On the morning of August 29, a little more than 24 hours before the United States military would complete its withdrawal from Afghanistan, an Army veteran named Tom Amenta took to Twitter for a big announcement.
“Good morning, Operation Hercules,” he said. “We have an airplane.”
The news was the latest breathless update in a frenetic campaign that had spread across social media in the days leading up to the withdrawal. A shelter called Kabul Small Animal Rescue was desperately trying to get its dozens of dogs out of Afghanistan before the United States left the country to Taliban rule. Its founder, an American named Charlotte Maxwell-Jones, had attracted a wave of news coverage following her various appeals for support, arguing that the shelter would come under immediate threat because it was run by a woman and because the Taliban reportedly views dogs as unclean.
Kabul Small Animal Rescue was not the only shelter left to fend for itself as the US military left Afghanistan. But as reports of pets left stranded in Kabul flooded news coverage—and as a small army of organizations and advocates took to social media—donations quickly poured in. Within days, three charities central to the effort had raised nearly $2 million in total. On KSAR’s main GoFundMe page, just one of several online fundraisers the group ran, more than 14,000 individuals are listed as donors.
But as the harried fundraising blitz blew past Maxwell-Jones’ wildest expectations, important questions went unanswered. Who was this thrown-together coalition of animal lovers, vets, and volunteers, anyway? Where was the money even going? And if their plan collapsed, what would happen to the pets—and all those donations?
As a reporter following the Afghanistan withdrawal, it was hard to miss the online furor over animals left behind in Kabul. But I felt compelled to dig deeper when sources I knew in the nonprofit and charity world raised concerns. As an employee at one of the groups involved in the evacuation effort put it to me, “How can you expect you’re going to get dogs out when we can’t even get Americans out?”
The first sign Maxwell-Jones needed help was in July. That month, she partnered with the charity SPCA International to launch a fundraising campaign to evacuate her animals. “Every dollar given will be matched by the SPCAI, and every penny will go to the transport fees of our dogs,” she wrote.
The campaign raised $10,235, which exceeded Maxwell-Jones’ goal but barely scratched the surface of what their future fundraising appeals would bring in. It also formalized a relationship with SPCAI, which is often confused with the ASPCA (of Sarah McLachlan commercial fame). In fact, SPCA International was founded as a private offshoot of a Montreal charity and has its own bizarre and controversial history, which I wrote about last month. Unlike most charities that devote the bulk of their donations to some charitable purpose, SPCAI has diverted almost half of its revenue to fundraising firms managed by a family with close ties to SPCAI’s founder.
Despite that checkered history, SPCAI has ramped up its grant-giving in recent years. In an interview last week, Maxwell-Jones told me that first SPCAI grant went toward evacuating dozens of dogs, which she said they did until flights were full and they ran out of time. On July 14, a federal ban on importing dogs from Afghanistan and other countries went into effect, all but halting the evacuation work.
Maxwell-Jones had taken on a leadership role in the animal welfare space only somewhat recently. On LinkedIn, she still describes herself as an “independent research consultant,” and her organization, Kabul Small Animal Rescue, which was founded in 2018, only registered with the IRS as a nonprofit in April. She has conducted small fundraising campaigns before—in 2013 and 2016—that she says were for Nowzad, an Afghan animal shelter whose founder, a former British soldier named Pen Farthing, conducted his own highly publicized evacuation operation. (“Charlotte never worked for Nowzad, but I believe it’s accurate to say that she has volunteered for Nowzad in the past,” Dan Tatsch, a Nowzad trustee, told me.)
In late August, once the Taliban took control of the country, Maxwell-Jones began tweeting at journalists with a plea for “awareness” and financial assistance.
We are Americans & Afghans (led by women) ON THE GROUND in Kabul taking in dogs & cats left behind as people flee. We need awareness &financial help so we can evacuate with these 150+ animals. We cant leave them. @andersoncooper @LesterHoltNBC @RobinRoberts
— Kabul Small Animal Rescue (@KSAnimalRescue) August 20, 2021
Her story sparked sympathetic coverage from media outlets like Stars and Stripes and NBC News, and soon other charities offered cash and a larger platform to broadcast her message.
But an actual plan was…lacking. While she was in Kabul and struggling with a consistently bad wifi connection, Maxwell-Jones said she relied on US-based groups like SPCAI and Puppy Rescue Mission to contact brokers and coordinate flights. Not all of these groups had relevant experience; SPCAI, for example, had run a program rescuing pets from Syria and Iraq, but not Afghanistan.
And it was difficult—almost impossible at times—to decipher who was talking to whom. Take the Colorado veterans organization called the Veteran Sheepdogs of America. The group and its leader, a Marine Corps vet named Joshua Hosler, began fundraising for what it said was a plan to fly Maxwell-Jones’ pets to Ramstein, Germany. (A group called “Veteran Sheepdogs of Colorado” registered as a nonprofit with the IRS earlier this year, but no financial information for it is available.) When I asked Maxwell-Jones about Hosler and his group, she did not seem entirely aware of this plan despite referencing them by name in one of her press releases. “I might have spoken to him,” she said, “but I’m honestly not sure.”
Meanwhile, it remained unclear what operational role Amenta—the Army vet whose constant updates on Twitter racked up thousands of retweets and likes—was playing. His video updates were spread by SPCAI and other groups, but he did not appear to have an actual job with any charity. His LinkedIn page describes him as the marketing director for a security firm in Omaha, Nebraska. Several people involved in the evacuation effort told me they’d never heard of him until about 72 hours before the withdrawal. I initially assumed he had a personal connection to Hosler, given their friendly exchanges on Twitter, but Hosler told me they had never met.
