought out dog handlers working on the base for advice about bringing Panzer home, said the military discourages such friendships between mankind and stray animals, due to rabies and other health problems.

“It’s illegal to have interactions with strays,” she said. “Technically, she shouldn’t have been in the camp.”

But one day, Panzer arrived in a litter of eight. Unlike the other shy kittens, she socialized with the humans.

“People fell in love with her and would find ways to feed her,” Dr. Pegahi said. And during bitter cold Afghan winters, everyone worried if Panzer would be ok.

“The winters were bad,” she said.

Within a couple of months, the entire litter – except for Panzer and one other kitten – had died, she later learned. Tom cats killed some. The other died from exposure.

Panzer also sometimes disappeared. They often didn’t see the cat for days on end.

“Then she would pop her head out of a gutter,” Dr. Pegahi said. That little face became the highlight of people’s week.

“Animals bring a lot of calm and joy,” she said. They “normalize” life in conditions that just aren’t normal.

In base camp, everyone follows the “17-5-2 rule,” which means work 17 hours, sleep for five hours, then shower, eat and do everything else in the remaining two hours, she said. As for time off, count on a half day for Thanksgiving and a whole day off on Christmas.

“It gets to be a pretty bleak existence,” she said. “Hanging out with the pets was the only fun thing to do.” By pets, she meant a couple of working dogs assigned to handlers on the base.

Then Panzer came along.

As they neared the end of their assignments, Dr. Pegahi and her husband, U.S. Marine Corps Maj. Mike Gehrki, didn’t want to leave Panzer behind in Afghanistan. But international cat transport turned out to be a complicated business.

“We were trying to do it on our own,” she said; but after learning they couldn’t bring Panzer home on a military transport plane, they asked the dog handlers for advice. They already knew the dogs were bound for good homes when they retired. Could the handlers help transport a cat?

Those conversations led Dr. Pegahi to Nowzad, Afghanistan’s only animal shelter.

Nowzad was named after a stray dog, which, in turn, was named after the town Now Zad in Helmund province. The shelter now houses about 100 dogs and 30 cats waiting to transport to the U.S., Canada, South Africa, Italy, Australia, Holland, Germany and the U.K.

Royal Marine Sgt. Pen Farthing founded the organization in 2006 after rescuing his Afghan stray dog, Nowzad.

The organization has since also started an animal clinic. Four vets work there today, and two are Afghan women. In addition, Nowzad runs a trap, neuter, vaccinate and release program. Other projects include training vets and rescues for donkeys and horses.

So far, Nowzad has relocated about 700 stray dogs and cats, but no one really knows the number of homeless animals in Afghanistan, she said. [To help, go to www.nowzad.org.]

Afghanistan has been at war since 1979, and the social networks have crumbled. The people – as well as the animals – are distressed. Most of the humans also lack basic vaccinations, she said. As for animals, the Afghans keep animals to work.

“The whole pet concept doesn’t really exist,” she said, but the Afghans are interested in Nowzad; as the shelter’s reputation grows, that situation may change.

Dr. Pegahi contacted the shelter and made arrangements to bring Panzer, who had to be quarantined and vaccinated before starting the journey, to the U.S. by way of Dubai.

“It was incredibly elaborate and complicated,” she said. Ultimately, Panzer was to arrive in the cargo terminal in Washington, D.C.

But Dr. Pegahi also made a contingency plan to insure, if the transport fell through, the cat would at least have received all her vaccinations, “if we had to leave her.”

When she returned to camp without the cat, word circulated about the plans to rescue Panzer. A gruff master sergeant took her aside and thanked her, she recalled. Although she had never seen this man smile in all the time they’d worked together, she realized Panzer had touched him.

But a few friends did question why spend all the money to rescue one cat when so many other animals stateside need help.

“I did think about that,” she said. As a dog lover – with Alaskan Malamutes – she had never wanted a cat. But Panzer had bonded with her and with her husband. It would have been hard to leave her in Kabul and always wonder what happened to her.

NPR correspondent Sean Carberry and Squeak, rocking out.
NPR correspondent Sean Carberry and Squeak, rocking out.

Plus, Dr. Pegahi said, when people hear these stories, they may be inspired to help even more animals. She mentioned a recent interview with National Public Radio correspondent, Sean Carberry.

Carberry has written about the work Nowzad is doing and also adopted an Afghan kitten. His cat recently made it back to D.C.

“Squeak was a scrawny little kitten who started showing up at my house with her mother around the time I moved to Kabul,” he wrote in an email message.

“I had no intention of taking in an animal when I moved there, but when Squeak’s mom started to turn on her, I decided to take her in and give her a shot at a safe and healthy life. She quickly became my closest “friend” in Kabul and with the exception of a few moments of unintentional destructiveness, she always made me smile. I know that I am mentally and emotionally healthier after my time in Kabul because of her.”

And when the time came, could he leave Squeak behind?

“There was no question when I was getting ready to leave that she was coming with me. The first six weeks back in the U.S. were darker for me because she was still in Kabul. It’s a joy having her in D.C. with me now, and she’s embracing life in a place where she doesn’t have to run under the kitchen counter at the sound of loud booms.”

“Nowzad took great care of her while she was in Kabul, and I’m grateful for their help getting her to the U.S.,” he said. “I think what Nowzad does is essential on many levels. Their efforts to reduce stray animals and rabies in Kabul are a tremendous benefit to the city, and their work to reunite those of us who lived there with the animals we adopted is, I think, life saving for many people. I don’t think you can overstate the power pets have in places like Afghanistan to keep us emotionally healthy.”

As for Panzer?  No longer an outdoor cat, she likes to sleep on the ottoman in a puddle of sun, safe at home in Rhode Island with her new family, Dr. Pegahi said.


Have a tip or story idea? E-mail Margo Ann Sullivan at TheGabbyDog@gmail.com and Follow The_Gabby_Dog on Twitter.


Margo Ann Sullivan
Margo Ann Sullivan

Margo Ann Sullivan is a pet columnist who has written for ZooToo, and numerous publications in New York and in New England. She’s had pets all her life, starting with a rescue collie named Lollypop. The Gabby Dog column chases the news that helps pets and people. It also chronicles the adventures of Gabby, the peke-a-poo, and Asia, the tabby cat, and their many pals, hitting the high spots between Providence, RI, and Manchester, NH.

About Carol Robidoux 5454 Articles
Journalist and editor of ManchesterInkLink.com, a hyperlocal news and information site for Manchester, NH.
  • Kristen Callahan

    All good news. Thank you.