A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

The Terrible Irony of Target the Hero

A canine war hero falls victim to a shelter here at home

By Michael Mountain

(Rufus and Target)

Target survived the mean streets of Afghanistan. She survived a suicide bomber. The one thing she couldn’t survive was an animal shelter here in the United States.

Target, like many other dogs in war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq, had found safe haven with friendly American troops. A welcome addition to life in the barracks, the dogs gave as much as they received. When a suicide bomber approached the barracks one night, Target and her two canine pals, Sasha and Rufus, discovered the intruder and scared him away. The bomber blew himself up outside, killing Sasha, and wounding Target and Rufus.

While being treated by Army medic Sgt. Terry Young, 37, Target bonded with her new friend and doctor. And when Sgt. Young was due to return home to Arizona, he got in touch with Nowzad Dogs – a charity founded by soldiers in the U.S. and the U.K. The group arranged for Target and Rufus to be flown back stateside. Rufus went to a home in Atlanta, and Target was flown to Arizona, where Sgt. Young adopted her.

A hero’s welcome, and then. . .

Life for dogs in Afghanistan is mostly short and cruel. Considered unclean in the regional culture, many of them simply starve; others are routinely abused – often forced into the local “sport” of dog fighting.

Back in the United States, by contrast, Target got a hero’s welcome, including an appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

At her new home in Casa Grande, Arizona, the new arrival was still learning the ropes of American family life, from canned food to fenced yards, when, one Friday afternoon, she squeezed through an opening and went for a stroll by herself. Picked up by animal control, Target was taken to the shelter.

After searching the neighborhood, Young identified her online but thought the shelter was closed for the weekend. When he arrived there on Monday to pick her up, he learned that Target was dead. A shelter worker had mistaken her for another dog whose time had run out … and had killed her.

Enough has already been said about the many mistakes that contributed to this tragedy. Yes, Target should have been wearing a collar and tag. She could have been microchipped. And yes, the shelter should have had better systems in place, and the shelter worker, who has since been fired, made a bad mistake (except, perhaps from the point of view of the dog who got to live another day or two in Target’s place).

But ultimately, all this is beside the point. The simple fact is that animal shelters can still be dangerous places for homeless pets. The very word “shelter” is a misnomer for any facility that’s little more than a holding center for a few days until and unless you’re reclaimed or adopted. After that, frankly, you’d be better off taking your chances on the mean streets of Afghanistan.

How to stop the killing

The no-kill movement has come a long way since its birth in the early 1990s. The number of homeless animals killed in shelters every year has dropped from around 17 million to less than 5 million. That’s major progress. But it’s still 5 million deaths too many.

“The way to stop the killing at animal shelters is simply to stop the killing.”

In Target’s case, it’s not a matter of who to blame for what happened. The real fault lies in our basic value system. Until the lives of non-human animals are considered to have value in and of themselves – and the right not to be killed because they’re lost or homeless – these “mistakes” will go on happening. Until then, dogs and cats and other homeless animals will die because it’s allowed…because it’s part of the system. And we’ll go on saying they were “euthanized” because that sounds nicer and covers up what we’re really doing.

The way to stop the killing at animal shelters is simply to stop the killing. Only when killing is taken off the table will we take the necessary steps – spay/neuter, adoption and the shutting down of the puppy mills – to ensure that every companion animal who’s ever born spends his or her life in a good home with a caring family.

What an irony that a dog who had survived the worst that life and death could throw at her in a war-torn country had no defense against an animal “shelter” in her new adoptive country.