Some of the information Amenta posted about the operation was quickly debunked. For example, he referred multiple times on Twitter to the pets as “MWDs,” or military working dogs, but the Pentagon and State Department would later deny that they were. Maxwell-Jones told me that some of the pets in her care were owned by a contractor, a claim later echoed in a tweet from SPCA International.
After days spent drawing attention to the cause through his videos, Amenta finally tweeted confirmation on August 29 that the pets had a flight out of Kabul. “It will be landing tonight,” he said.
By that point, several charities had raised gobsmacking amounts of money for the evacuation effort. Maxwell-Jones and her organization have launched at least five separate fundraising campaigns since June that have brought in more than $1.3 million as of early September. An SPCAI spokesperson told me they had collected at least $270,000 and Puppy Rescue Mission, one of the US charities working with Maxwell-Jones, said they raised more than $50,000. In an interview with TMZ last week, Hosler claimed to have raised $1.4 million to evacuate the animals from Kabul, but he told me this week that the actual figure is closer to $750,000 because a prospective donor pulled out.
These groups brought in more money in only a few hours than many animal charities raise in months, if not years. Then it all fell apart.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” Amenta said in a series of videos posted to Twitter on the afternoon of August 30. “We tried.” Operation Hercules had failed. That result may be one of the only indisputable moments in an evacuation effort whose details are still being debated online.
US officials say a plane never arrived for the dogs in the first place, and Amenta won’t answer questions about what went wrong. In one of his final posts about the campaign on August 30, he declared that he would be doing “ZERO & I mean ZERO press,” except for promoting his upcoming book about the war.
“It was a grand failure,” one person familiar with the charity coordination effort told me. “It was like watching a car wreck explode in real time.”
In an update posted to Kabul Small Animal Rescue’s Twitter account, the charity blamed the fiasco on the Defense Department, saying, “The military forcibly released all the rescue dogs” at the airport as the last of several US flights were departing. A lengthy post from SPCA International, which came after the organization said it received a “debriefing” from Maxwell-Jones, said that “the dogs and their caretakers were explicitly NOT allowed to board military aircraft, and numerous private charter aircraft were not granted access to the airport either.”
But the US military says that’s wrong. In a written response to questions posed by PETA, one of the charities drawing attention to the attempted evacuation, an Army spokesperson wrote that “Kabul Small Animal Rescue claimed to have arranged a chartered plane to rescue the animals,” but “that plane did not arrive, leaving no options to evacuate the dogs.” US troops moved more than 150 dogs to a “former Afghan National Army compound on the airport grounds with appropriate supplies of food and water,” the statement said. (The Army did not respond to a request for comment about this statement.)
Meanwhile, it’s still unclear how the charities supporting Maxwell-Jones could have been so confident they had secured a “landing permit” when that was not the case. The CDC ban on importing dogs from Afghanistan was a hurdle they should have seen coming; SPCA International acknowledged as much in its statement, which said it “applied for an Emergency Exemption so that Charlotte and the dogs could get out on our chartered flight this week” but did not get one. Louise Hastie, the operations director at an Iraqi animal shelter who assisted the evacuation effort, said payments were made for two flights, but each fell through. The first one was denied a landing permit and the second fell apart for reasons “we are still trying to figure out.”
This being the internet in 2021, the story got even weirder—and Trumpier. Maxwell-Jones’ inability to evacuate the animals was met with disappointment, anger, and a fair amount of sleuthing online. The backlash gained steam after a viral photo spread by leading conservative figures, including former Trump official Richard Grenell, showed what he claimed were “service dogs in locked crates” at the Kabul airport.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby later tweeted that the military “did not leave any dogs in cages at Hamid Karzai International Airport, including the reported military working dogs.” The State Department, in a statement to Defense One, added that none of its dogs were left behind. In fact, some of the pets appeared to belong to GardaWorld, a military contractor based in Canada, which told the Military Times that some of its dogs were still in Kabul.
The controversy bubbled up for a moment into a mainstream news story—did the US government leave its dogs behind or not?—but on Twitter, dog-loving sleuths pushed for details about Maxwell-Jones and all the money she raised. One of the more active online detectives, a fan account for Joe Biden’s pets that had been sharing Operation Hercules updates with its 220,000 followers, tweeted that it could no longer “trust ANY of the organizations and people involved” in the evacuation effort.
AJ Delgado, a former Trump campaign staffer whose public break with the ex-president and paternity fight with onetime Trump aide Jason Miller drew headlines, was not someone I expected to encounter in this reporting, but there she was on Twitter, retweeting @TheOvalPawffice and direct-messaging me with questions about Maxwell-Jones. “The dog-welfare community deserves answers,” Delgado told me. “Where has the money gone? Why the changing stories? There must be answers and accountability.”
Maxwell-Jones and Hastie told me a $300,000 deposit for their first attempted flight had been refunded, but a $600,000 payment for a second flight had not yet been returned. (When I asked for documentation earlier this week, they shared several emails, an apparent contract for a charter flight, and other materials that documented at least two flight attempts.) That shortfall hasn’t kept some of the other figures related to Operation Hercules from putting a more optimistic spin on the final outcome. “We are going to have good news soon,” Hosler, the Veteran Sheepdogs of America leader, assured me.
On September 2, SPCA International tweeted that Maxwell-Jones and Kabul Small Animal Rescue “are in the midst of carrying out plans to recover the rescue dogs and contract working dogs from the airport.” But the charity added, due to the “safety and security” of the people involved, it “cannot share specific details at this time.”
This story has been updated.