Topsham veterinarian goes to the dogs in Afghanistan

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TOPSHAM — Susan Chadima’s life as a veterinarian includes her practice on quiet Foreside Road and on war-torn streets in Afghanistan.

Chadima, who founded the Androscoggin Animal Hospital in 1985, will talk about her experiences at the Topsham Public Library at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 15.

With her will be Pen Farthing, a former United Kingdom royal marine who founded Nowzad Dogs, a nonprofit organization that rescues stray and abandoned dogs, cats and donkeys in Afghanistan. The group rehabilitates those animals and locates them new homes in safe places around the globe.

Chadima will head to Afghanistan at the end of this month, her ninth trip since 2005. Her first trip took her to a small Kabul University veterinary clinic that had been destroyed during a civil war, then rebuilt and reopened. Under the auspices of the Dutch Committee for Afghanistan, Chadima did clinical teaching to help restart that facility.

“The great thing is that I really have made a lot of connections with Afghan veterinarians,” Chadima said on Monday.

She has continued to do work primarily with the Afghanistan Veterinary Association and maintained her contacts with the university, and she has also worked with two small animal rescue groups. Chadima will work directly with Nowzad in her upcoming trip as a consulting veterinarian and to train veterinary staff.

Nowzad Dogs is named for Now Zad, a wartorn town in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, according to the organization’s website, Farthing and his fellow royal marine commandos arrived there in 2006 to provide the residents stability in the wake of vanishing security.

But he found that many local animals, particularly dogs – malnourished strays who scavenged for food – needed help as well. Soon the dogs that came under the marines’ protection were eating two meals a day in the form of leftover military rations.

The charity has grown from there, as detailed in Farthing’s two books, “One Dog at a Time” and “No Place Like Home.”

“It’s a two-sided kind of situation,” Chadima said. “On the one hand, people say, ‘why are you helping dogs in Afghanistan when there are so many other needs?’ The reality is, that the dogs are there, that there are disease problems, rabies is endemic, dogs are not vaccinated, so it’s a health issue for people as well.”

While culturally, Afghanistan is not known to be dog-friendly, Chadima said, “I would say the reality is that everyday I have Afghans bring dogs in for medical care and attention. So the reality doesn’t necessarily support the widespread kind of stereotype that Afghans hate dogs.”

Chadima noted that many dogs serve utilitarian purposes, like guarding and shepherding, as opposed to just being typical pets. Still, she has seen attachments between the dogs and their owners.

At home, Chadima continues to offer a long-distance hand: she received a call from Afghanistan the other day when a veterinarian had a question about treating an injured dog.

“When they have something that’s new and different, they give me a call,” she said. “… We did a consult over the phone, and it worked out fine.”

Chadima continues to go back largely because of the personal connections she has forged in the past seven years. She said she has been able to “begin to get a little bit of a window into a culture that is so different from ours, and start to have a little bit of understanding about a part of the world that most of us don’t have a very good understanding about.”

“I think people think that (Afghans) are all Islamic terrorists, and they’re not,” she said. “… (They) want the same thing for their families that we do, they want their children to be able to grow up … to be able to go to school, become educated, have a good job, they want a stable family, they want a stable country.”

Chadima described the Afghan people as warm, friendly, hospitable and deeply focused on family. In recent trips she has sublet part of a house, where she lives cautiously, dressing in Afghan clothes, traveling with Afghan drivers and going where Afghans take her.

She said she hopes people who attend the May 15 presentation will “have their eyes opened about Afghanistan in a way maybe that they’re not used to thinking about it,” and “really recognize the importance of the work that’s being done, that it really is a chance to help … animals that don’t have a voice to speak for themselves. And, by extension, also helping the Afghan people.”

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Sidebar Elements

Susan Chadima, founder of the Androscoggin Animal Hospital in Topsham, will travel to Afghanistan later this month for the ninth time, to serve as a consulting veterinarian and to train veterinary staff.

A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.