SRI LANKA ANIMAL RELIEF OPERATION

  • Opening Thoughts
  • The Animals
  • The Mission
  • Writings
  • For the Future
  • Writings

    During the good times we often pack up bags and travel to far off lands in hopes of finding something. Sometimes I know what I am looking for when I travel. Occasionally I even find it. Other times I search for the unknown and end up finding more than I could have ever dreamed. Sri Lanka was one of those trips. Below are a few of many stories that taught, humbled and inspired.


    January 11, 2005 morning
    It's 2:00 in the morning and I can't sleep. Last night while walking the streets in Colombo I met a guy, Denesh, who was over looking for a job. The hotel he worked at in Trinco was completely destroyed. He was a cook there. On the morning of the tsunami, he was not working - which may have saved his life. Many of the other cooks, his friends and coworkers were killed. At the hotel a shocking number of tourists were killed and 30 others are still being considered missing. Denesh's family was safe and their home survived, but now, left without a job, he has no way to support them. So he headed for Colombo - along with what sounds like everyone else who lost their job in the tsunami. He's frustrated going from restaurant to restaurant searching. He showed me his recipes and told me about all his experience as a cook. He has no money left, just two bus tickets and a place to stay. Talking with Denesh was a quick awakening as to the long term severity of this disaster. (Denesh, if by chance you read this - I wish you the best. Please let me know how things are going.)


    We had stopped in a small village just north of Hikkaduwa. A temple marked the center of what must have been a beautiful sea side village just days earlier. As we pulled into a clearing we were immediately greeted by a handful of adults brining their animals to receive food and care. The love they felt for their animals shown as bright as the sun. But something was missing. Where were the children? As things slowed down I went for a walk down to the sea. As I neared, the unmistakable smell of burning rubble filled the air.

    Here I met the children of the village. They had been down cleaning since the waves receded; combing the ground for anything of value. Not value as many would define. A purse full of rupees would do little good for mending the broken spirits of this village. Instead the children searched for photo albums, books, and family heirlooms.

    Upon seeing me, the children slowly started to come over. The older ones first followed by their younger brothers and sisters. So we sat, there on the corner of a destroyed cemetery, having an impromptu session of show and tell. I'm shown small plastic photo albums with pictures of people now "in sea". I see photos of how the homes once looked. "Now our homes flat, every one." Indeed they were. Not a single home stood within 400 meters of the sea.

    It was the animals that brought me to Sri Lanka, but somewhere between vaccinating and handing out food, one amazing exchange after another took place. On this day, as I sat with the village children, we had all become part of each others lives. I listened to a language I could not understand, yet didn't miss a single word. They spoke of sadness, hope, dreams, and a longing for what once was. I told them how the world had stopped and took notice of their country; raising money, prayers and giving all they could to help people they will never meet. I too spoke in words foreign to them; still they understood they were receiving gifts of friendship and support from lands they may never visit.

    January 12, 2005 morning
    6:00 in the morning and I'm waiting to be picked up in Colombo. Yesterday we left with two medic vans, four of us and a government worker to do announcing around Kirinda. The first stops yesterday were at Buddhist temples. We vaccinated the dogs living on the property while announcements were made for everyone in the area with a pet to bring them on a leash for vaccination. Long story short, by the end of the day yesterday we had vaccinated over 600 animals in at least 8 different locations - including grocery stores, a Montessori school and government buildings. One of the highlights is as we attempt to leave an area people come running (literally!) with their pets to catch us. It never fails - sometimes as many as 20 people stop us on the way out of a village. It's moments like this when I know we are truly welcomed and making a difference.

    January 13, 2005 morning
    Last night we stayed out again - no electricity, but how can I complain. At least the mosquito nets kept the buzzing away. Yesterday we drove to very rural areas and had good luck reaching many animals - especially in the afternoon. Most people had gone to work in the morning so things started a bit slow. I used a tally sheet today to show the breakdown of dogs, cats, males, females, percentage with mange, etc. Frightening! It showed that almost 95% of the dogs were males. After much pestering I finally got the answer I was afraid of. Dogs are only allowed at a home if they are males, therefore ensuring that their dog does not have pups. Any female puppies that are born are either cast to the fields to die in a few days or dropped at one of the temples; the thought being that they will be safe at a Buddhist temple where all life is held sacred. Yet at every temple we visit I'm reminded that neglect is a truly sad form of animal cruelty. By far the worst dogs we see are the strays at the temples. Mange so bad they only have a few random hairs on their body. Skin stretched so tightly against bones that they look like walking skeletons.

    So here I sit trying to make sense of a culture that could allow this to happen to their dogs. I contrast it to America where we pick up strays, put them in shelters, become faced with overcrowding, and end up euthanizing millions of animals every year. I certainly have no room to judge - only try to understand. The people of Sri Lanka have found a way to control overpopulation. True, it is different from what many places in the world would consider acceptable. Yet in regions that have no affordable spay / neuter options at least they recognize a problem and have created a solution. It is still heartbreaking to see the abandon faces of the dogs living at the temples.

    January 14, 2005 evening
    Sometimes it is hard to realize we are working in the aftermath of one of the largest natural disasters recent history has ever seen. I have so much fun being able to learn and share with everyone I meet. At each stop I have incredible conversations. People who want to learn, ask questions, listen - it's simply amazing. I find myself talking a lot about how animals live in America. I show them pictures, and tell stories about Emma. I talk about the problems of overpopulation we face and how abuse and neglect are in every community. I share information about pet nutrition, health care, training - you name it, this is as real as humane education gets!


