Caring for canines in conflict


​Neil Harris gave up a career as a Royal Marine Commando to devote his life to saving stray dogs in conflict zones

10th July 2017 by Robert Armour 0 Comments

Neil Harris recalls the situation all too well and while it nearly cost him a court martial, he has no regrets.

“Maybe I did take a risk,” he says in retrospect. “It was a risk though I thought was worth taking. “And given the same situation, I’d probably do the same again.”

Attached the 1 Scots, Harris, a Royal Marine Commando, was on patrol in the notoriously dangerous Helmand province of Afghanistan, when he stopped his armoured Land Rover deep in Taliban-controlled territory and disembarked. 

His crew recalls that they at first thought he’d located an IED (improvised explosive device) at the side of the road, a common occurrence among the Taliban-controlled dirt tracks of the province. In an act of selflessness, they imagined Harris had gone out to scout for other devices in a bid to clear the way for her patrol. However the reality was a whole lot different.

When the 26 year-old from Dumfries returned moments later with a litter of mongrel pups, no more than four weeks old, proclaiming to his crew they’d just saved four lives, tempers flared.  

“It was quite instinctive,” Harris said. “I never appreciated the danger so I understood the anger of my patrol. In hindsight it was a pretty stupid thing to do but I don’t regret taking that action. It changed my life.”

While his actions resulted in a formal warning from the top brass, it did little to discourage Harris’s support for canine’s caught up in conflict.

That was in 2012. Six months later Harris finished his tour but returned to the country to set up the charity Canines in Conflict to rescue dogs in danger zones.

Although he’s never owned a dog, Harris said their pitiful plight in the war Afghanistan triggered something inside him.

“Driving back that day I had it figured out,” he said. “By the time we got back to the compound I had the plan to create an organisation rescuing dogs in danger zones.”

The charity now operates in countries across the world with Harris acting as a development officer who sets-up rescue centres staffed by local volunteers.

As well as Afghanistan, he has set up centres in Iraq, Lebanon and is currently in talks with animal welfare volunteers in Syria.

Locating the dogs is the easy part; recruiting volunteers takes up most resources. 

“We might be a nation of dog lovers but this sentiment is rarely shared outside Europe,” Harris says. “Our attachment to animals and domestic pets is often completely unknown in places like the middle east and Asia. Considering human life is cheap in war-torn countries then you can appreciate animals are hardly going to be looked after.”

Surpassingly Harris has been able to attract major corporate sponsors, receiving over £120,000 in funding. He has also received lottery grants as well as loan finance deal from Charity Bank.

“Our rescue centre in Iraq cost £50,000 to build because we had to use state-registered contractors because of the way contracts operate in the country. Otherwise it would have been a fraction of that, perhaps only £10,000.

So that took up a huge amount of resources. Thankfully Unilever, which has a subsidiary which makes pet products, gave us funding.”

That centre is now the biggest, able to support 30 dogs in purpose-built kennels. “It’s not about rehoming,” says Harris. “People won’t take pets in Iraq. So we have to care for them on site. They stay in the centre. If we’re full we’ll treat the worst cases and we’ll have to let them go back to the streets.

“We also do street work where we treat strays on site for a number of ailments. Most are infected with skin diseases and abscesses. These can be successfully and quite easily treated.”

We might be a nation of dog lovers but this sentiment is rarely shared outside Europe

The work has brought Harris into contact with some remarkable individuals he says who go the extra mile and risk their lives to save their four legged friends.

“Ahmad, our fixer in Iraq, alone negotiated with IS commanders to enter treat strays in Mosul, at the time one of the most dangerous cities on earth. Astonishingly they allowed him to do so and he became known to them as “Ahmad the furry one!”

Aside from setting up the rescue centres, Harris sees the organisation increasing its canine awareness work in a bid to educate local people in conflict zones to feed and to look out for dogs in their area.

“The dog population end up burgeoning without effective sterilisation and this is something locals can easily do once they’re trained,” said Harris. “As the strays carry disease – and young kids are often in contact with them – it’s a message we’re keen to disseminate widely.”

In the meantime Harris’s most pressing concern is where his next tranche of funding is coming from. “It was initially a romantic notion first thought up in the back of on APC but I never knew quite how much admin and bureaucracy I’d have to cut through,” he says. “On top of that I’m eternally chasing money. But my military training keeps me organised and prepared for the worst. I love what I do - it's my life now."