They save human lives, protect livelihoods and yet have nowhere to go when they are decommissioned from active field service in the minefields of Cambodia.
These days I get emotional very often. It is so unlike me; in school I had a nickname “ice queen” for not expressing my emotions easily and even my partner often said that my heart must have been made of “stone” because I never cried, even in the most intense moments.
Yet, when I started working with animals, building projects to help and make things better for them, I realised I get so overwhelmed that I choke up.
Monday night was one of those moments for me when I choked up in public. I was presenting at the famous Nerd Night, in Score Bar, in front of hundreds of folks about my passionate project – Home of Heroes – inspired by one dog I met almost two years ago, a retired explosives detection dog named Muriel.
Muriel, then a 9 year-old Belgian Milionis lived with a family that adopted her after her retirement. Retirement from what, you might ask?
Well, just like 100 canine colleagues of hers, Muriel had finally retired from the work she was born into and trained to do since she was a baby. Daily she went into the contaminated fields and forests of Cambodia searching for mines and other unexploded ordinance hidden underground – lying quietly deep in the land and potentially deadly to anyone unlucky enough to step on it.
She went with her human handler and using her amazing sense of smell she hunted for the deadly weapons, clearing square kilometres of land, working daily, tirelessly, risking her life and protecting her handler. And for seven years, Murial found thousands of hidden weapons, helping professionals to step in safely, defuse and remove the lethal ordnances from the Cambodian land.
In her life she rendered kilometres of Cambodian land, fields and forest safe for people to enjoy, live, work and play. After retirement she was offered for adoption and was selected to live with a lovely family. It was promising to be a “happily ever after” story… until her adoptive family was struck with a tragedy and had to leave Cambodia within a week.
Muriel, the veteran service dog who gave her life saving humanity had no place to go. They appealed to us for help and we welcomed her into our family without hesitation.
Like many of us, I had no idea about the role of dogs in disarmament missions around the world. Since 1992 Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) – together with their main partner Cambodian Mine Action Center (CMAC) – has been supporting the K9 Explosive Detection Canine Programme where they raise, train and use dogs like Muriel to clear Cambodian land from the remnants of war weapons that can still harm and maim humans, especially children, and animals.
The work is tough and very dangerous. Human handlers entrust their own life into the capable hands (or rather noses) of these dogs. And in 25 years not one dog has ever been injured. I was also absolutely amazed to learn that over 500 dogs like Muriel work around the world – in Africa, the Middle East, South America and Southeast Asia. They are essentially born to make the world save again for us.
My next question was of course: what happens to the dogs when their age or heath requires them to retire and how was it possible that Muriel had no place to go to?
Unfortunately, I found that there was no systematic process for their placement after these dogs are no longer in a working condition. Being highly energetic, highly-strung, extremely intelligent, and used to an extensive daily exercise routine, they rarely make a good family pet and need someone with experience to handle and care for them.
Moreover, their age makes health issues more prominent and of course, the veterinary bills would be rather substantial – another deterrent for potential adopters. In short, the agencies that use these dogs do their absolute best to find good families to adopt retirees, but most dogs are not suitable for family adoption and very sadly, as a last recourse, they are euthanised.
I know, it sounds terrible. “How could they?” – you might ask. What kind of people are these?”
I thought that too and so I went and spoke to the handlers and to the organisations, to search for the answer. In my quest to find an explanation, I also met with veterinarians who look after these amazing dogs. I was angry and I really needed to tell them it wasn’t right. But as I spoke to these people, I realised that they really love these dogs. They form beautiful attachments with their canine partners and they care a great deal about their wellbeing. However, there was no formal solution for the retirement of these canines and each dog they had to say goodbye to, just shattered their hearts.
So this is how the idea for Home of Heroes was born.
Encouraged and empowered by my love for Muriel, I made a formal proposal to Norwegian People’s Aid to build a retirement home for demining dogs (the first in the world as I learned later), so that no working dog would ever face the harrowing prospect of euthanasia after they dedicated their existence to saving human lives.
And although, I had not much hope to hear from them again – after all, who am I to propose such grandiose plans to huge international organisations – my idea was not only accepted, but welcomed.
On July 4 last year, a formal Memorandum of Understanding was signed between Animal Mama and Norwegian People’s Aid. From that date, all retired dogs are to be transferred and looked after, until their natural life ends, by Animal Mama Wellness Center and cared for by our small clinic. The MOU also offers full technical and advisory assistance to build and run the centre, too.
As of today, we welcomed seven dogs to our small centre – some from CMAC and some from NPA, and they live in two of our Animal Mama properties.
Home of Heroes is still in its fledgling stage and much still needs to be done – seed fundraising, securing a large plot of land and a building, finding the right people and of course creating projects that will make the Home of Heroes a self-sustainable organisation.
But the dream is there, together with community trust and support. More importantly, the demining dog retirees are the drive behind everything. The least we can do for them is to say a proper thank you for saving our lives and giving us back our land, thus safeguarding our children’s future.
I often wake up in the middle of the night during the monsoon season with a cold wet nose poking into my face. Still half asleep, I first hear the thunder and rain and then I know it is Muriel asking for a hug. She is terrified of rain and thunder and so I allow her to climb into my bed next to me. And as I hug her and fall back to sleep I think: You are my inspiration. I hope I won’t let you down my, girl. I really hope I don’t.
Animal Mama® Animal Clinic & Welfare Centre provides a wide range of services for animals & pets: vet care, boarding, daycare, pet food & supplies, hydrotherapy, grooming and doggy play dates.
Please visit us at:
Villa #15, Street 500
Toul Tom Pong, Phnom Penh 12311