Marc Ching – A Brave Rescuer On a Mission of Compassion

“You cannot tell a country who does not have the same value system as we do to love dogs. The only way is to plant a seed. And to let dogs themselves soften their hearts. In time I am certain you will no longer have a society that eats them. That no longer bashes in their skulls because their lives will now hold meaning.” – Marc Ching

Lucky for dogs everywhere, there are a growing number of animal advocates, rescuers and activists throughout the world fighting on behalf of man’s best friend. But not everyone is willing to risk life and limb – or come face-to-face with one of the planet’s most violent forms of animal cruelty – in the process. Enter Marc Ching, founder of the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation and owner of The PetStaurant. A holistic pet nutritionist and Japanese herbalist by profession, this incredibly brave rescuer has taken it upon himself to save as many dogs as he can from the Asian pet meat trade.

Ching’s harrowing odyssey into this dark underworld began last May, when he learned about the summer solstice lychee and dog meat “festival” in Yulin, China. Shocked and disbelieving that such an inhumane practice could actually exist in the modern world, Ching bought a plane ticket, grabbed a backpack and headed to China with a raw determination to witness the trade for himself and rescue as many dogs as possible.

Ching the rescuer

This is Marc Ching – rescuer, savior and modern-day hero. These poodle pups were rescued from a trash bag. Photo courtesy of Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation.

“My first trip was after the Yulin festival, on Sept. 1,” he says. “When I went to China I saw things I didn’t know people could do. I knew they ate dogs there but I didn’t know about the torture and abuse aspect associated with the preparation of the meat. It’s one thing to read about it or go to a dog farm, which is like a very dirty breeding facility, but it’s another to go to a slaughterhouse and see the methods people have created just to harm another living creature. It doesn’t make sense to me – it’s unspeakable.”

Since that first fateful journey, which shook him to the core but also galvanized his resolve to keep coming back and save more dogs, Ching has made three additional trips, rescuing a grand total of 249 canines from some of the worst and largest slaughterhouses in notorious dog meat locales including China’s Guangzhou province; Busan, South Korea and Hanoi, Vietnam. Unfortunately, only 61 dogs survived their ordeal.

“My trips are a little different than those of most people who rescue from the dog meat trade,” Ching says in his soft Hawaiian accent. “Typically people go to dog farms and try to shut them down or push meat trucks off the road. I actually go into the slaughterhouses and rescue dogs that are being dismembered, tortured or abused.”

Hanoi slaughterhouse-2

A slaughterhouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, a city notorious for its incredibly violent meat trade. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

As the founder of a nonprofit focused on rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming severely abused dogs in the U.S., Ching is no stranger to cruelty. But he admits his rescue missions to Asia have come at a cost both mentally and physically – he’s been beaten, held hostage, had a machete put to his throat, a gun at his head, and lives with visions that will haunt him for the rest of his life. But neither mental anguish nor fear of death has deterred this gentle savior from his quest.

Since that first fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants trip to China, Ching has developed a more organized process that includes travel itineraries, securing translators and veterinarians in advance, working with teams of researchers to locate slaughterhouses, and finding ways to obtain undercover video footage – without getting caught (he was beaten severely when a South Korean butcher caught him wearing a GoPro). Posing as a wealthy American dog meat buyer, he makes a point of never going to the same slaughterhouse twice.

“It’s actually a great cover,” Ching boasts. “When I come into a country I prep my translator for about two hours before we go out, so when he goes to a slaughterhouse with me he knows what to say. He’ll tell the butchers, this is my client, he’s a rich American and he wants to buy (large quantities of) dogs that have been abused and tortured but still alive, because he’s going to kill them himself, prepare the meat and export it to America.”

Ching rescuing hope-crop

Marc with Hope, the first dog he rescued from a slaughterhouse in China. Hope has since recovered from his injuries and has been brought back to the U.S., where he serves as an ambassador for Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation’s China Effort. He is indeed a miracle! Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

He continues, “Before we go out we call local veterinarians and ask them how many dogs they can take, treat and keep for a few months because the number of vets we find determine the number of dogs we save. So our process now is to take the dogs, load them up in vans and get them straight to the vets.”

For those unfortunate dogs who don’t make it to the vet, Ching makes a point of driving them into the countryside and giving them a dignified burial.

“At least they knew in their last moments that someone cared for them,” he says.

Despite the unspeakable horrors and mental anguish he has endured along the way, Ching insists his Asia efforts are worth the pain and sacrifice, especially when he’s able to fly dogs to the U.S. and bring them to his foundation in Sherman Oaks, Calif. So far, Ching has brought back 46 lucky dogs, most of which have since been rehabilitated and adopted into loving homes.

Rescued from China-2

These puppies were rescued from a slaughterhouse in China. It is unthinkable that anyone would want to harm such innocent beings. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“It’s very expensive to bring these dogs to the U.S., so I try to adopt out locally to Canadians or veterans who live there, as well as to great local Asian people who would never hurt their dogs,” says Ching. “But the ones that I bring back are the dogs that really mean something to me – they all have a story. I also realize these dogs have value here…people in America rally around them. Part of raising awareness is showing people the end product of (my rescue missions), so it becomes tangible to them. It spreads awareness that there are people in these countries doing these things and we should do something to stop it.”

Ching says one of his most special rescues is Sorrow, a black and white French bulldog he saved within minutes of being brutalized in a slaughterhouse in Tongzhou, China.

“That’s a dog who means a lot to me because he’s become the face of what I do now, as so many people have seen that picture of him with his mouth and feet bound,” says Ching. “If you love animals, especially dogs, and you see that picture, it’s just emblematic of what they’re doing over there. That dog and the dogs I rescued from that slaughterhouse, they are miracles, because once an animal enters a place like that, there’s no getting out – they were supposed to die. So I think people connect to that image because he really is a miracle.”

Sorrow upon rescue

Sorrow just moments after his rescue. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

Rescuing and getting treatment for dogs in other countries, especially those with extensive medical needs, can be incredibly costly. As the saying goes, “if you want to help animals, get rich.” Luckily, Ching’s thriving wellness and nutrition-centered pet store, ThePetStaurant, has enabled him to fund his Asia missions without having to rely heavily on donations, although he always appreciates any help he can get from his passionate supporters.

“My business is very successful, but where most people would buy a Rolex watch, I save dogs,” says Ching. “I never want someone to look at what I do and pollute it by saying I do it for (donation) money because that’s not possible – I lose a few hundred thousand dollars a year on these rescues because they’re so expensive. But in the end, it’s worth it because this means so much to me.”

Ching’s purity of intention is also reflected in the beautiful, tragic, yet inspiring writings he posts on Facebook and Instagram before, during and after his missions. Writing has essentially become a therapeutic outlet for Ching, who admits he has been deeply traumatized by what he has experienced. Yet besides helping him to heal his heart and mind, his heartfelt, sometimes gut-wrenching posts have also touched the hearts of thousands of animal lovers throughout the world, devoted social media fans who follow his travels and cheer him on, every step of the way.

Hanoi, Vietnam-2

Marc on the back of his translator’s moped in Hanoi, following a near-death experience at a slaughterhouse. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“I actually post in real-time when I’m (in Asia), so I’m able to take my experiences and use my words to paint a picture so people can feel the moment,” says Ching. “I think they appreciate that and they can see what it’s like out there.”

But after staring into the jaws of death one too many times, this devoted husband and father of two has begun to rethink his strategy, from one of rescuing to shifting a mindset that will inspire lasting change.

“In starting this I didn’t have a goal, I just went out there and rescued dogs from slaughterhouses,” Ching explains. “Internally, I felt like it was a way to save myself, because it’s addicting, that moment when you feel like a hero. But in the long run, especially on trip three, it because so burdensome on my consciousness I even had a hard time living my life. Now my goal has changed from risking my life to creating an effort where I’m doing something to end (the dog meat trade).”

At the core of this new strategy is a media campaign in China and South Korea that will feature a short documentary tempered with graphic undercover video footage Ching and two undercover slaughterhouse workers have compiled over the last several months. Dubbed “The Compassion Project,” its intention is to shed light on the abusive practices tied to the trade, turn people away from eating dog meat and support change.

Ching and rescue

Marc with a very grateful Bull terrier he rescued from Li Yuan, China. The kisses make it all worthwhile! Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“In China and South Korea they care more about image, so my goal is to put this media campaign together, line up celebrities and schedule important meetings with people in the government. My message will be, ‘you can be hated by all these countries because of this inhumanity or you can rise up and decide that your country is better than that.’ In our culture, we used to have slavery and lynching, but one day we realized that was no longer acceptable and we changed. I believe their countries are no different and that they’ll change in time, too.”

He continues, “Their celebrities (are very important to them). If Yao Ming did the same thing for us as he did (for WildAid’s anti-shark fin soup campaign) in China, I could almost guarantee dog meat would be wiped out in a matter of months because these places where they’re doing it would have so much local opposition, they’d have to end it.”

Meanwhile, Ching is about to embark upon a fifth mission, this time to Thailand, Cambodia, northern Vietnam, South Korea and Yulin, China, a trip he expects to be his “most intense yet.” It appears there is no stopping this determined rescuer.

Sorrow&foster brother-2

Sorrow snoozing with his foster brother. He is back in the U.S., doing great and already has several prospective families vying to adopt him! Photo courtesy of Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation.

When a human being bears witness to terrible atrocity, they are forever changed. I can attest to that, just from researching and writing about the dog and cat meat trade. So when I tell Ching he is my hero, that I could never do what he is doing, that I am so grateful that there are people like him in the world, willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference in the lives of animals, he just laughs.

“I recently wrote a post where I describe what that moment of rescue is like for me,” he tells me. “I go into this place and it’s like you’re breathing into the rain. That’s what it’s like because there’s blood everywhere, everywhere there’s screaming, and it’s usually raining for some reason, and I’m just drenched. And when you save this dog and this dog looks at you, it’s like that moment when you’re in love with someone…it’s amazing. I don’t think people realize that there’s beauty in what I do.”

