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“You’ll Come with Me”: Humans and Animals in Times of War

Paola Cavalieri

Many are the phenomena that can light the path towards the emancipation of oppressed beings. Among them, there are sometimes processes that society spontaneously generates, and that can develop in unexpected circumstances. Something of this kind is happening now. The circumstance is war, and the oppressed beings are nonhuman animals.

Pen Farthing and the Flight from Kabul 

Paul “Pen” Farthing is a British former Royal Marine sergeant, who was deployed to Afghanistan in 2006.[1]

During that period, Farthing broke up an organized fight between two dogs in the town of Nowzad. One of the dogs, with no ears and no tail, started following him, creeping into the compound and into his life. After the end of his deployment, Farthing planned to and succeeded in bringing him to UK, after naming him Nowzad because he was battered and scarred just like the town.[2]

This experience inspired Farthing to create a charity called Nowzad Dogs, with the aim of reuniting servicemen after their return home with the dogs and cats who had befriended them.[3] The charity, besides advocating animal welfare in Afghanistan, built the first shelter in the country, which also hosted donkeys, horses and goats and, in addition to reuniting ex-soldiers with dogs and cats, rescued nonhumans to be adopted by members of the general public in the UK. The group’s centre in Kabul, run by Afghan nationals, among them veterinarians, sterilized and vaccinated street animals, and created a web of local caring homes. Over the years, Nowzad saved and rehomed more than 1,700 animals, while Pen Farthing travelled back and forth between the UK and Afghanistan.

Early in 2020, when the pandemic hit, Farthing was trapped in the central Asian country. Then, in August 2021, came the fall of Kabul. “It’s all over,” Farthing commented, “everything we’d achieved over 15 years is up in smoke… People [had] started having dogs as pets, and they had places to take them for vet care. Now that’s been wiped out.”[4] Amid what appeared as the “complete disorganised mess of the evacuation,” he asked the British government for help, but clashed with Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who stated that he was not going to “prioritise pets over people”.[5] Thus, Farthing realised he needed to get his animals and his staff out on his own, and launched Operation Ark, a fundraising campaign to hire a plane to transfer them to the UK. 

After procuring private funds for the flight, Farthing finally set off for the Hamid Karzai airport with his staff and 94 dogs and 68 cats. They were stopped as many as four times by the Taliban, and went “through hell” to get inside the airport – but only to be told that they could not board without visas. And while Wallace insisted that if he did not have his animals with him, he and his staff could board an RAF flight, Farthing, reaffirming that he wouldn’t abandon the nonhuman beings under his protection, burst out and threatened a defence aide over his requests with the famous: ‘I will fucking destroy you”.[6]

When the Taliban put a Kalashnikov in his face and told him “they were staying,” however, it was clear that he couldn’t take the members of his staff, [7] so that his assistants themselves asked him to leave with as many dogs and cats as he could. The next day, Farthing returned to the airport with the animals alone – “I don’t know how many different Taliban commanders I had to sit and speak to,” he later remarked. And, this time, he successfully made it out. The privately funded plane took off with all his animals – among whom his adopted dogs Ragnar, Coraand Ewok – getting them triumphantly to safety.[8]

Behind this victory there was the powerful campaign Farthing had embarked upon, which won a wide support from the English public and which apparently even motivated an intervention by the British Prime Minister.[9] And while the UK Defence staff  kept complaining that Operation Ark had come at the expense of Afghans left behind,[10]Farthing reasserted its full self-sufficiency, clarifying that not one single British soldier was used to get him and the Nowzad dogs and cats into Kabul airport.[11] Moreover, since arriving back in England, he worked to help evacuate from Afghanistan Nowzad staff, some of whom had been arrested during a Taliban raid in the shelter’s offices. In September, the personnel and their family members, thanks to a hired private security company, crossed the border to Pakistan, pending their final transfer to Britain. 

