By BRIANNA BOND, Capital News Service
WASHINGTON - After her dog, Casey, died five months ago, Natalie Sandler, a lifelong dog owner from Rockville, swore she wouldn't get another pet.
That was before she met Neri, a 13-pound, 8-month-old, mixed-breed puppy.
"I saw this puppy, and we fell in love," she said.
Neri was one of 39 puppies rescued by Concern for Helping Animals in Israel—a 22-year-old, Arlington-based non-profit—this summer during the armed conflict with Hezbollah. He met Sandler at the Montgomery County Humane Society Rescue Shelter in Rockville, one of three shelters in the D.C. metro area that helped CHAI place the animals.
The puppies were flown from Israel to New York City then driven to Maryland. From there they were housed in the animal shelters to await adoption. Four puppies are still awaiting homes.
"The puppies were just aching for affection," said Tali Lavie, spokeswoman for Hakol Chai, CHAI's sister charity in Tel Aviv, which also helped about 20 dogs find homes in Israel and placed more than 12 tons of food and hundreds of water dishes in the streets of northern Israel.
Though they battled starvation and dehydration while roaming deserted, bomb-ridden, city streets, most of the puppies arrived in the United States looking healthy and energized.
The Rockville shelter received a pair of pit bull puppies that were "happy as clams," running around the night they arrived "as if nothing had happened," said Ashley Owen, director of humane education for the Montgomery County Humane Society.
Other dogs were more visibly distressed, like the Great Pyrenees puppy that refused to leave its crate. "He was just petrified," she said.
"There's no question that some of these dogs have suffered at the hands of people," said Nina Natelson, executive director of CHAI. One dog, Jessie, a Weimeraner, was severely beaten by several people as she tried to enter a bomb shelter where dogs weren't allowed. "During that difficult time, people weren't at their best," she said.
Hakol Chai was eventually able to reunite Jessie with her family, she said.
Much like humans, animals react differently to high-stress situations, said animal behaviorist Ken Buzzard, who's been training dogs for 30 years and who runs Last Chance Dog Training in Catonsville. But "the younger the dog, the more resilient they are and the . . . easier they are to train," he said.
Other animal advocacy groups were dispersed across the war-torn region, including Best Friends Animal Society, which housed nearly 300 dogs and cats from Beirut at their animal sanctuary in Kanab, Utah.
"They were all stressed out, but frankly no more than we're used to," said Best Friends President Michael Mountain, though he noted that some of the animals still had bullets and shrapnel lodged in them when they arrived.
Neri got a clean bill of health from the vet. Since arriving at his new home the day before Thanksgiving, he's started to evolve into a puppy again, Sandler said. But a few instances, like the time his ears perked up and his body froze when a loud jet flew over the house, are indication that he hasn't completely forgotten his past.
The pup, whose name means "my candle" in Hebrew, is practically lapping in luxury compared to his days as a street dog struggling to survive the unbearable Israeli August heat.
His new home comes with an outdoor dog run, a spacious crate filled with rubber chew toys and a navy parka—his favorite possession—to keep him warm during cold Maryland nights.
"My pets are completely pampered. I do everything in the world I can for them," Sandler said.
She stayed true to her word when she jumped at a friend's offer to drive the dog down to Florida to meet her and husband, Gene, for vacation. Since she can't carry him on the plane—he's too large for the 17-inch carry-on designated by Jet Blue—it's the next best choice.
She doesn't mind shouldering the extra cost if it means he doesn't have to fly in the cargo hold of an airplane again, she said. "Like I say, nothing is too good for my pets."