To learn more about Marc Ching, read his incredibly heartfelt writing and find out how to support his efforts, check out the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation website and Facebook page.

Ching rescuing Sorrow

Ching cradling Sorrow before heading to the vet. Many dogs that end up in the Asian dog meat trade are lost or stolen pets. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“People look away from the pictures because they cannot stomach it. People do not want to hear about the abuse because they cannot endure to listen to it. But you cannot turn away. You cannot close your eyes because in doing so you just enable it. In doing so you pretend things like this do not exist, and then the suffering and sacrifice become meaningless.” – Marc Ching

The Heroes of Puerto Rico – Part Two – Save A Gato

Once upon a time in the 1950s, some rats decided to take up residence in the colorful colonial town of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico. After all, who wouldn’t love to live in such a charming little city by the sea? But the humans who lived there weren’t too happy about their pesky rodent neighbors, whose numbers were increasing rapidly. So they came up with a brilliant idea – bring in some cats. And within a short period of time, their rat problem was solved. The humans were very grateful to the cats, who were allowed to stay in Old San Juan and coexist with them in harmony. That is, until the feline population began to get out of control.

While some good-intentioned people in the community had taken it upon themselves to feed the cats, this did nothing to stop the felines from multiplying. Now there were hundreds of stray cats prowling the streets, getting into garbage and using the city as a giant litter box. Some of them were sick and injured, not a pretty sight for locals or tourists. The city realized it had a veritable “cat-pocalypse” on its hands.

By 2004, one of the biggest hotbeds of the stray cat problem was centered at the Paseo del Morro National Recreation Trail, a waterfront walkway that winds alongside the San Juan Bay and the western section of the San Juan Wall. Approximately 250 feral cats were living along the Paseo, which had recently been refurbished as a public walking and jogging path. But when park service officials proposed “getting rid” of the “problem” by trapping and removing the cats, the animal lovers of Old San Juan would hear nothing of it. Fearing the cats would be euthanized, they started a letter-writing and petition campaign that ended up being signed by thousands of outraged citizens.

CS3_0545

One of the feral cats living along the Paseo del Morro. Some of the felines that prowl around Old San Juan are believed to be descendants of cats that arrived on the ships of the first Spanish settlers when they came to Puerto Rico in the 17th century.

And that’s when three brave ladies decided to come forward and take it upon themselves to save the cats. They asked the National Park Service to give them six months to spay and neuter all of the feral felines along the Paseo, humanely euthanize the sickest animals, and find homes for the adoptable kitties. Happy to have the cat crisis off their hands, the powers that be agreed and Save A Gato was born.

Twelve years later, Save A Gato is a well-established, all-volunteer organization dedicated to helping the street cats of Old San Juan and responsible for managing the Paseo’s feral cat colony. Through humane TNR (Trap-Neuter-Return) methods, the organization has decreased the colony’s population from 250 felines in 2005 to around 100. Ferals receive regular food, water, medical care and shelter for the rest of their lives, while kittens and friendly cats get a chance to find forever homes throughout Puerto Rico and in the mainland U.S. via Save A Gato’s adoption program.

While not everyone who lives in OSJ professes to be a cat-lover, some locals acknowledge that along with the narrow cobblestone streets, pastel-colored residences and 17th-century fortresses overlooking the ocean, the cats have become part of “The Old San Juan Experience” that tourists enjoy. And even kitty naysayers know that the cats play a crucial role in keeping down the rodent population and thus, preventing disease. Since 15 percent of the buildings in OSJ are abandoned, without the cats the rats would once again proliferate.

IMG_0288

Another Paseo feral, this one giving us the evil eye for disturbing his breakfast. Note the tip of his ear has been removed to mark his sterile status. Photo credit: Chris Savas

When I happened to hear about Save A Gato while visiting Puerto Rico last month with my husband, I knew I had to meet this amazing group. We had just spent the day with The Sato Project and I was fired up to meet more inspiring people on the island who were going above and beyond for the welfare of animals. So on our second-to-last day in Old San Juan, Chris and I rose with the sun, got some coffee and walked to the Paseo, thinking we’d check out the feral colony first and take a few photos before heading to the group’s headquarters in the nearby park.

Once on the walkway, it didn’t take long to catch sight of the cats, many of them prowling in the bushes or sunning themselves on the rocks along the water. Some were still enjoying breakfast at one of several feeding stations Save A Gato maintains on the trail and barely acknowledged our presence, while a few of the more sociable kitties seemed to take an interest and began following us. Minutes later we seemed to have attracted a rainbow of cats – calicos, tortoise shells, tigers, marmalades, black and whites, grays, gingers and solid blacks. Most appeared healthy, contented and well fed.

CS3_0667

Myriam Pabon and Irma Podesta, two very dedicated, kind-hearted women who help make Save A Gato possible. Photo credit: Chris Savas

After a 30-minute photo session with the photogenic ferals, we retraced our steps out of the Paseo and up into the park, where Save A Gato maintains a tiny, one-room building called a Casita. This is where 12 of the group’s 20 volunteers take turns caring for adoptable cats and kittens as well as sick or injured cats. Upon arriving at the tiny, bright pink shack, we were immediately greeted by Myriam Pabon, volunteer coordinator and casita director, and Irma Podesta, Save A Gato’s lead rescuer, trapper and social media coordinator. Both have been volunteering with the organization for over a decade.

As we sat down and Myriam began telling us about Save A Gato and how it started, we found ourselves swarmed by a few of the 70 friendly kitties that live around the Casita – all in that same amazing kaleidoscope of coat colors – rubbing up against us, climbing in our laps and mewing for attention. Most are highly adoptable but simply haven’t been able to find the right homes. Chris is terribly allergic to cats but maintained a brave face as he was surrounded by attention-seeking felines. One even climbed into his lap and stared up into his face as if to say, “hey, why aren’t you petting me?”

IMG_0373

Just a few of the 70 cats Save A Gato cares for at the Casita. “Gato” is the Spanish word for cat. Photo credit: Chris Savas

As Myriam continued her story, it became evident that while Save A Gato has made huge strides in OSJ over the past 12 years, the organization is facing its fair share of daunting challenges lately, thanks in part to a bad economy and people abandoning their pets in droves.

“Over 60 percent of the population in Puerto Rico is living in poverty, so if people don’t have money for themselves, their children and their needs, forget about the animals,” Myriam explained. “Because we’re having hard economic times, a lot of people are losing their homes and leaving their animals behind. Even people with money don’t want to spend anything on a cat.”

She continued, “But even people who can’t take care of their pets don’t want to take them to a shelter where they will die. Our problem is we want to decrease the cat population but people are coming from all around the island just to leave their cats here. It’s endless because we have to give priority to the community of Old San Juan and we have so many animals here that aren’t neutered, and we neuter almost weekly.”

IMG_0300

Newbie volunteer Marie Sela cleans out one of the kitten cages in the Casita. Did you know that just one unaltered female cat and her offspring can produce 370,000 cats in just seven years? Photo credit: Chris Savas

Luckily, relief may soon be coming for Save A Gato and the island’s other incredible animal rescue organizations thanks to the Humane Society of the United States, which launched an aggressive animal welfare campaign in Puerto Rico last year. Part of its many progressive initiatives include establishing island-wide high-volume spay and neuter services, providing humane education for all public elementary school students, and working with local governments to crack down on irresponsible pet owners and enforce Puerto Rico’s Animal Protection and Welfare Act 154.

But until that happens, Save A Gato will be working overtime to garner enough support so it can continue its lifesaving mission – helping OSJ’s street cats for the foreseeable future.

“Twelve years ago people didn’t understand spay and neuter, about keeping cats healthy, how to care for them or how to control the population,” said Irma. “Today the metropolitan area is more aware of this, but on the rest of the island people still have no idea of what to do and we don’t have enough programs to help them. People think that if a female cat has 15 kittens, just throw them in the street and let them starve to death. So we really need more funding, more volunteers, more adoptions and the ability to send more cats to the U.S. With enough money we could fix every cat in Old San Juan.”

IMG_0338

This handsome guy is simply waiting for the right home. Could you be his perfect forever human? Photo credit: Chris Savas

Want to help the stray and abandoned cats of Old San Juan? Here’s what you can do:

  • Give money: Save A Gato is in great need of funds to pay for cat food, supplies, veterinary care and spay and neuter surgeries. No amount is too small and every penny goes to helping the cats. To make a donation, go here.
  • Donate supplies: Save A Gato can always use dry and wet cat food, cleaning products, flea preventative, towels, cages, cat toys and bowls. If you live in Puerto Rico or are visiting soon, please contact the organization to set up a time to drop off your donation.
  • Volunteer: Even if you don’t live in Puerto Rico, you can still become a Save A Gato volunteer. Go here to check out all the great ways you can help make a difference!
  • Adopt: Save A Gato usually has about 40 kittens or young cats available for adoption at any given time. If you’re interested in adopting one of their adorable kitties, please reach out to them on their Facebook page or website to set up a time to meet the kittens and take one (or more) home.
CS3_0566

One of my favorite photos I took at the Paseo – a little mustacheoed feral watching us from afar. Whether he was an abandoned pet or born on the streets, we’ll never know. Either way, he seemed content to keep his distance.

Here are some other wonderful animal rescues and shelters in Puerto Rico in need of help and support:

PAW Rescue Humacao

Santuario de Animales San Francisco de Asis

Save a Sato

Vieques Humane Society and Animal Rescue

“Life is life, whether in a cat, or dog or man. There is no difference there between a cat or a man. The idea of difference is a human conception for man’s own advantage.” – Sri Aurobindo

The Heroes of Puerto Rico – Part One – The Sato Project

As a writer and blogger dedicated to spreading awareness about animal cruelty issues throughout the globe, I’m always on the look-out for rescue groups going above and beyond the call of duty to improve the lives of animals. So when I stumbled upon The Sato Project a few months ago, I knew I had to tell their story. This incredible group rescues and rehabilitates abandoned dogs from Playa Lucia, a beach in southeastern Puerto Rico – sadly dubbed “Dead Dog Beach” due to its notorious reputation as a canine dumping ground – and rehomes them in the mainland U.S. Since its founding in 2011, the group has saved 1,400 dogs.