War Refugees and the Flight from Ukraine 

On February 24, 2022, Russian troops crossed the borders of Ukraine, invading an independent state with an army of more than 150.000 soldiers. Since then thousands of civilians have been murdered, and entire cities have been burnt down. Massacres have been discovered, but the worst is probably to come. While the nation organized resistance, millions of Ukrainians fleeing from bombs and shelling became internally displaced, and more than four million refugees fled Ukraine to other countries.[12] For days and days, one could see images of resilient citizens dragging, amid sirens and shootings and rubble, what they could of their belongings. Since most men, together with many young women, were recruited in the army or involved in volunteer groups, the fugitives were mainly mothers with children often in their arms and with elderly people often using canes or wheelchairs, making up the most improbable and vulnerable troop moving in flat landscapes covered with snow under the risk of Russian fire. And yet, together with them, one could see dogs and cats. Dogs walking alongside the group, dogs and cats wrapped in blankets, cats in transporters and dogs on the shoulders, and even rabbits and fishes in tanks.[13] Certainly not a way to make the escape easier or safer, but they did it – and people all over the world watched them on their computer or television screen.

We know that in Ukraine, as in any other industrialized country, there are factory farms where nonhumans are subjected to ruthless exploitation only to be finally sent to the slaughterhouse, and that, tragically, many animals doomed to this fate, powerless to attempt at escaping even in the wartime havoc due to their constricting conditions, have died in the destruction or at the hands of the occupiers. And no remedy was, or could be, offered to them.  

But we also know that, when the war imposed suffering and risk of death to the animals left behind or lost in the confusion and to the inmates of shelters and zoos, many of them were saved by the untiring work of rescue groups whose activists spared no effort, even at the cost of their lives.[14] Bu if this is testimony to the courage of Ukrainian citizens already committed to the defence of animals, what is more striking is the case of the animals who were brought to safety by the human fugitives. For with this gesture normal people, with no prior involvement in the animal cause, did convey one simple thing: they would not betray their companion animals. Here are only a few among the countless testimonies. After a journey of hundred miles fleeing the bombing of Kyiv, a teenager arrived in Poland with her cat Zaika.[15] A family travelled to Lviv in search of safety with their two guinea pigs Apelsynka and Lymonadka.[16] A student refused to leave Ukraine until he succeeded in finding an evacuation flight which accepted his dog Maliboo.[17]  A woman crossed the Polish frontier on foot with her old mother and her cat Timon in a carrier, and found seats for all of them in a bus heading to Italy[18]. And, epitomizing all this, young Nastya Tikhaya defiantly challenged the tyranny of war in a photo which portrays her fleeing Irpin with a troop of disabled dogs including many amputees in wheelchairs.[19]

Evidence of a similar attitude comes from less audacious people. “I can’t depart from a member of the family who loved me for over ten years, and the journey is a loss of life knell for her” stated a woman about her cat. And another: I will not leave the city because I have a dog – if they do not let me go to the shelter with my pet, I will not go.’ And yet another explained that she had decided to remain at home because she was concerned about abandoning her companion animals.[20]

Such a general stance in war-torn Ukraine is well synthetized by Belarusian soldiers volunteering in the country who, after rescuing lost dog Nessie in the atrocious context of Bucha, and after finding her human caretaker, arranged a moving reunion, commenting: “We are fighting for the lives of not only humans but every animal!”.[21]And how this attitude has impressed the public worldwide is shown by the fact that at the Medyka border crossing into Poland an animal service station was set up to help traumatized refugee animals,[22] and that an unprecedented program, “Vets for Ukrainian Pets,” has been launched by the Humane Society International to cover the treatment costs of acute care and medications for dogs, cats, horses and other animals.[23]

Between moral individualism and non-betrayal

‘What did you think? I’d leave you in Afghanistan? No chance.’

Pen Farthing[24]

We couldn’t leave her behind. Pulya is family so Pulya comes too”.

