Words & Photos by Jessica Festa, Epicure & Culture Editor
India doesn’t hide its problems of poverty and child begging. But beneath the dusty veil of dilapidated historic palaces and pollution is a suffering population that often gets overlooked: the animals.
When Erika, Jim and their daughter Claire Abrams Myers went to India 20 years ago, they wanted to do something with a social good edge. They originally thought of opening an orphanage, but in their research kept finding wounded animals with no one to care for them.
Which is how Animal Aid Unlimited was founded in 2002 in Badi Village, about 15 minutes outside of Udaipur. It’s one of the only places where wounded animals can be nursed back to health. The center started as a tiny plot run by three people — a vet and two helpers — and is now home to 75 full time staff and about 600 animals wounded in the streets, 99% of the time by car accidents. If you’ve ever been to India this probably won’t surprise you, as honking rickshaws, motorbikes and cars whiz by like they’re racing in NASCAR, and cows, donkeys and dogs wander right in the road.
The Power Of Knowledge
Erika credits their extreme growth to the fact there had been no means of rescuing ownerless street animals in Udaipur before. “People may have felt compassion, but without knowledge or resources to give them practical help, they passed by suffering angels.”
So Animal Aid started to pass on that knowledge. Their outreach efforts included visiting schools, passing out rescue line phone numbers, and getting media to spread the word about their rescue service. And, as Animal Aid’s performance in helping animals through rescue grew, the number of calls each day escalated.
“We received a few calls a week in the early years, and felt grateful for them,” Erika explains. “Today we often receive 50 requests each day to rescue suffering animals. The exposure of our rescue work and the animals themselves which come through social media have heightened people’s awareness both of our organization and of the beauty of rescue anywhere, by anyone. We feel there is an international swell in public passion about animal rescue and again, when people feel they can take practical action they do, and Animal Aid has made it easy for people to help animals.”
Amazing Stories Of Recovery
Visitors can head to the property to tour and play with the animals, as well as volunteer their time. I spent a morning there myself, and it was quite the moving experience. The tour, led by staff member Raj, began with meeting the dogs. If not for this rescue center, these animals — a number of which run over excitedly to nuzzle my leg — would have been left for dead despite the possibility of nursing them back to health. It’s a wild thought.
Some of the dogs have large tumors or are blind, so will spend the rest of their days enjoying the outdoors on the farm and lapping up a healthy vegetarian mix of rice and lentils. I fall in love with one of the resident dogs, a canine lovingly named Mama who has a severe skin condition that makes her look, to be quite frank, like a giant mangy rat. Because of this locals may not accept her on the streets, so she stays on the farm where she is loved.
One of the most dramatic wounds Animal Aid has dealt with was caused by maggots devouring the facial tissue of a dog they named Kalu. The rescue involved intensive daily flushing and dressing. In fact, the wound was so horrific even Kalu’s eyes had sunken into it. Initially they thought the pup’s eyes were gone; one was, but the other was actually buried under lacerated and swollen wound tissue.
Not easy to hear — and you can see the graphic yet miraculous video story of Kalu here — but it paints a vivid picture of the important work Animal Aid is doing.
The Sacred Cows Of India
Walking around, the care is apparent; locals with thermometers, shots and clipboards check vitals, while others bandage broken bones. Raj explains that the cows are the hardest to look after. Most in their care had been left on the streets after eating plastic. Surgery doesn’t always work, so for many cows Animal Aid’s job is simply to relieve the animals’ suffering during their time left on earth.
This was surprising to me, with cows being considered sacred in India; but while this means they can’t be euthanized, it still doesn’t protect them from their own surprising fragility.
Explains Erika, “Cows are built a little disproportionately — probably due to the fact that they have been bred in controlled breeding programs for hundreds and even thousands of years — and their body weight is heavy in relation to their slender legs. They have a very difficult time rising from a laying position if one of their legs is injured. In addition, cows need their rumens (stomachs) to be almost constantly in motion. If they lay prone and cannot graze, their rumens stop working and they suffer from severe gaseous bloat.”
Tortoises, Pigs, Donkeys & More
As we walk along we see tortoises, pigs and donkeys. Donkeys are considered by locals as a work animal, tying their legs together and putting large loads on their backs in a way that cripples them. To combat this, the center goes into the city and gives talks at schools and local organizations about better practices that can benefit the animals. They also make it clear that less physical harm to the animal means the owner’s investment will last longer, which often resonates more with local farmers.
Raj ends the tour by leading me to a pen full of paralyzed dogs. When the pen door opens the dogs excitedly belly over while dragging their hind legs, clearly happy about the prospect of being pet or fed. I sit on a small stool, and am suddenly surrounded by crippled dogs seeking affection. My heart melts.Volunteering with #animals in #India was a truly moving experience. Here's why. Click To Tweet
So Much Love
Raj shows how they’ve had some success with massage. When I ask about the technique, he explains they simply use the logic that moving the dogs’ joints in the way they would if they could walk would be beneficial. They’ve seen success with both this and hydrotherapy.
Erika’s husband, Jim, is in the pen, and explains, “Our view is to always keep helping. We help the animals until they tell us they’re ready to give up. We’ve learned to see it in their eyes and behavior. As long as they’re eating and staring with those wide eyes we’ll help them.”These rescued #dogs will melt your heart. Here's how to #volunteer with animals in #India. Click To Tweet
So what does the future look like for Animal Aid Unlimited? The team is currently constructing 80 kennels to expand their spay-neuter program. They’re also involved in developing expertise among residents in Udaipur to better care for animals on the streets themselves, to learn first aid techniques, and to learn how to recognize and intervene in cruelty cases. This outreach is conducted through community meetings every Sunday and is attended by those who request rescues in a particular location.
Animal Aid Unlimited is also conducting outreach each weekend in malls and other public places to encourage vegan living. They work with the Federation of Indian Animal Protection Organisations in their “Living Free” program to help people understand the suffering experienced by animals used for food and clothing, in entertainment and research.
Says Erika, “Animal Aid’s mission is to help animals, and for this to be realized we need to continuously develop people who will act on behalf of animals.”
Want To Volunteer?
If you’d like to help Animal Aid, there are a few ways. For one, you can volunteer your time playing with, feeding and bathing the animals, as well as assisting the medical team. Moreover, you can donate money that goes directly toward helping the animals Animal Aid works with. In fact, you can choose to donate to the overall organization or to a specific animal. You can learn every animal’s story on Animal Aid’s YouTube channel and their Facebook page (warning: some of these will make you cry).
Have you ever volunteered with animals in India? We’d love to hear your experience in the comments below.
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