With my husband and I planning to spend his birthday in Puerto Rico, I quickly reached out to Chrissy Beckles, The Sato Project founder and president. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect – she and a small group of volunteers were planning a rescue mission the same week we’d be there, so she generously invited us to tag along. I was ecstatic!

So last month, Chris and I found ourselves parked in front of a roadside lemonade stand in the coastal town of Yabucoa, waiting for a few members of Chrissy’s team to lead us to a vet clinic a few miles away. Although we’d planned on meeting at Playa Lucia, there’d been a change of plans – a couple of dogs the group had in their sights had already been rescued and were en route to Candelero Animal Hospital, the organization’s veterinary partner in Humacao. So while we wouldn’t have a chance to shadow the rescue effort, we’d at least be able to check out the clinic, observe the group’s intake procedures and take a tour of the beach later that day.

CS1_5000small

Han Solo, one of two lucky “satos” rescued from Dead Dog Beach that morning. “Sato” is Puerto Rican slang for street dog. Far from revered on the island, they are often abused and killed for sport. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Twenty minutes later, we followed the group’s SUV into a small strip mall, where we were greeted by several smiling women wearing The Sato Project t-shirts. As an all-volunteer, foster-based organization, TSP maintains a dedicated team of ten Puerto Rico and 25 New York Tri-State and Boston-based volunteers. I could tell right away by the way everyone interacted that this was one tight-knit group.

Once inside the cozy clinic, we were introduced to Dr. Bianca Aguirre Hernandez, one of Candelero’s three vets and TSP’s director of veterinary services. As a Puerto Rico native and practicing veterinarian for 11 years, she wasted no time spelling out the educational, economic and cultural reasons behind the ongoing pet abandonment crisis that has plagued her birthplace for many decades.

“Few people adopt dogs here and most want to buy them,” Dr. Bianca explained. “This, along with the fact that spaying or neutering is not considered a priority, has increased the amount of strays, so much so that there are just too many dogs for the shelters here to handle. Many of my clients actually get upset if I even say the word ‘castration.’ It’s a really frustrating problem.”

And a big one. According to Humane Society International, there are an estimated 250,000-300,000 roaming dogs in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an island just three times the size of Rhode Island. And with its economy in crisis – approximately 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line – pets have become an even lower priority as people struggle to feed themselves and their families.

CS1_4986small

Dr. Bianca gives little Han the once-over as Chrissy Beckles looks on. Watching these dedicated women in-action, it’s obvious that The Sato Project is indeed a labor of love and a mission of the heart. Photo credit: Chris Savas

But unlike in the mainland U.S., most people in Puerto Rico choose to abandon their dogs on beaches or in remote locations rather than surrender them to one of the island’s eight open-intake animal shelters, where euthanasia rates top a staggering 95 percent. The thinking is that cast-off pets will have better odds surviving in locations where rescue groups are feeding animals rather than in shelters where they’re immediately doomed.

As we chatted with Dr. Bianca and some of the volunteers, Chrissy walked in, a mangy little brown dog cuddled in her arms. Petite and slender but obviously very strong (she’s an amateur straw weight boxer), Chrissy has that tough, no-nonsense persona you often find in many veteran rescuers, a heart of gold couched inside a tough-as-nails exterior. I liked her immediately.

Dr. Bianca wasted no time in getting down to business on the scruffy little dog. Christened Han Solo in honor of the new Star Wars movie, he was a pathetic sight to behold, with mangy skin, patches of missing fur, bad teeth and what appeared to be a damaged or missing eye. Yet despite all the probing, prodding and poking that included blood tests, skin scrapings, a dental exam and x-rays, he seemed to be enjoying all the attention. In fact, his straggly tail never stopped wagging. We all fell in love with him and agreed he was going to make someone an amazing companion.

Chrissy explained to us that most dogs dumped at Playa Lucia present with skin conditions, heartworm, parasites, bad teeth and suffer from malnutrition, depending on how long they’ve lived as strays. But once they’re rescued, all of them receive complete medical screenings and any necessary treatments before being cleared for their “freedom flights” to New York City, where they’re received by TSP volunteers, foster families, local shelter partners and even adopters. While most dogs take about 10 weeks to rehabilitate, some end up staying at the hospital for as long as 9-12 months if they have heartworm or any other health issues requiring long-term treatment.

CS1_5044small

Dr. Bianca and Chrissy check out Han’s x-rays. Photo credit: Chris Savas

“We founded Sato Project on the premise of, ‘in a perfect world, how would we vet our animals and care for them?’ and that’s why we really emphasize medical care,” Chrissy said in her Manchester British accent. “I’m not going to send an animal to the U.S. unless I know for sure that it’s healthy, so we do more than our due diligence.”

Unfortunately, Han’s heartworm test came back positive, which meant he’ll be calling Candelero home for several months, bunking up alongside 30 other TSP dogs in the clinic’s bustling kennel. Some are undergoing medical treatment, while others are simply awaiting foster placement and funds to pay for their flights out of Puerto Rico.

While TSP’s mission to save the strays of Puerto Rico could keep Chrissy and her team returning to the island for many years to come, the group’s five-year efforts at Playa Lucia have paid off significantly. Interested in seeing the results for ourselves, Chrissy took us on a tour.

CS1_5079small

Tonio, one of the feral dogs in Yabucoa The Sato Project has been feeding for several years. Incredibly wary of humans, he has so far been impossible to catch. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Once a popular spot for beach-goers and sun-worshippers until the satos and drug activity moved in, Playa Lucia was a serene but unkempt landscape, with azure waves lapping debris-littered sand beneath swaying palm trees backed by dense jungle. Chrissy pointed out the several feeding and watering stations the group has set up throughout the beach, maintained by two Puerto Rico-based volunteers who visit twice daily to keep them replenished as well as check for new dogs.

Empty of life other than a couple of lone fisherman and the occasional seabird, the 80-acre playa appeared to be a far cry from what Chrissy described as a “nightmare scene” of 300 dogs running around in packs.

“When I first came to this beach about eight years ago…I would have to stand in front of 40 or 50 dogs knowing I had the money to take one,” she said. “It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do because while I’d know that the one I took was going to have a phenomenal life, I was giving the rest a potential death sentence. There would be situations where I’d go back again and they wouldn’t be there and I’d never know what happened to them.”

Although a 24-hour police presence, a locked after hours gate and posted warning signs relaying the unlawfulness of abandoning and abusing animals have helped slow the tide of dumped dogs and animal abusers at Playa Lucia, the beach is just one of 300 on the island. And that means people have plenty of options if they’re intent on dumping their dogs.

CS3_0188small

Chrissy and Ivette Hernandez, The Sato Project’s local volunteer beach coordinator, show me around Playa Lucia. We didn’t see one dog. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Luckily, change may be coming to the island thanks to the Humane Society of the United States, which launched an aggressive animal welfare campaign in Puerto Rico last year. Initiatives underway include cracking down on puppy mills; providing humane education for more than 400,000 public school students; offering training programs for shelter staff, rescuers, law enforcement, FBI agents and animal control officers, and strengthening and enforcing existing animal cruelty laws.

Meanwhile, Humane Society International is working overtime to bring high-volume spay and neuter services to the island. With mobile clinics in 14 municipalities thus far, the organization plans to expand the program island-wide upon further funding. In addition, TSP will be collaborating with HSI on a microchip and vaccine campaign this spring. So, not only will this progressive program help slow down pet overpopulation and prevent disease, it will also allow law enforcement to track abandoned pets back to their owners, thus making it possible for Puerto Rico’s Animal Protection and Welfare Act 154 to actually be enforced.

“The real source of the cure comes from the education,” asserted Tara Loller, HSUS director of strategic campaigns and special projects. “Once you show people a better approach, educating them about why you don’t throw a litter of puppies into the street, for example, they’re more amenable to making these changes. We hope that once people see firsthand the availability of resources, are educated and see the value of these things, they will come on board and want to be part of this change. We have total buy-in from the Puerto Rican government, as they realize their homeless animal problem negatively impacts their tourism. So we foresee this problem to be totally winnable and are committed to being part of this change long term.”

CS3_0122small

Chrissy gives some lunch and a little love to a very friendly stray pit bull, who appeared to have recently nursed pups. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Now that “Dead Dog Beach” appears to be under control, one would think an over-worked rescuer like Chrissy Beckles would want to take a break. After all, she’s made her fair share of personal and financial sacrifices over the past decade she’s been rescuing dogs on the island, including spending limited time at her New York home. But it appears there’s no stopping this rescue warrior. Not only does her group have their sights set on another beach several miles up the coast, there are also plans to turn Playa Lucia into a dog-friendly community, as well as build a sanctuary.

“I love what I’m doing and I know we’re making a difference and that’s why I continue to do it because it’s tangible,” Chrissy said. “There’s no greater fuel than seeing a little dog like Han Solo, who when he woke up this morning had no idea his life was going to change. That will always be fuel to me, to take a dog like that and change its life.”

CS3_0239small

Chrissy Beckles, one of the most dedicated, passionate and inspiring rescuers I’ve ever met. “We fight so the dogs of Puerto Rico don’t have to,” is her organization’s motto, one that Chrissy takes literally by fighting in amateur boxing matches to help raise awareness and money for the organization. Photo credit: Chris Savas

To learn more about The Sato Project and support their incredible efforts, please visit their website and check out their Facebook page. You can also make a difference in the lives of Puerto Rico’s animals by supporting the HSUS Humane Puerto Rico campaign.

The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others – Albert Schweitzer

The Forgotten Dogs of Spain

It can happen in an instant, that moment when an animal lover becomes an animal activist. Whether through witnessing an act of cruelty or becoming aware of a grievous animal welfare issue, that person knows they can no longer turn away or hide their head in the sand – they must get involved. Such was the case for Rain Jordan before she became founder and president of Hound Sanctuary. As a longtime lover of sighthounds, she knew she had to do something after learning about the terrible plight of hunting dogs in Spain.