Alisa Teptiuk[25]

In a recent article on the war in Ukraine, Kendra Coulter observes that the dedication residents and refugees have shown to animals reveals that even in the most dangerous times, the human capacity for cruelty “is rivalled only by our ability to be courageous and compassionate.”[26] This is certainly true. But from the sagas of Farthing’s animals and Ukraine nonhuman refugees something more definite emerges, that exposes a crucial phenomenon: in extreme situations, intersubjective relations with dependent nonhuman beings that in normal conditions are experienced as aproblematic may disclose their true, deep nature, dissolving barriers between species and giving way to that innate, powerful sense of responsibility in the form of loyalty which, challenging human-supremacist ideology, can express itself in the choice of giving them precedence over anyone else, or of risking one’s life for them.

What can one say of all this? Both the question of species and the question of responsibility are ethically decisive, but differently so. The repudiation of the moral relevance of species – it does not matter that companion animals are not human, they are full-fledged friends or members of the family – concerns fundamental moral status and basicindividual protectionand points in the direction of a universalist ethical framework within which group membership is ruled out as a ground for discrimination – just as race or sex cannot licence differential treatment, neither can species. This is what has been defined as “moral individualism,” a requirement imposed by rationality which prescribes that what must be considered in the treatment of beings are their own attributes, and not the classes to which they are ascribed.[27] It is clear that what ethical reflection has so articulated was naturally and immediately grasped within the mentioned bonds with companion animals. Amid the chaos and desperation of the bomb blasts at the Kabul airport, and during the trying and dangerous escape from Russian occupation, the lives cats and dogs from Nowzad and of the companion animals from Kyiv or Irpin mattered as the lives of any other fleeing individual.

Indeed, to Pen Farthing and to the Ukrainian fugitives, they mattered more. And here comes the question of responsibility as loyalty. With it, having been introduced on an equal basis into the sphere of basic protection, companion animals are admitted to the realm of special relations – a realm where the pursuit of specific conceptions of the good may leave room for preferential treatment. Recently promoted by feminist authors, the ethics of relations is somewhat tied to the historical tradition of virtue ethics.[28] And virtue ethics, that is not addressed to the question “What should we do?” but to the question “How shall we live?”[29] is older than rule-based ethics, and has to do with older predispositions, so that in its domain one can find references to ethology, or the study of human and animal natural behavior. Evidently, among those of our natural attitudes which are traditionally seen as virtues, some are not characterized by impartiality. These is obviously the case with relational virtues, among which responsibility as loyalty. However, as Mary Midgley reminded us, a certain narrowness in intersubjective connections is only to be expected, as in evolution they have originally served the essential function of making possible devoted provision for the young.[30] From this original source arose the more general predisposition to responsibility for vulnerable beings in need of one’s protection. And the more ancient the predisposition, the stronger its hold. 

In our case, responsibility as loyalty can be translated into non-betrayal. Non-betrayal can refer to many things, but, since the word betrayal comes from the Latin verb tradere, meaning “to hand over,” it is clear that the exemplary form of betrayal has to do with abandonment. And from the inheritance of our natural history it follows that the worst form of abandonment concerns trustful and dependent beings. This is what Joseph Conrad had in mind when he wrote that the young Jim, first mate on a ship carrying pilgrims, after jumping into a lifeboat before an approaching storm, abandoning his poor human cargo to what seemed certain death, “tumbled from a height he could never scale again.”[31]  

Pen Farthing and the Ukraine refugees did not abjure their responsibility. “I am loyal to my dogs”[32] Farthing claimed when, refusing to board the RAF flight bringing only Nowzad’s human inmates, he arranged to rescue the animals first. “Nobody will take care of Maliboo if I leave him.. I have taken his responsibility, I will take care of him no matter what happens,” Rishabh Kaushik said when he took the risk of staying in war-torn Kharkiv while his family was leaving the country.[33] What these attitudes express, and what Jim did renounce, is indeed nothing but the late fruit of a selected primordial virtue, so that, as Stephen Asma put it, the sort of care involved in loyalty “is not a concept, but a natural biological event.”[34]

