By Sonya Rehman
Growing up in a house full of pets gave Ayesha Chundrigar an informal, intuitive education in empathy and respect for animals at a tender age. She was only 9-years-old when she began volunteering at an orphanage during her summer holidays, and much later, at the age of 15, taught at various kachi abaadi schools in various areas around Islamabad (where she was living at the time), in addition to manning refugee camps in the capital in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in 2005.
But it was only until early last year that Chundrigar took the leap of faith: she launched her very own NGO, the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation (ACF) in Karachi. Currently maintaining the Edhi Foundation’s animal shelter in the city, Chundrigar stated that it had been in an abysmal state.
“There were animal carcasses and dead puppies and donkeys lying in pools of blood. I still have nightmares about it,” she states, “I found the number of a vet listed on a board close to the shelter and gave him a call saying he had to help me and that was it – the beginning! From four dogs and all my savings, it went up to 75 animals including donkeys, dogs, cats, eagles and pigeons and no savings by the end of it. But it was totally worth it.”
Apart from the Pakistan Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), ACF is now the second not-for-profit organization launched with the aim of rescuing abandoned, abused and injured stray animals off the streets. PAWS, just like ACF, is an incredible animal welfare organization that relies on social media (primarily Facebook and Twitter) to provide a platform for citizens to liaison regarding animal rescues, adoptions, etc. However, unlike ACF, PAWS does not have a shelter nor a clinic.
Having rescued over 600 animals in Karachi, ACF’s office is currently located at Forty4 Restaurant. Chundrigar mentions that even though ACF is only managing and maintaining Edhi’s animal shelter, her long-term plan is the initiation of ACF’s very own animal sanctuary. “We have been given a piece of land for ten years and are ready to begin construction,” Chundrigar states.
She’s banking on funding for the sanctuary’s construction which will have separate spaces for donkeys, cats, dogs and other rescues. Currently housing over 100 animals at the Edhi shelter, Chundrigar states that with the animal sanctuary, she hopes to house over 300 animals.
“Our cats and puppies eat together and play together,” she says, “Dogs have come in paralyzed and crippled or with horrific wounds, but I’m lucky enough to see miracles every day, watching these animals becoming strong, loving creatures that shower you with unconditional love.”
While ACF’s shelter lacks electricity and water supply, the Edhi Foundation is currently in the process of getting the shelter rigged up with a water tank and a solar panel. But the animals get fresh food every morning. “There is magic everywhere. This is where true humanity is. I can stay and look at these sights forever,” Chundrigar states.
Regarding funding, ACF’s social media presence is managing to spread the word: people have been donating cash and tangibles (such as food) towards the NGO’s cause. “What we get is enough to manage our current animals’ food and medical treatment,” Chundrigar states. The monthly cost for food and supplies at the shelter is well over a lac in rupees.
“But numbers are growing by the day at the shelter and costs keep increasing. We still need help in starting our new shelter, acquiring ambulances and starting an inner-city emergency unit,” Chundrigar mentions.
At the present, ACF’s core team of seven (including herself) members work on a voluntary basis. The only employees who are paid wages are ACF’s dedicated team of vets, who, Chundrigar states, were hired on very “modest” salaries.
These three vets are; Dr. Khalid Memon, ACF’s senior vet who is a Professor at the Baqai Veterinary College (in Karachi), Ghulam Farid, a junior vet who is a final year veterinary student at Baqai, and Salman Wali, a manager and trainee vet at Baqai.
In a country that suffers grossly from the lack of basic necessities, consistent, blatant violations of human rights and the increase in sectarian violence, it is difficult to rouse empathy, kindness and awareness for animals in Pakistan. Still, efforts such as those of ACF and PAWS are not carried out in vain – scores of animals have been rescued and rehabilitated thanks to both organizations.
Like PAWS, ACF relies heavily on social media. Has it been effective in raising awareness about animal cruelty in Pakistan? “Definitley,” Chundrigar states, “Social media has been great. People see updates on our animal rescue activities and donkey camps and want to help out.” These volunteer requests come from all age groups – citizens who are keen on pitching in towards ACF’s empathetic cause. Interestingly, Chundrigar mentions how (at a recent festival in Karachi where ACF had a stall) parents and children were interested in adopting ACF’s rescues. “The encouraging part is that people are positive towards something being done for animals in this country,” she states.