“After volunteering for a local greyhound rescue and while looking for a rescued Ibizan hound to adopt, I came across the podencos and galgos in Spain,” Rain explained. “I learned about how mistreated, even tortured they are in their native land. The horror of their situation compelled me to act.”

The Galgo Español, or Spanish Greyhound, and the Podenco, believed to be a variation of the Ibizan Hound, are the most commonly used sighthounds for hunting rabbit and other small game on the Spanish plains. Extremely docile and eager-to-please, galgos are fast, intelligent and agile dogs commonly used by “galgueros,” or galgo handlers, in a local version of coursing, in which two hounds chase a hare and the dog who gets closest to it wins. Similar in personality, physicality and temperament to the galgo, podencos are not only keen sighthounds but also skilled trackers used to hunt small game and wild boar.

galgos coursing

Galgos in action at a hare coursing competition. Smaller than English greyhounds, they are similar in nature but tend to be playful and have more energy than their racing counterparts.

Yet instead of being viewed as valuable companions by the hunters who own and breed them, these gentle canines are seen as disposable tools that can be easily discarded once they’ve outlived their usefulness. According to Barcelona-based SOS Galgos, which rescues approximately 250 galgos per year, as many as 50,000 Spanish hunting dogs are abandoned or killed every year at the end of hunting season, typically in late February.

“Once they’re done with these dogs, many of their hunter-owners will dispose of them in horrendous ways,” Rain explained. “These include hanging them; throwing them into wells; putting them into garbage cans, alive; burning or drowning them; dumping them on roadsides after breaking one or more of their legs so they can’t get back home or gouging out their eyes so that they can’t find their way back home, or fixing their mouths open to keep them from being able to eat and thus, survive.”

Dogs deemed low-performing or “dirty” hunters are punished with slower, more painful deaths (as payback for “embarrassing” their owners), while those seen as good hunters are “rewarded” with quick deaths or are surrendered to “perreras,” municipal shelters nicknamed “killing stations” for a very good reason. Since most Spaniards view these hounds as second-class animals and undesirable pets, they have little to no chance of being adopted, so euthanasia at these facilities is practically guaranteed.

Podenco

A podenco in her element – hunting game. Fast and smooth, they have a light, muscular build, very good hearing and keen sense of smell. Like galgos, podencos are smart, eager-to-please, loyal and gentle but are sometimes prone to stubbornness.

While some high-performing dogs may be allowed to live for two or three hunting seasons, life for a Spanish hound is anything but happy and fulfilling. Between seasons they are kept in deplorable conditions, often in cramped, dark spaces or on short chains. Carelessly over-bred, they are deprived of proper nutrition, exercise and attention. Due to the belief that a starving hound makes a better hunter, they live their entire lives on the brink of starvation, with just enough water and poor-quality food to keep them alive. Many do not survive their neglectful conditions, slowly starving or dehydrating to death or succumbing to untreated diseases, injuries or severe tick infestations.

A dog that manages to reach two or three years of age is usually weakened by malnutrition and lack of care, so it’s simply cheaper for a hunter to kill the animal rather than continue feeding it until the next season. Why keep a worn-out hound when you can pick up a new one for ten euros from one of the many breeding facilities supplying hunters in your region?

Although Spain’s existing animal welfare law forbids the physical abuse, maiming, keeping on short chains and abandonment of dogs, it excludes “working dogs” from its protections, thus allowing hunters to continue their longstanding “cultural tradition” of such sadistic behavior with impunity.

Rain & Dahlia-blog crop

Rain Jordan and Dahlia, her beloved wire-haired podenca she rescued from a perrera in Valencia, Spain in 2014. Photo credit: Hound Sanctuary

This tragic reality is what compelled Rain to start Hound Sanctuary in her California home in 2013. Dedicated to rescuing podencos, galgos, salukis, borzoi, wolfhounds and deerhounds from Spain and throughout the U.S., the non-profit has so far rescued, rehabilitated, and placed 28 needy hounds in loving forever homes throughout the west coast region of the U.S. and Canada. Although its small army of about a dozen volunteers are all U.S.-based, Hound Sanctuary works with an extensive network of rescue partners in Spain.

Of all the hounds Rain has helped rescue, one of the most memorable was Hero, a red and white Podenco from Spain who had been found with a broken leg.

“His rescuers had repeatedly insisted that he was not friendly, was afraid of everyone and would not let anyone near him – they didn’t seem to have much hope for his adoptability,” remembered Rain. “In fact, when we sent our volunteers to pick him and the other dogs up, one of their volunteers suggested we take another dog instead! It seemed no one gave Hero any respect or any chance at all, as apparently a scared, shy dog equals a hopeless dog in many people’s eyes.”

She continued, “We brought Hero home with the other dogs as planned. Yes, he was shy and scared, but he turned out to be one of the sweetest, calmest, easiest dogs we’ve had through Hound Sanctuary. Whenever someone tells me, ‘oh, no, this dog is very scared,’ I say, that’s my favorite kind of dog, send him over!”

Hero-2-blog crop

Hero, renamed Linus, was adopted just a few weeks after his rescue and is now enjoying life as a pampered pet. His new mom calls him her “little cinnamon bun.” Photo credit: Hound Sanctuary

While Hero and the other lucky dogs Hound Sanctuary has rescued have all found their happily ever after, there are thousands more who may never be that fortunate due to the fact there are only so many rescues with so much money, help and space to spare. Although there are some very dedicated, wonderful organizations within Spain working tirelessly to help its native hounds, the majority of assistance currently comes from outside the country, namely the U.S., U.K., Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and The Netherlands.

With the need so overwhelming, Rain and her team have decided to take Hound Sanctuary to the next level in the form of a larger property. Located in Warrenton, Oregon and near completion, the new sanctuary will have enough capacity to house more rescue dogs without the organization having to rely so heavily on foster homes.

“The sanctuary is not a traditional shelter or kennel,” explained Rain. “The dogs have always lived inside the house with us and that will continue to be our policy. We will maintain the non-profit ‘home’ in California and retain volunteers/staff and fosters there, but the full-fledged facility is now in northern Oregon.”

Spencer&Moms-blog crop

This is Spencer, a brindle galgo rescued from the Toledo area of Spain. Here he is with his doting adoptive moms, Cynthia Evans and Michelle Sanchez, and his Chihuahua siblings. Photo credit: Hound Sanctuary

While Hound Sanctuary is to be applauded for its heroic efforts to save these very deserving dogs, they and the other handful of organizations like them will continue to have their work cut out for them as long as the Spanish government refuses to get to the root of its country’s very serious animal welfare problem. Because in the end, improving the situation for these dogs (as well as bulls and other tortured animals in Spain) will ultimately require dramatic shifts in archaic attitudes and stopping barbaric practices that have been historically rationalized as “cultural heritage.”

While Spain’s leaders have allegedly given lip service to the idea of changing existing legislation to protect hunting dogs, so far it has taken no action, despite increasing pressure from concerned citizens and animal activists throughout the country. Ironically, many individuals in local government positions also happen to be hunters themselves. For these political reasons and more, individuals in the Spanish rescue community believe it could be many years before anything is done to protect these animals, said Rain.

“There is definitely growing awareness and uproar over the plight of Spanish hounds,” she said. “The challenge in legal protection for them seems to be not just with more and stronger laws, but with enforcement. Tradition is harder to fight than City Hall, but I believe it can be fought – with determination and reason combined with political savvy, good communication skills and plenty of funding.”

3 galgo español

The sleek and very sweet Galgo Español. Why would anyone want to hurt these gentle creatures? The Spanish government should be ashamed for turning a blind eye to their terrible plight.

But until then, Hound Sanctuary and its small army of volunteers will simply focus on the task at hand – rescuing homeless sighthounds in the U.S. and saving the desperate hunting dogs of Spain, who would have no recourse were it not for the kindhearted individuals fighting to give them a second chance at life.

“Our goal is to help many more dogs and to bring awareness about their plight in hopes that more awareness will eventually lead to abatement of the cruelties they currently endure,” Rain said. “These dogs are sweet to the core no matter how broken. They are highly sensitive creatures who deserve respect.”

RainJordan&BoyBoy-KevinJohnson-SantaCruzSentinel-blog

Rain and her handsome rescued Ibizan hound, Boy Boy, the inspiration for Hound Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Kevin Johnson, Santa Cruz Sentinel

It can cost $2,700 or more to rescue and rehabilitate a dog from Spain, depending on its individual needs. As a result, Hound Sanctuary is in desperate need of financial support to save more dogs and complete its new sanctuary. To help this incredible organization continue its lifesaving work, please visit their website and check out their Facebook page.

To learn more about Spanish hunting dogs, please visit the European Society of Dog and Animal Welfare (ESDAW) website.

Want to help the forgotten hounds of Spain? Please sign this petition, which asks the Spanish government to prosecute hunters for murdering or abandoning their dogs and to amend the country’s animal welfare law to protect these gentle canines.

“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.” – Schopenhauer

In the Company of Creatures Great and Small

I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my birthday. I’d been wanting to volunteer at a farm animal sanctuary for quite some time, especially since I’d started following Farm Sanctuary and Edgar’s Mission on social media (in case you haven’t heard of these wonderful organizations, they are two incredible non-profit farm animal sanctuaries located in the U.S. and Australia, respectively). As a devoted dog mom who hasn’t lived without a canine in over 28 years, and as a volunteer with a local pet rescue, I am constantly around companion animals but have rarely had the chance to interact with pigs, sheep, chickens or cows – those creatures our society views as food, not friends. So when I stumbled upon Sweet Olive Farm Animal Rescue, a sanctuary located in Athens, GA, right outside of my hometown of Atlanta, I promptly reached out and made plans to spend the day lending a hand and hanging out with the animals. I was so excited!

