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A Day in the Life of An Animal Shelter Volunteer
Everyone in Colán knows where Sra. Rosemary lives. Located just a few blocks from the beach, Asocicasión Humanitaria San Fransisco de Asis (AHSFA), the animal shelter in northern Peru that Rosemary has run for nearly 30 years, sits down a bumpy dirt road. The shelter and her home may soon be in danger of expropriation without compensation, due to climate change. El Niño ripped through the Peruvian coast a few years ago, consuming several meters of beachfront. At high tide, the houses closest to the shore are just shy of becoming consumed by the Pacific.
Located on the Northern Peruvian coast, Colán is a sleepy beach town, until the tourists arrive for the summer. Most homes are empty. Mansions stand next to patchwork homes, pieced together with scraps of whatever might hold up four walls. Others are half constructed, despite the threat of expropriation. Mototaxis bumble down the sand and dirt roads as dogs sprint after them out of boredom. This is where Dave, Sora, and I spent two weeks volunteering an at animal shelter in Northern Perú.
A mural depicting St. Francis of Assisi tending to a variety of animals is painted on the gate we enter each morning. As we arrive, China, Montana, and Princesa sprint toward us, knowing that our arrival signifies their morning walk. We arrive early, around 7:00 because the temperatures increase quickly and become unbearable in this dusty desert beach. We find space among Dusty and Squeak, two friendly cats who lay splayed across the handmade recycled tile table, to set down our belongings before selecting from Rosemary’s variety of leashes on the back of her front door.
With Sora attached around my waist, I juggle Princesa and China while Dave clips the leash to Montana’s collar. With two dogs each, we are dragged across Rosemary’s yard, cats darting out of our path from all directions.
We walk or run the same route each day, the friendly Rottweiler tied to a post across the street barks viciously, protecting his human’s mototaxi. Canela, the next-door neighbor dog finally befriends us after a week of growling at our posse. We walk for about 45 minutes, waiting patiently while China stops suddenly to roll around on her back for 30 seconds, for Princesa to smell everything in sight, and for Montana to pee 20 times.
Upon our return, we swap dogs and Dave takes out Pisco, a curmudgeonly old man and beagle mix whose bark sounds like he is bellowing from deep inside the bellows of a well. He can only walk around the block, so I sit in the hammock and wait for the smoothies made each morning for our breakfast. Dusty, ever persistent, hops into the hammock and proceeds to drive his razor-sharp nails into my bare skin while simultaneously creating puddles of drool on my shirt. I move him to a location where I am safe from his nails, but he just crawls right back to knead my tender thighs.
After breakfast I visit Garfield and Tigresa. Garfield is a sweet orange cat whose friendliness does not gel with the other 40+ cats that roam the property. He wants to play, while others prefer to lounge. Tigresa is a 19-year-old cat with a skin condition who just needs some attention each day. The cat area consists of two separate areas with several large kennels, where the cats sleep at night. Homemade string toys dangle from the roof as others catwalk above. Cats hide among the pepper plants and curl up in the wheelbarrow. Others lounge in the sun, while some hang out near the two rescued turtles. This is kitty paradise.
Meanwhile, Dave tends to Chavo, a recent shepherd mix Rosemary rescued from the trash. Chavo is mostly blind and has a difficult time walking on his hind lens. He arrived covered with mange and his ears bleed from infection. Dave gingerly puts “the purple stuff,” a disinfectant on his ears and cleans his eyes with water.
When our duties at the main shelter are finished for the afternoon, we take a mototaxi 3 km up the hill, where Rosemary has a second property where we stay and tend to a colony of feral cats. She has recently begun to tap, castrate, and release cats. Because they are feral, she feeds them separately from the other cats in the main shelter, in hope that some may one day become adoptable. Information varies, but the average mature cat can reproduce up to three times per year, with four kittens per litter, starting at the age of six months. Check out this calculator to see how many cats that creates in a span of 10 years. It’s a lot.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays Marina and Ingrid visit. We help Marina, a vet tech unload 18 cats and dogs from the taxi in which she arrives and line them up outside of the clinic at the shelter. All of these animals come from neighboring cities Paita and Piura and will all be spayed and neutered by Ingrid, the veterinarian. Sometimes, townspeople bring their own pets to be spayed and neutered, though it’s rare.
Some days, we visit the homes of people who have informed Rosemary’s helpers, Adela and Aleja that they have cats they want get rid of, and if Rosemary doesn’t take them, then they will poison them or throw them out in the trash. These are just a few ways how people get rid of unwanted animals. The others are unthinkable and inhumane. We visit and we explain that we can spay or neuter the cats, but they have to take them back, they can’t poison them and they can’t throw them out. That is the deal. And we just have to trust that they obey because Rosemary can’t care for any more animals at this stage.
