While 150 British and 1,100 Afghan aid workers have been left at the mercy of the Taliban in Kabul, the British government allowed a flight from Afghanistan to land at Heathrow airport carrying 200 dogs and 70 cats from a shelter with “empty seats”. Now, British supporters who have seen dogs and cats prioritised over their families are asking, “Why is my five-year-old daughter worth less than her dog?

It all started with the campaign of Pen Farthing, a former British Marine who, having completed his military service in Afghanistan, decided to stay in the country to build an animal shelter in Kabul. Because of his British and ex-military status, the UK government gave Farthing the opportunity to be evacuated, but he refused to leave the country unless the 200 dogs and 70 cats from Nowzad, his shelter, left with him.

The initial response from Ben Wallace, Britain’s defence minister, was that “pets would obviously not be given priority over people”. It was then that Farthing used his fame and his social networks with hundreds of thousands of followers to start a campaign to put pressure on the British government to authorise the evacuation of the animals.

Pen Farthing took part in dozens of TV shows and interviews until he managed to raise the funds to fly the animals out on a privately funded charter flight. All he needed was for the British government to approve what he called “Operation Ark”: for his plane to arrive at Kabul airport, load the animals and fly to England.

The ex-marine explained on various programmes that the plane would be full of Afghan helpers, including about 20 workers from his shelter, and that the animals would go in the hold, where humans cannot go, so the animals would not take the place of any helpers. It was a campaign that succeeded in rallying British public opinion and personalities such as the comedian Ricky Gervais.

Despite pressure on social networks and in the media, the Ministry of Defence did not change its mind at first, so Pen Farthing went with his animals and his team to Kabul airport, where, after accusing the Defence officials of “blocking” them, he managed to gain access.

Just a day later, on Friday, and surprisingly for many, the Ministry of Defence announced that the former Marine and his animals were at Kabul airport and that the UK government had cleared their charter flight. Wallace insisted that the dogs and cats would not take places away from people, although he complained that “attending to this is taking too much time for senior officers who should be focusing on the humanitarian crisis”.

Shortly afterwards, the soldiers helped Pen Farthing load his animals onto the plane, along with 125 kilos of pet food, 72 cans, 270 litres of water, 12 industrial-sized rolls of paper and 20 bottles of disinfectant.

Those who did not make it onto the plane were the 24 Afghan staff helping Farthing at the shelter. On arrival in Oslo, where his wife lives, Farthing acknowledged that there were “empty seats”. What the ex-marine described in a tweet as a “partial success”.

However, this sparked controversy in the UK. While 150 British and 1100 Afghan staff were left in Afghanistan, on Sunday, a flight with 200 dogs, 70 cats, no Afghan staff and empty seats landed at Heathrow airport. The animals are, by the way, according to veterinarian Iain McGill, in good health.

One of the most critical of the approval of “Operation Ark” has been former military officer and now Conservative MP Tom Tungendhat who, in an interview with LBC said “What would you say to me if I sent an ambulance to save my dog instead of its mother? We just used a lot of troops to bring in 200 dogs while the family of my former interpreter is almost certainly about to be killed? The ex-military man said he didn’t know what to answer when that interpreter asked him, “Why is my five-year-old daughter worth less than your dog?”

But the truth is that despite the criticism, and the doubts about who and why granted permission for the operation, the fact is that those 200 dogs and 70 cats have been rescued and have already been offered adoption, while those Britons and Afghans left behind in Kabul remain in danger.

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