The place was beyond amazing. Nestled on 18 acres of rolling hills and green pastures, the charming little farm is home to over 100 rescued animals, from pigs, sheep, donkeys and alpacas to horses, turkeys, chickens and goats. Complete with a beautiful, turn-of-the-century farmhouse and rustic, 100-year-old barn, it’s a storybook kind of place, the type of boutique farm I’d always dreamed of living on when I was a child. Besides several rescue dogs and two very affectionate Great Pyrenees (whose job it is to guard the sanctuary’s more vulnerable residents against predators), the menagerie also includes three grumpy geese, a friendly llama, two giant hogs and four adorable mini horses with shaggy manes. The only animals missing were cows (I admit I have a “thing” for cows). Still, I was in heaven!

 

Barn

The heartbeat of the sanctuary, the beautifully restored antique barn, all sealed up for the winter. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Within minutes of our arrival, I was making fast friends with the toothy alpacas and Culprit, an incredibly friendly donkey made even more sociable thanks to my large bag of carrots. Meanwhile, my husband Chris went about unpacking his camera equipment, happily anticipating his myriad photo opportunities. Several volunteers bustled about, cheerfully cleaning paddocks, adjusting fences and moving a feeding trough under the watchful guidance of Hope Wehunt, the sanctuary’s full-time farmhand, who greeted Chris and me with a bright, welcoming smile.

Soon we were joined by the brainchildren of the place, partners Kat Howkins and Susan Pritchett, two successful Atlanta businesswomen who originally started Sweet Olive Farm five years ago to accommodate their sizable pack of rescue dogs. Longtime vegans, the Georgia natives have been together for 11 years and share a tremendous passion for animals large and small.

Always in motion, whether attending to the animals, talking to workers or assisting the volunteers with different projects, Susan and Kat appeared to be women on a non-stop mission, so I felt quite privileged to have the chance to sit down with them and hear their story. Because really, how does one start such an ambitious operation?

Kat&Susan-2

Kat and Susan, living it up in their peaceable kingdom. Photo credit: Chris Savas

“We were living in Ansley Park in Atlanta and our neighbors weren’t too crazy about all of our dogs, so they called animal control on us,” explained Kat in her soft southern drawl, squinting at me from under the brim of her straw cowboy hat. “Around that time we’d been looking for a place because we knew our dogs were driving our neighbors crazy and that we had to find somewhere to take them, at least on weekends. So we rented this property and then a Fulton County Animal Control officer asked us, ‘hey, y’all want a pig?’ He was scheduled for euthanasia and I was rushing around, trying to build some fences so we could get him here. And that’s sort of how it all started.”

Before long, the couple not only had the aforementioned Mr. Thelma, the first of what would eventually become their robust army of 10 rescued pot-bellied pigs, but also a rooster, a neglected llama, an elderly peacock and a grumpy chestnut mare who’d been rejected by a local petting zoo for biting children. More creatures would quickly follow, animals either rescued from dire circumstances, found as strays or simply unwanted by their owners. Some would have died or been eaten if Kat and Susan hadn’t swept in and delivered them to safety.

“We just started getting animals and it organically turned into what it is now,” Susan told me in her soft, tinkling voice. “We didn’t realize that once we got animals here we’d have to be here all the time – they have to be looked after morning, noon and night. It’s all been an education for us because we didn’t really know anything about animal husbandry, so we’d go online and learn all about goats or all about sheep, etc. So we kind of evolved into it.”

Orwell&PrinceCharming

I have to admit I am completely besotted with pigs. Here I am with Orwell and Prince Charming, the happy recipients of my multiple carrot offerings. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Inspired by Edgar’s Mission in Australia, which the couple visited several years ago to serve as a model for Sweet Olive Farm, the sanctuary is indeed run like a well-oiled machine, with the animals at the very center of its universe. Looking around at all of these beautiful, funny and incredibly sentient creatures as they went about napping, eating, and interacting with humans and each other, I couldn’t help but notice how everyone seemed to get along so well (other than the occasional skirmishes between the turkeys and a couple of trouble-making roosters). How was that possible?

Kat explained that she and Susan make a practice of separating the animals into different interspecies groups according to who gets along best. For example, Culprit is scared of pigs and doesn’t like the male mini horses but he’s just fine living with the alpacas, while the pot-bellied pigs, goats, turkeys, chickens and sheep seem to enjoy coexisting in their own paddock. But regardless of their housing arrangements, everyone appeared healthy, well cared for and incredibly content. All their needs are met and they are safe and loved. Somehow, I think they understand how good they have it.

Geese

Sweet Olive Farm’s small but mighty flock of geese. The one on the far right was quite a force to be reckoned with! Photo credit: Chris Savas

Like Farm Sanctuary and Edgar’s Mission, Sweet Olive Farm appears to be part of a growing trend in farm sanctuaries popping up throughout the Western world, safe havens where barnyard species can live out their lives in peace and comfort without being exploited for their meat, eggs, milk or wool. Instead of living short, miserable existences on factory farms and facing the inevitable terror of slaughter, these creatures can actually enjoy their day-to-day lives, be with their own kind, engage in natural behaviors, experience human love and compassion and grow old. In essence, they are allowed to be who they are.

As humans continue to recognize the sentience of farm animals and begin to make more humane food and lifestyle choices, I hope we will see more and more places like Sweet Olive Farm. Still, a more compassionate world can’t happen without public awareness, and that’s why Sweet Olive Farm is also evolving into a place of learning where groups of local schoolchildren can come to the farm, meet the animals and learn about animal husbandry and farm animal welfare. Susan and Kat hope that as more young children are exposed to farm animals, the more understanding and compassion they will develop and carry with them into their adult lives.

Volunteers&Chloe

Volunteering at the sanctuary wouldn’t be complete without stopping to give Chloe, the matriarch of the farm’s pot-bellied pigs, a belly rub. Photo credit: Chris Savas

“The kids are our main mission, teaching social responsibility and compassion education,” Kat said. “We tell them we don’t eat meat…(but) I don’t try to tell kids to be vegetarian. I’m just trying to show them that these are animals, and I’ll say thing like, ‘do you really want to eat that turkey after you’ve been here and been around him several times?’ So our goal is really to lead by example rather than being political.”

Running a sanctuary with over 100 animals is not just a full-time, life-consuming venture, it’s also an incredibly expensive one, as Kat and Susan can attest to. With their 501c3 non-profit status soon to be finalized, the couple is looking forward to taking Sweet Olive Farm to the next level through active fundraising efforts that will allow them to increase their volunteer network; build more fences and barns; create an onsite volunteer center; host special events and become a major part of the farm animal rescue community. With two such ambitious, can-do women at the helm of this sanctuary, I have no doubt they will make all of those dreams a reality, and soon.

Turkeys

Like chickens, turkeys possess strong personalities, form friendships and have a range of interests. I found these guys absolutely fascinating! Photo credit: Chris Savas

Volunteering at a farm sanctuary is a great way to give back while spending time with animals you don’t normally get to interact with on a day-to-day basis. For me, it only reaffirmed my decision to live a meat-free life and to continue moving in a cruelty-free direction. Here are some other great reasons to visit one:

It’s good for the soul: Whether you just want to take a tour or volunteer, visiting a farm animal sanctuary is such an amazing experience. You can see how farm animals live with each other and relate to humans, learn their stories and be amazed by their different personalities. Who knows, maybe you’ll even end up sponsoring an animal? Plus, you’ll come away with unforgettable stories to tell!

You can give back: The staff who run these sanctuaries work tirelessly in all kinds of weather and will be extremely grateful for an extra pair of hands. By volunteering, you can help them with a variety of tasks including cleaning, painting and general farm maintenance, or even grant research, event planning and fundraising. Then there’s the extra perk of being able to socialize with the animals!

You might learn some vegan culinary skills: More and more farm animal sanctuaries are offering cooking classes that can introduce you to as well as help you maintain a healthful, plant-based diet. Check the website of the farm sanctuary you’re planning to visit to see if they offer cooking classes and make sure to sign up well in advance.

It’s inspiring and motivating: Being surrounded by so many wonderful farm animals might just inspire you to take action. Volunteering at a particular sanctuary can become a regular hobby or you can reach out to your local and federal legislators on behalf of the millions of animals who aren’t as lucky as the ones you’ve met at a sanctuary. There are so many great ways to help, and there’s no better place to learn how you can be a voice for change.

Tumbleweed

This is Tumbleweed, one of the sanctuary’s three resident goats. Here he is taking a break from chasing Chloe the pig, who didn’t seem to appreciate his very frequent, amorous advances. Poor, confused guy! Photo credit: Chris Savas

When it comes to different animals species, human beings are guilty of playing favorites, designating some animals friends while others food. Due to our societal conditioning, we have maintained a serious disconnect between the way we view the animals we eat and the animals we welcome into our homes and families. Most of us see our dogs and cats as family members, as complex, self-aware individuals who have emotions, are capable of suffering and feel pain. But barnyard animals are no different. So why can’t we view them the same way we view dogs and cats?

I believe that if more people knew, understood and empathized with farm animals the way they do with dogs and cats, most of them would give up animal products for good. I want to believe that if they learned (or wanted to learn) the truth about factory farming and the inherent cruelty of industries that exploit animals, they might make more compassionate lifestyle choices. Contrary to what the meat and dairy industries have brainwashed you to believe, it is possible to live a very healthy life without consuming animal products. And while it’s easy to not let yourself think about where that hunk of meat on your plate came from, in reality, it was a living, breathing being who was intelligent, self-aware and didn’t want to die.

The information is out there, and it’s up to all of us to educate ourselves and make choices in alignment with our own morals and principles. To do otherwise is dishonest and unethical. Because in the end, it is hypocritical to claim you love animals and yet continue to eat them. And as I can attest from my experience at Sweet Olive Farm, farm animals are no different from those we call our “pets.” They are amazing, funny, complex individuals who deserve to live out their lives free from harm. We are their caretakers, so it is up to us to create a more merciful world for them. In doing so, we create a kinder world for ourselves.