It was also thanks to social media that Chundrigar teamed up with Zain Mustafa (an Architect and die-hard animal lover) who was an avid follower of ACF’s work on Facebook. Mustafa got in touch with Chundrigar and is currently part of the organization’s core team.
For Mustafa, education (at the school level) and awareness (via local media) about animal rights will aid in compassion and empathy towards animals in Pakistan. “It can be done by introducing the value of animals into our mainstream education systems and curriculums at a very early age. By encouraging every household to have a pet or look after an animal, even if it’s on the street and they walk past it daily. By getting children to physically interact with a variety of animals and bridge the ever-widening gap between ‘us’ and ‘them,’” states Mustafa.
Thanks to the Edhi Foundation, ACF regularly uses an ambulance for its rescues around the city. However, the organization’s vets have to, at times, also rely on public transport to rescue an animal. Once the injured animal has been picked up, its wounds are immediately treated to, thus commencing the rehabilitation process.
However, the rescues haven’t always been easy. Some have been quite heartbreaking for Chundrigar and her team. One, for example, was that of a female dog whose picture was being circulated across social media. “Her face was smashed and completely disfigured; she was lying on the ground,” Chundrigar states, “Five of her puppies were snuggled near her tummy. This picture made the rounds on social media until I saw it and sent my team to rescue them [from Chundrigar Road].The wounds that the female dog suffered were definitely a few days old, her eye sockets were empty and she was severely dehydrated and malnourished but by some miracle, she stayed alive to feed her babies. We bandaged her up and started her treatment. The puppies were fed formula but she was determined on feeding them as well. Eventually, in a day’s time, she got the strength to stand up and walk around a little. Unfortunately, her wounds were too deep and after petting her for hours and gently explaining to her that I’d take care of her puppies, she let go.”
Another example is that of Bravo – a dog so thin and malnourished that he could barely lift his head. Farid, ACF’s junior vet, told Chundrigar he was hell-bent on getting Bravo back on his feet. But it seemed dismal. However after blood tests, X-rays and consistent monitoring, Bravo survived. He’s currently ACF’s guard dog and is the “biggest, strongest and healthiest dogs at the shelter,” as stated by Chundrigar.
“He’s our guard dog and he gives me the warmest, most welcoming hugs every time I see him,” she says.
In addition to its rehabilitation and rescue services, ACF also puts up regular donkey camps. “The way donkeys are treated in this country kills me and I wanted to somehow change that,” Chundrigar states. “The donkey camps started with literally just me and my senior vet standing on the roadside in densely donkey-cart usage areas of Karachi asking people to let us medically treat their donkeys for free. At first our offer was met with suspicion, some donkey-cart owners thought we might harm their only source of income. But when they saw ACF’s genuineness in treating their animals with care, it became a huge success. Currently over 50 donkeys are fed and treated free of charge, twice a month, in various areas of Karachi.”
Having conducted over 20 donkey camps (one every two weeks or so) at Sohrabgoth, Korangi and Nipa Chowrangi, ACF also conducted a ‘hydration drive’ last year where biscuits and chilled bottled water was distributed to people around the city.
Currently in the pipeline, Chundrigar mentions ACF’s second project: a therapeutic centre for healing where everything from individual counseling, art therapy, support groups, etc will be conducted under one roof. “We will be working with sexually and physically abused women, children and transgenders. [It] will also include education for donkey-cart owners that, I believe, will gradually help change their behavior towards their animals,” states Chundrigar who is presently training to become a certified Humanistic Therapist/Counselor.
Even though Chundrigar is positive about the path ahead for ACF, she realizes that for Pakistan, animal welfare and charity is “out of the ordinary.”
“People laughed at me,” she states, “They said I was crazy to think I could do something for animals because the situation is too far gone. Also, it’s an uphill battle explaining to people why animals deserve love and a chance at having a better life. Changing mindsets and countering the stigma attached to strays and donkeys – that have been there for generations – is challenging.”
You can donate to ACF via the details below:
Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation
IBAN number: Pk33BAHL1036008100660001
Account number: 10360081006600012
Bank Al Habib, Kh-e-Hafiz Branch, Karachi
For food donations and volunteering queries, please write to: email@example.com
The Express Tribune Magazine