What This Can Mean

While women are anew segregated under Sharia law in Afghanistan, and citizens keep being besieged, murdered and tortured in Ukraine, what has been defined as “the war against animals”[35] continues all over the world. And whereas courageous social movements and dedicated organizations strenuously try to curb intra-human violence, the international animal liberation movement works culturally and politically for the enfranchisement of nonhuman beings. 

What can the events just considered tell us with respect to this scenario? As for the human condition, their only implication seems to be that, as Coulter points out, even in the face of lethal danger “compassionate” individuals do exist amongst us, thus showing that improvement is not a totally lost cause. As for the situation of nonhumans, on the other hand, they do something different: they mark a qualitative leap, providing an actual opportunity for reform. For if this new appraisal of companion animals spontaneously arising from reality could lead to that overdue abolition of their status as property,[36] such an institutionalized change might pave the way for something broader. It might, in fact, start bridging the “abyssal gap”[37] we have arbitrarily created between ourselves and all the other animals. 

Notes

I thank Franco Salanga and Harlan B. Miller for their constructive comments.

Paola Cavalieri is a philosopher and animal rights activist. Her most recent book is Philosophy and the Politics of Animal Liberation.


[1] Pen Farthing | Military Wiki | Fandom

[2] As rescued dog Nowzad ran towards me, I said: Did you think I would leave you to die in Afghanistan? No chance | Daily Mail Online

[3] Reuniting soldiers with dogs they left behind – CNN

[4] Pen Farthing’s animals: How many cats and dogs Nowzad founder is trying to rescue from Kabul, and latest news (inews.co.uk)

[5] Ben Wallace blasts animal lover Pen Farthing in explosive GMB row saying we have to ‘prioritise people not pets’ (thesun.co.uk)

[6] Pen Farthing went on foul-mouthed tirade at MoD official demanding flight be allowed into Kabul | Daily Mail OnlineBen Wallace blasts ‘bullying’ Pen Farthing supporters in furious row over Afghan dogs – Mirror Online

[7] Pen Farthing: ‘I was called disgusting over Kabul animal rescue’ – BBC News

[8] Afghanistan: Pen Farthing through Kabul airport security with animals – BBC NewsPen Farthing and animals ‘safe’ after landing at Heathrow | The Independent

[9] Did Carrie intervene to rescue animals stranded in Kabul? | Daily Mail Online

[10] Afghanistan: Pen Farthing’s animals saved from Kabul in ‘direct trade-off’ with refugees, whistleblower claims (inews.co.uk)

[11] Pen Farthing: ‘Animals in a cargo hold never got in the way of people getting on a flight’ | Afghanistan | The Guardian

[12] Over 4.2 million refugees have fled Ukraine since Russian invasion began (axios.com)

[13] A Ukrainian man carries a fish and a cat he saved from the residential building hit by the Russian missiles earlier today in Kyiv. Humanity always prevails : ukraine (reddit.com)

[14] Ukraine latest: Volunteer, 26, shot dead as she delivered supplies to a dog shelter near Kyiv (inews.co.uk)

[15] Ukrainian teen refugee credits her cat for keeping her safe (nbcnews.com)

[16] Abandoned animals join Ukraine’s war exodus (france24.com)

[17] Ukraine Student Refuses To Leave War-Torn Country Without Beloved Pet Dog (newsweek.com)

[18] La storia del gatto Timon, in salvo dall’Ucraina all’Italia con la sua famiglia umana – La Stampa

[19] dogs: This image of woman rescuing disabled dogs in Ukraine is both poignant and hopeful – The Economic Times (indiatimes.com)Meet Nastya Tikhaya — the Hero Saving Disabled Dogs in Ukraine · The Wildest