With the ponies

Surrounded by friendly equines. This, my friends, is what heaven looks like for a lifelong horse-crazy girl! Photo credit: Chris Savas

If you live in the Atlanta area and would like to help the wonderful animals (and humans) at Sweet Olive Farm, please visit their website.

If you live elsewhere, never fear, here are some great websites to help you locate a farm sanctuary near you:

http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/farm-sanctuaries-in-the-u-s-that-are-great-for-volunteering/

http://www.sanctuaries.org

http://www.compassionatefarming.org/sanctuaries.html

“Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends.” – George Bernard Shaw

From Farm to Family – How a Dog Destined for the Dinner Table Got a Second Chance at Life

Martyn Stewart had no intention of adopting a dog that day. Tasked with filming the horrific conditions at a South Korean dog farm alongside Humane Society International and Change for Animals Foundation, his mind was simply focused on the difficult assignment at hand. As a sound recordist who has worked in the TV and film industry for many years and documented myriad examples of animal cruelty throughout the globe, Martyn has experienced his fair share of upsetting sights and sounds. But this was his first trip to a dog farm, where dogs were raised for the dog meat trade. Although he knew he would try to do as he’s always done on these assignments – harden his heart, do the job and deal with his emotions later – he still wasn’t sure he was prepared for what he was about to witness.

“I was there filming for the BBC,” Martyn explained. “I do natural soundscapes that layer into documentaries and films and occasionally I shoot video. I’ve been covering the effects of the Asian culture on planet Earth, recording rhinos, elephants, sharks, bear bile bears, etc., and I was in South Korea to tie up domestically what they do there, including to the animals we consider man’s best friends. I believe Asia is credited with 70-80 percent of most animal abuse in the world, which is an enormous percentage, as there’s a vast amount of people living on that continent, so it’s a huge problem.”

The dog farm before HSI and CFAF closed it down. It will soon be converted into a rice farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

The dog farm before HSI and CFAF closed it down. It will soon be converted into a rice farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

As the third and largest dog farm HSI was closing down as part of its strong campaign to help Korean dog farmers exit the trade and transition to more humane forms of farming, this particular operation was home to 103 canines. Most of the dogs were Tosas, a Japanese mastiff breed favored by the South Korean meat trade due to the animal’s large, muscular build.

It is estimated that more than 2 million dogs are consumed in South Korea each year, supplied by hundreds, even thousands of farms (an official census of how many actually operate in the country has never been performed). Unlike countries including China, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia that rely on strays and stolen pets to supply their gruesome pet meat industries, Korea is the only Asian country that commercially farms dogs for consumption.

Life for dogs on a dog meat farm is a short, miserable existence characterized by deprivation and abuse. Similar to puppy mill dogs, these animals live in small, filthy cages with little or no protection from extreme weather, are fed poor diets, denied exercise, companionship and veterinary care, and never get the chance to feel the ground beneath their feet. But unlike mill dogs, these animals have no chance of ending up in loving homes, only in live meat markets where they are tortured and brutally slaughtered.

SK dog meat farm

The depressing sight of a typical South Korean dog meat farm, this one in Yongdang-dong, Yangsan. Photo credit: Nami Kim of SaveKoreanDogs.

As he followed the team of rescuers through the farm, Martyn was incredibly moved by the conditions of the dogs. Tears trickled down his face as he filmed the tragic scene before him – cages and cages of dogs and puppies barking, whining, jumping at the bars of their cages, some cowering in fear, a few wagging their tails. The smell of decaying food and excrement was overwhelming. It seemed unimaginable that any “human” could justify keeping animals this way. And then he saw him – the dog who would end up changing his life.

“I left the puppy enclosure and turned into a dark under-cover row of double-raised cages,” Martyn wrote. “Here I found a dog completely huddled over, its spirit broken. He would not look up at me and I spoke quietly, telling him he would soon be safe and out of here…he trembled in the darkness. He had a small piece of hardboard that probably measured 18 inches in diameter. This was his only salvation from the hard wire-like base of the cage that had deformed his feet.”

He continued, “I completely broke down and asked about the chances of taking him home with me. Lola Webber of Change for Animals Foundation…was there with me at this time and she told me my chances were probably 100 percent. I made up my mind right there that I would take this mentally and physically abused dog home with me…I decided to name him Pocket in honor of a friend’s son I’d met in Nepal; my friend’s tireless work helped close down the abusive Gadhimai festival.”

Pocket when Martyn first saw him - traumatized, defeated and broken. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket when Martyn first saw him – traumatized, defeated and broken. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

I could describe more of Martyn’s heart-wrenching experience at the dog farm in greater detail, but I’d just be repeating everything he’s already illustrated in his very touching, first-person account published last month in The Dodo. Instead, I’d rather focus on the more heartwarming chapter of this inspiring story – Pocket after he was rescued.

Fast-forward almost two weeks later to the end of September. By then, all 103 dogs had been removed from the farm, checked over medically and flown to San Francisco. There they were housed at a temporary shelter and assessed before being distributed among HSI emergency shelter partners throughout California and into Washington state, where they would be rehabilitated and adopted into loving homes. As it turned out, the shelter where Pocket and five other dogs would be sent was PAWS in Lynnwood, WA, not far from Martyn’s home in Greater Seattle. So to help with the transport effort, Martyn and his wife Noeleen drove down to Tacoma, met the HSI team, picked up Pocket and his canine comrades and delivered them to PAWS.

Since dogs raised on dog meat farms are not well cared for and fed extremely low-quality diets typically comprised of swill and offal, it was no surprise that Pocket was infected with parasites, was terribly underweight and developed kennel cough not long after arriving in Washington. But once he was treated, vaccinated and neutered, Pocket was ready to go home with the Stewarts, who were looking forward to nurturing him and getting him acquainted with his new life.

Pocket snuggles in his new doggie bed. Could he be dreaming or had he found heaven? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket snuggles in his new doggie bed. Could he be dreaming or had he found heaven? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“One of the most amazing sights was Pocket’s first walk on grass,” Martyn said. “He had never seen or smelled it, had never seen a bird or a squirrel, had never chewed a stick or interacted with another playful dog. Giving him his first squeaky toy was a joy to watch.”

As the proud parents of Bucket, a boisterous 8-month-old golden Labrador retriever, the Stewarts were well aware that adding another young dog to the household would be twice the work. But then, Pocket wasn’t any ordinary 7-9-month-old pup – he was a traumatized dog who had known nothing but deprivation and abuse. Helping him heal physically and emotionally was going to take lots of time, love and patience. But Martyn wasn’t daunted; he was prepared to do everything in his power to help Pocket feel safe and loved. And initially, that meant giving up sleep.

“That first week I didn’t even know what a bed was and was walking around like a zombie because Pocket was having nightmares and would bark in his sleep,” he said. “Who knows what a meat dog dreams about? So I was lying down on the floor with him and I’d wake up feeling like someone had crushed me with a steamroller. When you get a dog you have a commitment for life and that’s what you have to keep telling yourself, but that first week definitely made me feel my age.”

Pocket enjoying all the trappings of his new life, including a leisurely sunbath, something he'd never had the chance to experience at the horrible dog farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket enjoying all the trappings of his new life, including a leisurely sunbath, something he’d never had the chance to experience at the horrible dog farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Besides night terrors, Pocket had other obstacles to overcome. One issue was his deformed feet and weak lower front legs, caused by having to walk and stand on wire flooring for his entire life. Since he’d never received any exercise and his muscles were terribly weak, the dog had adapted by walking on his wrists.

“It’s kind of how his feet evolved to try to live in the conditions he was in,” Martyn explained. “His front legs became lower, like he had on snowshoes or big flippers. But now that he’s walking and putting on muscle he’s starting to elevate his legs and using the pads on his feet, so they’re straightening up quite well.”

He continued, “He’s got lopsided ears because he’d been attacked by other dogs and the farmer had stitched him up with heavy string like you’d see in a potato sack – it was just so crude and horrible. The farmer would have done it without anesthetic and Pocket would have been screaming in agony. So he’s got scarring all over his neck and one ear is about two inches down from the other, giving him this floppy approach on his face. His hearing is okay, he’s just going to have these deformities, these battle wounds that are a memento of his early life.”

Pocket's adorable, floppy face. Don't you just want to kiss it? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket’s adorable, floppy face. Don’t you just want to kiss it? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

As those first days and weeks went by, Pocket’s new world began to slowly unfold before him, with so many new “firsts” to experience. Life is good when you’re a cherished family dog! Here he was, eating yummy, nutritious food, going for walks in the woods, playing with toys, meeting other friendly dogs, riding in the car, sleeping in a warm, comfy bed and best of all, receiving tons of love. Whenever something new, such as strange sounds, became overwhelming or frightening for him, Pocket quickly learned to look to his pack for safety and reassurance.

“Bucket is roughly the same age as Pocket, so I often look at the parallels between the two of them,” Martyn said. “We’ve had Bucket since he was 12 weeks old and he’s had the chance to be a puppy, but Pocket had his puppyhood cruelly taken from him, so he’s having to catch up with everything. Bucket is like his therapy dog, but he can also be overwhelming because he just wants to play and wrestle him to the ground every five seconds. But Pocket really looks to him for how to be a dog and help get him out of his (anxious) state of mind.”

Picturing Pocket loping after Bucket as they bound along a wooded trail, stopping to watch birds, chase squirrels, taking in all the enchanting sights, fascinating sounds and interesting smells, I am incredibly heartened to think of how far this amazingly resilient dog has come. Seven weeks ago Pocket was just another nameless dog on a South Korean dog farm, simply waiting for death. Now he is a pampered pet enjoying a wonderful life with a loving family committed to helping him heal from his traumatic beginnings. To be safe, loved and valued – that’s what all dogs, including meat dogs, deserve.

Enjoying a lovely neck massage from his new mommy while brother Bucket wonders why he's not getting one, too! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Enjoying a lovely neck massage from his new mommy while brother Bucket wonders why he’s not getting one, too! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“His personality is just adorable,” Martyn gushed. “He’s not a guy who shows you a ton of emotion – I haven’t had a lick out of him yet – and he just looks at you with these big, sorry eyes. He has a bed at the side of our bed with a gate around it so he feels secure, and now he sleeps all night. Then when you see him in the morning you get the wag of the tail – his tail never wagged before.”

