Pets from Middle East Land at New Home in Loudoun

Animal welfare groups SPCA International and Pet Rescue Pilots landed at Leesburg Executive Airport on Friday, Aug. 14 with precious cargo: cats and dogs found as strays in Iraq and brought to their new homes in Loudoun.

It was part of a mission to rescue 47 dogs and cats from Iraq, befriended and adopted by U.S. service members and contractors deployed overseas in the Middle East. Originally, they were scheduled to travel to the U.S. in March and April, but they were stranded by travel restrictions in the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, on Aug. 12, they flew from Erbil, Iraq to JFK International Airport in New York City—and from there, around the United States.

Some of them were bound for Loudoun, including a dog named Theo who was instantly in love with Lance Leviner.

“A friend of mine was letting me know about the whole operation, and asked if I was interested in adopting,” Leviner said. “And at first I was hesitant, but then I saw her face and I absolutely fell in love.”

He adopted Theo knowing very little about her, but as soon as she was off the plane, she was eager to play and make friends on the tarmac in Leesburg.

“I just knew that she came from a litter that they had found, and this was back in mid-March,” Leviner said. “And I started getting pictures, and I was like, I love you already.”

The two dogs and a cat who flew to Leesburg were on a flight of 10 animals from New York with stops in Maryland, North and South Carolina, and Alabama. They were flying with Pet Rescue Pilots chief pilot Julian Savor. He said he has been flying pets for three years, and when SPCA International asked him to help out with some stranded animals in New York: “I was like, ‘heck yeah!’ in the nicest terms possible. I was a little bit more enthusiastic than that.”

He planned to a fly a total of 34 animals to new homes over three or four days, with Leesburg the second stop of a 16-hour day of flying.

Many of those animals are being reunited with the U.S. service members and contractors who first met them in Iraq—SPCA International’s Operation Baghdad Pups program was founded in 2008 to rescue and reunite them with those pets, and to date has rescued more than 1,000 animals from countries in the Middle East, Central Europe, Southeast Asia and Africa.

“All of these animals are strays when we find them,” said SPCA International Executive Director Meredith Ayan, who accompanied those animals on their journey Friday. And they already have families waiting for them when they fly to the U.S.: “We don’t want them to have to come back to the U.S. and wonder what is going to become of them.”

To find out more about SPCA International, go to To find out more about Pet Rescue Pilots, go to

Theo, Sally, and Charlotte meet their new families on the tarmac of Leesburg Executive Airport with help from SPCA International and Pet Rescue Pilots. Feral Bueller, far right, had to hop back on the plane—there were still stops to make in the Carolinas and Alabama. [Renss Greene/Loudoun Now]

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