Don't get scared when Oso, the 81-pound tiger-striped dog, raises her lips.
“It looks like she’s growling,” concedes her owner, Army Sgt. Phil Bourrillion of Puyallup.
But, he insists, “she raises her lips like she’s smiling when she’s happy. It’s definitely a smile.
“It’s almost like she knows she was rescued from a horrible life and is very grateful.”
Oso has plenty to smile about these days.
She eats natural whole dog food, gets to ride in the back of a pickup and loves to gnaw rubbery Nylabones. She plays in a grassy yard with her canine housemates Casper and Jersey and sleeps in bed with Phil and his wife, Lena. This summer, Oso learned to swim in the Puyallup River.
She’s living the dog’s life – a life that’s half a world away from her harsh birthplace in rural Afghanistan. Soldiers in Bourrillion’s unit found Oso there as a starving pup scavenging through a trash pit in the summer of 2009.
Today, Oso is among scores of lucky dogs and cats rescued from Afghanistan and Iraq with the help of a charity called Nowzad and local and international volunteers.
This Wednesday, Pen Farthing, founder of the United Kingdom-based Nowzad, will speak at Tacoma’s Moore Library about the rescue efforts and his book, “One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Afganistan.” The name of his organization originates from a small town called Now Zad, in Helmand Province, where Farthing and fellow soldiers in the United Kingdom’s Royal Marines began rescuing strays.
Oso and her owners plan to be at Farthing’s talk.
The Puyallup pooch was rescued too recently to be mentioned in Farthing’s book, released in August. But she’s one of the animals featured on Nowzad’s website and the website of the U.S.-based Soldiers’ Animal Companions Fund that raises money for Nowzad.
Countless strays roam war-ravaged Afghanistan and Iraq, and just a few find temporary shelter with coalition soldiers who encounter them. When the soldiers depart, they can’t bring the dogs home via military transport, leaving the animals to face an uncertain and often cruel future.
“Afghan people don’t regard dogs as pets,” Bourrillion, 31, said. “They use them for work to herd sheep, or make them fight for money.”
According to the Soldier’ Fund website, the Taliban consider dogs “unclean.”
“They may be used as target practice, blown up, run over or starved,” the group’s site states. “Their only value is to be used in dog fighting, a miserable so-called sport for which dogs’ ears and tails are cut off to enable them to be more competitive fighters.”
Bourrillion and his wife, Lena, couldn’t bear that to happen to Oso.
Lena had been hearing Phil’s stories and seeing photos of the pup ever since soldiers in his unit discovered Oso and two siblings. At the time, he was part of the 5th Stryker Brigade’s 3-17th Field Artillery Regiment from Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
The men took the pups back to base, and Bourrillion’s unit adopted Oso.
They made her a house out of cardboard boxes, turned T-shirts and towels into bedding, and fed her tuna, chicken and other leftovers.
They called her “Oso” the Spanish word for bear, because she looked like a bear cub. Bourrillion thinks the dog is a mix of Anatolian Shepherd and Kuchi, two Middle Eastern breeds raised to herd sheep.
“She was our own little pet. All the guys would play with her, call her. She’d follow the guys around. She was real people-friendly.”
In her own special way, Oso contributed to the war effort.
“She reminded me about home,” Phil said. “Having a piece of home in a war-torn country gets you through the day. Everyone loved having her.”
In late November 2009, about three months after finding Oso, Bourrillion’s platoon moved to another part of Afghanistan. Bourrillion told Lena, who was at home in Puyallup, that Army commanders told him he’d have to leave behind little Oso or she’d have to be put down.
“He said he’d rather have to shoot his own puppy than have someone else do it because he didn’t know what would happen to her,” Lena said. “I thought this is the one thing I did not want him to have as a bad memory, that he would have to shoot her. ... She’s the one beam of sunlight that he and his friends would talk about.”
Lena suggested they try to bring Oso home, and launched an intensive, months-long research and rescue operation. After posting inquiries for help on the Internet, Lena eventually connected with Nowzad and raised roughly $3,500 through a Facebook page dedicated to saving Oso. One donor gave an additional $5,000 to help other dogs, Lena said.
“Through a huge group of people donating their time and money to get Oso’s flights, vaccines and resources ... we worked her across the globe to the United States,” Phil said.
Oso’s journey could be a book in itself. A local Afghani was hired to drive Oso hundreds of miles across enemy lines to a safe house in Kabul. Once there, the dog suffered a life-threatening case of canine influenza. She recovered in time to make a 50-hour trip from the Middle East to New York.
On Feb. 9, Oso and an escort finally arrived at SeaTac Airport, and the immigrant began life as an American dog.
When Phil’s unit returned from Afghanistan to Joint Base Lewis-McChord on June 21, Oso, draped with red, white and blue ribbons around her neck, was at the welcome ceremony to slather his face in dog kisses.
The Bourrillions continue to raise money and awareness for animals befriended by coalition soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Facebook page Lena started to save Oso has since provided information to help a handful of additional dogs begin lives in the States with their military friends, she said.
Each day Phil, Lena and their 14-year-old daughter, Marrisa, return home, they can count on Oso to greet them with a huge swing of the tail and a doggy smile.
“It’s the funniest thing. It’s so cute,” Lena said. “No matter how many times I’ve seen it, it makes me smile.”
Debby Abe: 253-597-8694
If you go
What: Retired Royal Marine Pen Farthing discusses his efforts to rescue dogs befriended by British and American soldiers in Afghanistan and signs his book, “One Dog at a Time: Saving the Strays of Afghanistan.”
When: 7 to 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Where: Moore Library, 215 S. 56th St., Tacoma.
Book sales: Farthing’s book will be available for purchase at the talk. Proceeds help support the nonprofit group Nowzad, which cares for and rescues dogs, cats and donkeys in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Learn more about Nowzad at www. nowzad.com.
Donations: The U.S.-based Soldiers’ Animal Companions Fund raises money for Nowzad. Learn about the group and see more photos and video of Oso at www.sacfund.com.
Oso: See photos, video and the story of Oso’s rescue and new home at the two above websites or go to www.facebook.com and search for Operation Save Others.