    Early afternoon we stopped in the middle of a narrow street to get set up for vaccinating. We were almost ready when a group of children came from their home with a basket of kittens born in the days following the December 26 tsunami. As these children go throughout their days they face constant reminders of the death and destruction that washed through their village. But the smiles on their faces tell a different story. Their happiness comes from the kittens they now spend their days caring for. They understand that life will continue and everyone will grow stronger. Kittens will become cats, and children will grow up to become leaders. Their village will be rebuilt and faith will guide them through.

    January 15, 2005 afternoon
    We've stopped for a lunch of curry and rice. Sometimes it takes us a while to find a place that has enough food to serve all 5 of us. It just seems like food is a little harder to come by as we get into some of these areas. At our last stop I spoke with a man who had stories to share for the entire village. He greeted me with a handshake; quickly remembering that his hand was completely busted up. He went on to talk about breaking his hand, and all the other cuts and wounds he received fighting the waves. He called himself the "lifeguard" of the village and after hearing his stories I can't think of a more deserving term. On first glance you would notice a man who had lost everything - his home, business, family, pets. But after listening to him for a while it's hard to say he lost anything. He spoke 8 languages, ran a much needed fabric business, and had a love for life stronger than any wave could destroy.

    As we talked he walked me around the village introducing me to everyone and pointing out where he saved people. He pointed to a section of rebar sticking out the top of a 20 foot high building. "I hung on there" he said "and then when the surge would go to sea I would ride it, catch a body, swim them back, hang on tight." He repeated this for three waves, saving 6 tourists and recovering "a few bodies not lucky."

    He introduced me to the family of one woman he had saved. They were putting the final boards on their new home. It was a 10 foot by 7 foot box with a dirt floor, but it had a roof and would keep their family of 5 shaded from the hot sun. They invited me inside and I realized immediately that, yes, this was a home. Inside was the love and compassion that takes a pile of scrap wood and a piece of tin roof and makes it a home. Inside was hope for a new beginning.

    January 16, 2005 evening
    There is a true lesson of compassion here watching dogs being brought to us. They are all mixes so no one can make an excuse that some are genetically inclined to be more aggressive than others. This is an even playing field. The only variable that changes is how the dogs are treated by their owners. So why? Why do some dogs walk right up, take their shots, and give a look of thanks with their eyes, while others fight, pull, bite and squirm. What is the Sri Lankan training secret for a good, loving and compassionate dog? You guessed it - kindness. The dogs that come in being dragged by their owner and beaten atop their head are monsters. They are beaten, kicked, hit with rocks; everything to punish them. The dog's response - fear. Then there are the dogs that are carried in, nurtured and spoken to in a gentle voice. They are loved and their response back - to love their owner. The lesson is so obvious and simple. Why then do the children hit their dogs and throw rocks at them. Perhaps because it is all many of them see. Children do not know that their dogs will be kind if treated with kindness, and be aggressive if treated with aggression.

    So today I started a simple lesson. Of course being the tall white guy, all the children are usually looking at me trying to figure me out. So I already have their attention - at least half the battle of teaching any lesson. Realizing this, every time a dog gets hit and lets out a yelp, I look at the children with a sad face and say "Ouch!" They all laugh, and the next time I do it again. And again. And again.

    At each stop, after making a fool of myself for about ten minutes, it seems to sink in. Suddenly the children get the same sad look on their face, say "ouch" and rub their arm or back - wherever the dog was hit. Somehow I'd like to think these children are learning to personalize the suffering of another - to feel the pain and respond with changed behavior. It's minor but maybe, just maybe, it helps to promote a little compassion and encourage a touch of responsibility. Perhaps they will see there is another way to treat animals.

    January 17, 2005 evening
    We are driving along coastal town after coastal town of total destruction. Everything flat - buildings, trees, homes, temples - flat, flat, flat. People just sitting around with nothing to do, hiding under what little shade an umbrella will give. Sitting on the foundations of what used to be homes. Every day the same thing. Today is a Muslim holiday so no work or school - actually there is no school left to go to. It seems that with all this time they could begin to rebuild homes and get their lives started again. One quick look around clarifies that. There's not a scrap of wood, tin or brick to build with. Everything that was left after three fifty foot waves crashed down has been cleared out by military operations driving huge earth movers. In my head I wonder the same thing the people sitting here are left to wonder - now what?

    January 18, 2005 afternoon
    Today we are stopping at some terribly destroyed villages north of Gala. We are literally driving a few hundred meters, vaccinating 30 or 40 dogs, and repeating over and over. In a three kilometer stretch we have vaccinated over 400 dogs and cats. At this rate hopefully we can get the government support and stop the killing. It's still being discussed in Arugam bay but due to logistics we have yet to make it there.

    Many lessons learned today about compassion and the importance of caring for animals. I speak a lot to the vets about what one calls a western relationship between pets and people. They are starting to see more pets living inside homes in the major cities. People want to train their dogs; they want to know about nutrition and owner responsibilities. In addition to our many conversations, I've promised to send them information, and hopefully, if I can raise the money, return to do some training for the vets. It's going to be one small step at a time but I can't let all this interest go to waste. It would be so great if I could aid in getting this information passed down to the temples and village leaders throughout the nation. Today I realize the reason I'm here is not just for the now, but also for the future.

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