He continued, “He’s nervous and aware of everything going on around him but watching him trying to compute it all into his little mind, I think he’s doing amazing. He doesn’t have the total confidence you’d expect from a dog but I’d expect him to behave like he is after everything he’s been through.”

It takes a very special person to rehabilitate an animal from the meat trade. These creatures have been through a tremendous amount of stress and trauma and have likely never known love or affection. And while the concept of adopting a dog or a cat from these circumstances may appeal to some well-meaning, kindhearted individuals, prospective adopters must be prepared for the kinds of challenges these animals can present, including behavior, training and health care needs that may exceed what most people are willing or able to handle. But with a great amount of time, patience and training, dog meat dogs can indeed become wonderful lifetime companions.

Hiking through the nature preserve near his new home, Pocket must be thinking,

Hiking through the nature preserve near his new home, Pocket must be thinking, “who knew being a dog could be so much fun?” Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“People need to understand that a rescued meat dog is far different than a dog you’d normally go pick up,” Martyn asserted. “These dogs have come through a hell of a lot of trauma in their lives and all they’ve ever seen is abuse. I get so many messages from people saying, ‘I want one of those dogs because I think it would be cool to have something with history,’ like it’s a status symbol for them. You can’t just go and grab something and think you’re adopting a dog like you would anywhere else. You have to take this dog for what it is and be able to put into it what any abused animal would require.”

Meanwhile, Pocket has become a bit of a celebrity. Besides serving as one of the poster dogs for HSI’s anti-dog meat campaign, he has his very own Facebook page, Pocket for Change, in which he “journals” about his new life alongside beautiful photos and heartwarming videos, compliments of his talented dad. You can also check out his growing video library on YouTube.

But while most people who learn about Pocket are warmed and inspired by his story, there will always be naysayers, in this case, those who question the validity of rescuing dogs from other parts of the globe.

From abused meat dog to pampered pooch - no more bad dreams for this guy! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

From abused meat dog to pampered pooch – no more bad dreams for this guy! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“I’ve had a lot of feedback from people saying, ‘why can’t we save our own dogs instead of going over there?’ but I don’t see it that way, I see things universally and think every animal matters,” Martyn said. “I encourage everybody to adopt any dog, be it from Korea or any other part of the world, including the U.S. Animals all over the planet are in need of our help. By reaching out to these dogs in South Korea, it makes us aware of problems not just on our own doorstep but on others’ too. Animals’ lives don’t just end at home, animal abuse is a global issue.”

While it’s hard for Westerners to understand why anyone would want to torture, kill and eat a companion animal, in the end, it’s hypocritical for us to condemn other cultures for their dietary choices when we have much to answer for in the way our culture treats animals considered food rather than friends.

“Throw a stone at Asia for the dog meat trade and you break your own window if you also eat meat – think about it,” Martyn stressed.

By sharing his story and demonstrating to the world that meat dogs are just as loving and deserving of compassion as any pet dog, Martyn hopes that Pocket will not only help change the hearts and minds of people within dog-eating nations but also inspire others to join the movement to stop this inhumane trade.

“I hope that Pocket will shine a light on every dog in South Korea and the rest of the world (and) show that there is always hope,” he said. “Like the starfishes washed up on the beach, if we can save one, we can save them all.”

Pocket with his devoted dad. He's even learning the art of the selfie! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket with his devoted dad. He’s even learning the art of the selfie! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Thanks to their incredible partnership and campaign launched at the beginning of this year, HSI and CFAF have so far shut down three South Korean dog farms, resulting in the rescue and re-homing of 186 dogs in the U.S. If you’d like to support this progressive effort to end South Korea’s dog meat trade and raise awareness among Koreans about the plight of “meat dogs,” please go here.

For a glimpse into the Korean dog meat trade as imagined from a dog’s perspective, check out this animated video, Draw My Life.

To learn more about the dog meat trade in South Korea and how you can help, please visit koreandogs.org.

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” ~Albert Einstein

They Called Her Sunshine – How a Rescued Street Dog Became an Ambassador for Abandoned Canines Everywhere

She had all but given up hope. Severely emaciated, infected with mange and covered in sores, the dying street dog began staggering down the side of the road, one slow, agonizing step at a time. Perhaps in one final attempt to find food, she had rallied every last bit of energy to crawl out of hiding and into the sunlight. Because like many street dogs on the brink of succumbing to injury, starvation or disease, her choice was clear – fight to survive or surrender to death. But call it chance, luck or destiny, everything changed for the ailing dog at that very moment. She had been seen.

“My girlfriend Julie and I were leaving my house to go shopping and were driving down our block when we both saw the dog at the same time,” said Caron Comas, longtime animal lover and devoted dog mom. “She was barely moving, sort of walking up the street. We hit the brakes, looked at each other and said, ‘is that a dog?’ The sight of her was just enough to make you fall apart.”

But when the women got out of the car and tried to get the dog to come to them, the frightened canine simply turned and ran the other way, quickly escaping under an abandoned house across the street from Caron’s home.

Shopping plans quickly forgotten, Caron ran back to her house to get something for the dog to drink and eat while Julie stood guard by the opening in the house where the fleeing canine had disappeared. After some coaxing, the dog’s intense hunger and thirst eventually won out over her fear and she began accepting a little food and water from the women, who couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The creature was a pink, almost hairless bag of bones, with irritated, crusty skin and deep, open sores around her hips and back legs, most likely caused from lying in one place for a very long time. The largest wound, located on her left hip, was so deep Caron could see exposed muscle tissue and joint material.

Sunshine when she was first discovered, in terrible condition and close to death. Photo credit: Caron Comas.

Sunshine when she was first discovered, in terrible condition and close to death. Photo credit: Caron Comas.

Knowing she had to act quickly to save this dog from certain death, Caron jumped on Facebook and began searching for help. That’s when she discovered Pause for Paws, a non-profit rescue organization dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and finding loving homes for San Antonio’s abandoned street dogs. She sent them an urgent message along with a snapshot she’d taken of the dog cowering under the house, a disturbing image that quickly caught the attention of Pause for Paws Director Sharal Mackenzie, who immediately got on the phone with Caron to determine the desperate pup’s location.

As someone who’s seen her fair share of street dogs on their last legs, Sharal knew this one was in big trouble. Without hesitation she reached out to Save Our Street Dogs San Antonio Texas (SOS-SATX), an all-volunteer group of dedicated street dog rescuers, to see if they had any members in the area who could pick up the dog.

“When I saw how bad the dog was I knew we weren’t going to have much time to get her, or she was going to disappear somewhere and never be seen again,” Sharal said.

Which was exactly what everyone feared had happened, because by the time SOS volunteers arrived at the abandoned house the dog had flown the scene. When they returned the next day, again, no sight of her. That’s because The City of San Antonio Animal Care Services (ACS) had gotten to her first.

Sunshine upon arrival at Castle-West Animal Hospital, where she was immediately attended to by the amazing Dr. McGehee and his wonderful staff. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine upon arrival at Castle-West Animal Hospital, where she was immediately attended to by the amazing Dr. McGehee and his wonderful staff. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

“Thank goodness they picked her up because if someone hadn’t gotten her she would have been one of numerous dogs who die under houses or in bushes and nobody even realizes they’re gone,” said Sharal.

As a city shelter with a good working relationship with many of the rescue groups in the San Antonio area, ACS willingly released the dog to Pause for Paws, who then rushed her to Castle-West Animal Hospital and Dr. Bill McGehee, the rescue’s longtime, beloved veterinarian.

After someone was overheard saying, “That dog looks like she could use a little sunshine in her life,” the canine was promptly christened Miss Caron Sunshine, in honor of her rescuer.

The newly named Sunshine had quite an extensive laundry list of medical issues. Besides being anemic and severely emaciated, she was plagued with demodectic mange, hookworms, dry, fragile skin and ugly, gaping pressure sores on both sides of her hips. The ugliest one on her left side was so deep it went straight to the bone.

“When Pause for Paws brought Sunshine in she could barely stand or walk,” said Veterinary Technician Jennifer Rodriguez, who is also a foster volunteer with Pause for Paws. “She was very pale and by her skin color and her eyes, you could see she was at the last bit of her life. As soon as she came in we started doing blood work, taking pictures and figuring out what was going on with her so we could come up with a treatment plan.”

Sunshine enjoying the comforts of a doggie bed at the clinic. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine enjoying the comforts of a doggie bed at the clinic. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

A blood transfusion produced miraculous results, and by the next day, Sunshine was active, aware and alert. But while it seemed the lucky canine had been delivered from death’s door, it was clear she had quite a road of recovery ahead of her, with myriad physical issues needing to be addressed. Along with antibiotics, iron supplements and several de-wormings, Sunshine’s intensive treatment regimen included daily mange baths and hydrotherapy to wash away dead skin, dirt and debris and infuse her wounds with oxygen to promote healing. In addition, x-rays revealed dysplasia in one of her hips.

“This showed us evidence of her age, which we think is about six years, as well as the wear and tear of being out in that kind of environment,” said Jennifer, who developed an immediate bond with Sunshine and ended up managing the majority of her care. “Although we’ll never know for sure, I can definitely tell you she was on the street for a long period, for her hair to die off, her skin to be so frail and for her weight loss to be so severe.”

With the cost of Sunshine’s care estimated at $5,000 or more, Pause for Paws quickly took to social media, where they shared her story and rallied supporters. Soon the lucky pup had her own Facebook page, hundreds of “fans” rooting for her recovery and a generous community of donors who not only contributed funds but also medical and pet supplies. One supporter even sent Sunshine special doggie pajamas to protect her sun-sensitive skin.

