Why you should care
Because these really good dogs deserve a good home.
Kaste, a black female Belgian Malinois, was born in Bosnia in 2006. A herding breed known for their intelligence, Malinois have been the go-to dog in modern times for dangerous but glory-filled work. Kaste, in fact, was drafted into service. She was shipped to the Cambodian Mine Action Centre in Kampong Chhnang Province, Cambodia, for training on clearing land infested with mines and unexploded ordinances. She was put on a mission to save lives.
And as a short-leash mine detection dog, she likely did: In her 10 years of fieldwork, she helped clear around 150 acres of land in Cambodia. But as her whiskers grayed and a tumor was discovered on her teat, she was granted an honorable discharge from service.
Because medical operations are costly, this would typically mean that a dog like Kaste would be put down. And because of her specialized training, she would have needed a dedicated family to adopt her — that is, if a network existed to offer adoption. It doesn’t. That’s where Home of Heroes comes in. The organization located in Phnom Penh — and in its very early stages — is the first retirement home for bomb-sniffing dogs in the world.
Yulia Khouri, who runs the shelter, had a background in humanitarian work when she moved to Cambodia in 2010. She quickly rescued a wild macaque named Charlie and became involved with the NGO Wildlife Alliance. “Once you work in a rescue industry it’s something that happens to you over and over whether you like it or not,” she says.
The older retirees get to lounge in Khouri’s apartment between walks.
Nine years ago there were no animal rescue agencies in the country, Khouri says. When she began taking in animals, word spread quickly. She became known as a patron saint of rescue animals in Phnom Penh. And by 2016 she realized she was spending half her salary annually on medicine and food for the birds, cats and dogs. She soon opened Animal Mama Veterinary Hospital & Pet Wellness Center, which included a doggy daycare and a holiday retreat to help with the bills. With no background in animals, she says that if you told her five years ago where she would be today she would have told you to call a psychiatrist.
Khouri took in her first bomb-sniffing Malinois randomly. But afterward, she became curious. What happened with the others when they finished working in the field? What she found shocked her. There wasn’t really a solution for those that either became too old for service or flunked out of very demanding bomb-sniffing exams. “To care takes a lot of money,” Khouri says. She reached out to Norwegian People’s Aid, which set up the first canine demining units in Cambodia and offered to accept any dogs they could no longer use. She says she wanted to make sure that “any dog that is born to serve humanity gets the proper conditions of life.” Home of Heroes was born.
So far the organization, which operates solely on donations, has accepted 10 Malinois. Most reside in a large villa with a yard, agility course, pool and staff of seven. The older retirees get to lounge in Khouri’s apartment between walks. That includes Nergaard, she says, who has cleared land in Bosnia, Colombia, Syria and Lebanon and can be found sleeping on her couch most days.
Visitors can see and play with the dogs while the staff looks on — they are big and hyper, Khouri warns. And so far Khouri is not planning to adopt any of the dogs out. Because of their special temperament, they need committed handlers and often ongoing medical attention. There are, however, plans in the works for a new building for the retired bomb-sniffing dogs that also includes a museum about their service. “It’s an expensive dream,” she says.
Meanwhile, Kaste, who enjoyed living at the shelter, died in November. She was cremated and her ashes buried at a local pagoda: a hero’s funeral.