Spay and neuter is not understood in countries like Peru. Dogs and cats roam freely, whether they have owners or not. We fight machismo attitudes towards neutering the males. There is no connection that males can still impregnate unspayed females. With teenage girls walking around with swollen bellies or carrying small children on their hips, sex education lacks logic in lands where extreme poverty reigns.
One morning, after collecting a few cats from the neighbors, Dave walks in cradling a motionless dog covered in fleas and ticks. Her bones jut out from her skin. The size of Sora, she couldn’t weigh more than 20 pounds (Sora weights about 42). Dave sets her gently in a basket and begins to pull ticks off of her. Over the course of three days, he removes over 50 ticks, with several still remaining imbedded in her skin.
This is Muñeca, a dog Rosemary adopted out several years ago as a puppy and who had always recognized her and greeted her when she saw Rosemary on the street. Though she’s determined no to take in any more animals, she has a soft spot for Muñeca and can’t bear to see her in such poor health. While Dave removes the ticks, Rosemary prepares a chicken broth for her to eat, as she likely hasn’t consumed any food in days.
The days which involve rescues or convincing people not to kill their animals are exhausting and mentally draining. Rosemary tells us countless horrific stories of animal abuse she has encountered over the years. It’s heartbreaking and something we just don’t understand. Even with the extreme poverty, what right does anyone have to take another life?
Peru is a country that has some of the highest instances of abuse against women and sexual violence in Latin America, so it’s understandable that animals rank at the bottom of the totem pole. In Peru, 1 in 3 women are victims of domestic violence, 1 in 5 women experience sexual violence before the age of 15, and 9 out of 10 pregnancies of girls under the age of 15 are the product of incest. Alcoholism and drunkenness among the men thrive throughout small communities like Colán and most families struggle to survive. In a Catholic-dominated country where nearly everyone professes their love for and belief in Jesus and God as emblazoned across their automobiles, crosses decorating the walls of their homes, and drivers who make the sign of the cross at every church they pass, there seem to be some values mixed in what it means to hold compassion for all of God’s creations.
“If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men.”
― St. Francis of Assisi
On my way home one evening, I drop off two kennels with one man who feeds four cats. One is pregnant and there is a lone kitten among them, no older than six weeks. Rosemary is worried he might steal the kennel. Theft is common among the community, and she worries what ills they might do with a device that can trap animals. She rarely leaves her belongings with other people. I expressly stress to the man that he is not to capture the kitten or the pregnant cat, that operating on them is dangerous.
The following morning, however, Dave brings back the kitten and an empty kennel (the man did indeed try to convince Dave that I had only left one kennel, though the other was in plain sight). With access to Ingrid only two days per week, they operate when they receive any animal, regardless of potential implications.
Dave and I bring the kitten up the hill where we are staying to recover. He won’t be going back to the man. He will just kill him. I take the opportunity to make the kitten understand love. I sit with him in my lap and play with him. I hold him to my chest and scratch his chin. If anything, I want him to know what love feels like for at least a week in his life.
While draining at times, our experience volunteering at the animal shelter taught us to celebrate the small wins. Some volunteers leave earlier than their scheduled time because the experience is just too emotionally taxing. We felt heavy with the ignorance, lack of education, and inhumane treatment of animals, and we felt such immense joy to care for the ones we were able to help. Watching Muñeca gobble up soup and hobble on her weak legs for the first time lifted our hearts. Cradling Coco Loco, the friendly cat whose “owner” considered him to be from the devil, while we worked on the computer turned Dave a real true Cat Man. Listening to Little, the kitten, purr in the crook of my arm while we ate dinner made his premature neuter worth it. Saving only a few feels like so little, but we know we made an impact, as small as it was. Seeing what Rosemary has accomplished in her time operating AHSFA proves that one person can make a difference.
While walking around in Cuenca, Ecuador recently, we passed a mural with dogs with text that read “We can’t save them all, but everyone can save one. And that’s where the change begins.”
I want to make very clear that this violence and neglect animals is not a just Peruvian problem. It is a worldwide issue. We have seen it throughout our cycling trip and it happens in the United States. It is due to a lack of education, a lack of resources, a lack of money – problems that arise in cases of extreme poverty. I am merely writing from our experience based on volunteering at an animal shelter in Peru.
To help support and continue Rosemary’s efforts, please consider making a donation to the Asociación Humanitaria San Fransisco de Asis, via PayPal. And to follow along and get to know some of the animals she cares for, follow AHSFA on Facebook.