“(Sunshine’s medical care) would not have been possible without the support of so many kind-hearted donors who contributed to her GoFundMe campaign and directly to Castle-West,” said Sharal. “And of course, we let everyone know that anything not used for Sunshine would be used for the other animals that come in to our rescue.”

One of the most compelling things about Sunshine is her soulful eyes – they just draw you in. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

One of the most compelling things about Sunshine is her soulful eyes – they just draw you in. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Feeling better by the day and clearly on the road to recovery, Sunshine quickly settled into life at the clinic, becoming a fast favorite of the Castle-West staff and clientele, as well as a local celebrity. As her body healed her personality blossomed. True to her name, Sunshine’s demeanor proved to be sweet and sunny, her personality loving and affectionate. Soon she had joined the ranks of the privileged staff dogs, earning free roam of the clinic and soaking up as much attention as she could get from visitors and employees alike.

“She picked up very quickly where she can go, where she can’t and where she can lie down, and she was very well-mannered as far as socializing with the other dogs and animals,” Jennifer said. “She started learning where the biscuits were and started trying to open that container, and figuring out where the dry food is and poking at that with her nose. And of course, we had to watch every trashcan and countertop, because human food is her number one focus.”

After almost two months of top-notch rehabilitation and care, Sunshine was a transformed dog. While all of her fur had yet to grow back, her skin was improving and most of her wounds had healed up well. But after such a long stay at the vet clinic, it was time for Sunshine to take her next step – she was ready to graduate to a foster home.

Sunshine getting attention from a young client at Castle-West. After everything she's been through, it's amazing how much she loves people - of all shapes and sizes! Photo credit: Pause for Paws

Sunshine getting attention from a young client at Castle-West. After everything she’s been through, it’s amazing how much she loves people – of all shapes and sizes! Photo credit: Pause for Paws

“I already knew Sunshine was a great dog, she just needed to be shown where to be,” explained Jennifer, who is also an experienced dog trainer. “I knew that her hips were going to take a while to heal and while everyone wanted to foster her, I knew she couldn’t go into a home until they healed up. I thought if she does okay at my house and learns things like how to use a doggie door, not to dig in the trash and be gentle and nice with the other animals at the house, it would be fine with me if I took her and still did the treatments she needed while giving her a different environment.”

Just as she’d done at the clinic, Sunshine immediately adapted to her new environment, this time in Jennifer’s home, where she quickly learned household routines and good manners by following the lead of her five canine and two feline foster brothers and sisters. Her life now a far cry from her lonely existence on the streets, Sunshine was getting a taste of what she’d always deserved – to be a cared for, beloved pet. Watching her lounging on the couch, learning to play with toys, napping in comfy doggie beds or running around with Jennifer’s dogs in their huge backyard, it seemed as if Sunshine the once-invisible street dog had all but forgotten her unfortunate past.

“She learned right away not to pee in her cage and not to go in the clinic and she’s never soiled in my house, so that makes me think she may have had some experience in a house environment, that and in the way she connects with people,” said Jennifer. “She didn’t mind people being all over her, touching her head. She was so interested in them – she just gravitated toward that love.”

Sunshine getting some love from her admirers at a Pause for Paws adoption event. She loves having her head petted! Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Sunshine getting some love from her admirers at a Pause for Paws adoption event. She loves having her head petted! Photo credit: Corazon Photography

But when it comes to the fate of most street dogs, Sunshine’s happy story is definitely the exception rather than the rule. While the number of stray dogs in the U.S. is unknown, according to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 600 million dogs living on the streets throughout the world. In San Antonio alone there are approximately 150,000 stray dogs, a serious problem that several rescue groups, including Pause for Pause, are trying to address.

According to Sharal, one reason street dogs are able to proliferate in San Antonio is due to the region’s milder climate, which makes it easier for stray and abandoned dogs to scrounge, reproduce and survive for longer periods of time until they eventually succumb to injury, starvation or illness. Most of the city’s street dogs are actually lost or abandoned pets, she explained.

“It’s primarily the lost dogs who are going to get picked up and rescued off the street, and most of those are very grateful dogs once we pick them up,” Sharal said. “We find a high percentage are housetrained and never wanted to be on the street in the first place. Then there are the dumped dogs – they’re the ones sitting by the side of the road, watching every car, because no matter how bad their owner was, that loyalty is still there. You can see them sitting in the median, just watching cars go by, and that’s usually when they get hit.”

She continued, “Then there are the community dogs that people don’t want to admit are theirs when they’re picked up or when something happens to them. These dogs have never had shots, never been fixed or probably ever had any care but they’re not totally unloved dogs, there’s just a different attitude (about pets) here. But in general, most of the stray dogs we pick up are pretty nice dogs once we get them out of the street environment. They may look feral but once you get them back in a home and they know they’re in a safe place they’ll switch right over.”

Sunshine and her devoted caretaker and foster mom, Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Sunshine and her devoted caretaker and foster mom, Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Meanwhile, Sunshine has continued to flourish under Jennifer’s loving care and weekly follow-up visits at Castle-West, where she enjoys socializing with her adoring fans, hanging out with the staff and “helping” with patients. She has also become a regular fixture at Pause for Paws adoption events, where people often stop by just to get a picture taken with her.

“I do sometimes take her out to different things and she’s great on the leash,” Jennifer said. “She loves to go on car rides – she waits every day to see if I’m going to open that door so she can jump in the car. She does have a little bit of separation anxiety, I think because we’ve spoiled her so much at the clinic, and she definitely wants to be out there and doing everything. For a street dog, her personality is absolutely amazing – she’s every rescue dream you’d want.”

Three months after her rescue from the streets of San Antonio, Sunshine’s happy ending appears to be within reach. The lucky pup has already landed a wonderful family that has been following her story since the beginning and has waited patiently for the chance to adopt her. Once they’ve been approved by Pause for Paws, Sunshine will be ready to embark upon her next chapter – life in a loving, forever home. But none of that would have been possible without the village of amazing people who worked together to save one incredible dog.

“This was a case of the whole community coming together to save one dog,” Sharal said. “It was the good Samaritan, it was SOS-SATX getting someone out there in a hurry, it was having ACS being willing to work with us, it was our vet, Dr. McGehee, who is fantastic and can do miracles, and it was Jennifer for taking such great care of her. And last but not least, it was the community, the people who were touched by Sunshine’s story and did something to save a dog’s life. They saved many dogs’ lives when they got involved, started caring and started believing that they could actually do something to help.”

Sunshine's incredible village of rescuers. From left to right, back row: Caron Comas, Sharal Mackenzie, Elsa Benavidas and Deanna Lee from SOS-SATX; front row: Dr. Bill McGehee, Miss Caron Sunshine and Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine’s incredible village of rescuers. From left to right, back row: Caron Comas, Sharal Mackenzie, Elsa Benavidas and Deanna Lee from SOS-SATX; front row: Dr. Bill McGehee, Miss Caron Sunshine and Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Our global street dog problem is a human-created problem. Be part of the solution by spaying and neutering your pets, providing them with care and not letting them roam free. If you see a stray dog, especially one in bad shape or in distress, here’s what you can do:

  • Don’t just walk away, do something. If you don’t feel comfortable handling the dog yourself, contact animal control or a street dog rescue group. Don’t just leave the animal where it is and think someone else will take care of it. That attitude of, “it’s not my problem” is why so many dogs end up dying on the streets.
  • Get a photo of the dog, as the shelter or agency will most likely ask for one.
  • Once you’ve reported the dog, don’t think it’s no longer your responsibility – that will rarely get the dog off the street. Be willing to follow-up and follow through to make sure the dog receives the attention and care it needs.
  • If you are able to retrieve the dog (please use caution when handling a stray dog, especially if it’s injured), don’t just keep it! That cute little dog you just picked up off the street may have an owner. Think in terms of what would you want somebody to do if it was your dog. Take it to a shelter or a vet who can scan it for a microchip, then do what you can to get the dog home, including posting signs in the area where it was found and/or circulating photos on social media.
  • If you see a mother dog and her puppies on the street, don’t just pick up the puppies and leave the momma behind. Leaving an unsterilized, lactating female dog on the street is not only cruel but also perpetuates the problem, as she will simply reproduce again.
  • Consider fostering the dog. This not only saves a life, it also allows shelters and rescues groups with space issues to help more dogs. Like Pause for Paws, many shelters and rescue organizations will provide medical care and supplies – all you have to do is supply a home, some food and love!
  • If you can’t foster, donate. For most shelters, especially smaller ones, money is always an issue, so anything you can donate to help the animals will be incredibly appreciated. Having that extra funding may mean the difference between that shelter being able to help another animal or having to turn it away.
  • Get out and promote spay and neuter. Talk to people, especially your neighbor with the unsterilized dog that keeps having puppies. Be diplomatic and take every opportunity to educate people in a kind, non-judgmental way. Talk to them about why their dog acts crazy or aggressive because he’s living in the backyard alone on a chain. Educate wherever and whenever you can – spreading awareness does make a difference!

Sometimes it takes a whole community to make a difference for dogs in need – Sunshine’s story is living proof of that fact. Because in the end, every dog deserves a home and all dogs are equally deserving of living safe, happy lives as beloved companions. Our planet’s street dog problem is not a canine problem, it is a mess we humans have created through reckless overbreeding and irresponsible pet ownership. We domesticated dogs to live side by side with us and they have remained loyal to us for thousands of years. We owe it to them to fix this crisis once and for all.

“Stop pretending that if your dog gets lost or you dump a dog that someone else is going to take care of it,” Sharal asserted. “Stop pretending that euthanasia is the worst thing that can happen to a dog…there are many worse things than that. There’s no happy ending for these dogs unless they get rescued.”

Miss Sunshine, who - as evidenced from the white fur with black speckles growing in - appears to be a Dalmatian mix. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Miss Sunshine, who – as evidenced from the white fur with black speckles growing in – appears to be a Dalmatian mix. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

“Roving dogs do not indicate compassion and civilization in society; they betray instead the ignorance and lethargy of its members…that means we should keep them and treat them with respect as we do our companions and not allow them to roam about.” – Mahatma Ghandi