[20] Heartbreaking bark as canine misplaced in Ukraine battle reunites together with her proprietor ‘A little bit constructive’ – Magmint – Magmint

[21] Ukraine: Heartbreaking bark as dog lost in Ukraine war reunites with her owner | Nature | News | Express.co.uk

[22] Ukraine refugees and their pets receive emergency help in Poland (ifaw.org). Over 100,000 animals have been evacuated by trains since the beginning of full-scale war, according to the press service of Ukrzaliznytsia, the Ukrainian Railways, which has added: “Ukrainians do not leave those they love.”  See Domestic foxes, iguanas, boas and seals: Ukrainians evacuated over 100,000 animals by Ukrzaliznytsia trains during the war – BlogH1.com

[23] Free Veterinary Care for Pets of Ukrainian Refugees Launched Across 38 European Countries – One Green Planet.  

[24] As rescued dog Nowzad ran towards me, I said: Did you think I would leave you to die in Afghanistan? No chance | Daily Mail Online cit.

[25] War dog Pulya carried to safety by love of her family as they fled Ukraine – Belfast Live  cit.

[26] The war in Ukraine is powerfully magnifying our love for animals (theconversation.com)

[27] See James Rachels, Created from Animals. The Moral Implications of Darwinism, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990, pp. 174 ff. It goes without saying that, in such contexts, no weight is given either to other aspects usually invoked to exclude nonhumans from equal treatment, such as cognitive level or even difference in “essences.”

[28] We are here interpreting relational ethics as covering morality in the broad sense – that is, the domain of what it might be good, but is not universally obligatory, to do or not to do – and as a “reformulation of what constitutes a virtuous life for a human being.” See Daniel Putnam, “Relational ethics and virtue theory”, Metaphilosophy, Vol. 22, No. 3, July 1991, pp. 231-238. On the other hand, some feminist scholars insist that relational ethics, or the ethics of care, is a distinct moral theory and not a concern to be added to other approaches, and that the focus on relationships is different from the focus on individual dispositions; see e.g. Virginia Held, The Ethics of Care: Personal, Political and Global, New York: Oxford University Press 2006, p. 3.

[29] See Harlan B. Miller, “Science, Ethics and Moral Status,” Between the Species vol. 10, n. 1 p. 10. 

[30] Mary Midgley, “The Origin of Ethics,” in Peter Singer, ed., A Companion to Ethics, Oxford: Clarendon Press 1993, p. 11.

[31] Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim: A tale, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2002, p. 82.

[32] Pen Farthing: ‘I’m loyal to my dogs – so my country has abandoned me to the Taliban in Afghanistan’ (inews.co.uk)

[33] Ukraine Student Refuses To Leave War-Torn Country Without Beloved Pet Dog (newsweek.com)

[34] Stephen T. Asma, “The Myth of Universal Love,” January 5, 2013, at The Myth of Universal Love — opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com — Readability (uutampa.org)

[35] See Dinesh J. Wadiwel, The War against Animals, Leiden/Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2015. See also D. Wadiwel, “Counter-Conduct and Truce,” in Paola Cavalieri, ed., Philosophy and the Politics of Animal Liberation, New York: Palgrave Macmillan 2016, pp. 187-237. 

[36] Actually, in many countries companion animals already start being variously protected and are sometimes even considered in courts as family members, and vast is the philosophical and legal literature that challenges their condition as property. See e.g. Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka “Citizen Canine: Agency for Domesticated Animals” (paper presented at “Domesticity and Beyond: Living and Working with Animals,” Queen’s University, Sept. 29-30, 2012).

[37] An “abyssal gap” that even Jacques Derrida, notoriously interested in the plight of animals, staunchly defends, going so far as to add his conviction that there is “a radical discontinuity between what one calls animals…and man [sic]”. See Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow… A Dialogue, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004, pp. 66, 72– 3.