Puppy Love

Diese Geschichte habe ich einmal für eine Organisation geschrieben, für die ich gearbeitet habe. Sie erzählt, wie ich zum Tierschutz kam.

A True Tale by Thomas Martens

I’ve always liked wild animals. Yes, wild animals are cute, interesting to watch, they give the feeling of being surrounded by nature. Watching birds at a bird feeder in winter is nice.
Going to the zoo was nice. Getting a glimpse of wild deer during a ramble in the countryside is nice.

Cats and dogs however, no they didn’t rate high in my esteem. My grandmother had a dachshund who hated me: A big, fat, spoilt, roly-poly raucous dog, which was fed with fresh ground beefsteak and carrots every day. He smelled, he tried to bite me where he could – that was not the kind of family I wanted. The feeling was mutual.

During the summer holidays we fed the neighbour’s cats. That gave me the feeling of responsibility, being a can opener, but the cats just ignored me or ran away when I tried to make advances

And these squeaky little things like hamsters or guinea pigs: I was so superior to those creatures. You can’t really “do” anything with them. Apart from that I am allergic to animal hair. Okay –so pets were not for me.

That was still the situation when I turned 35 and was looking for a new job. I had been working in a development aid organization for 10 years and was looking for a new challenge. I read in the newspaper that an animal welfare group called IFAW was looking for an office manager. I’d never heard of them, but what about the idea of working for animal welfare? Weren’t that old lady nutters that spend their time producing strange little placards that were impossible to read because they try to put as much information on a piece of paper – including photos or gruesomely mutilated animals (now that can’t be true, you never see any of those around, animals are always treated, well, like animals). Weren’t that those old ladies that are covered in dog and cat hair that try to persuade you that animals are worth more than people? Now what’s that? How can a great big bad dachshund be more worth than a human? Me, working for an animal welfare organization? Not really. Although the portfolio did look impressive: Seals, whales (I always had a soft spot for marine mammals – the seals at the circus were always so funny), elephants, cats and dogs in Korea (that’s a long way off … how can people eat dogs, I mean, I might not be a friend of dogs, but eat them?). Well, I might give it a try – so I applied for the job and the rest is history…

Or is it? Here I was, a neutral friend of wild animals but not a clue about real animal welfare, a lover of humankind, working for an animal welfare organization that nobody among my friends and relatives had ever heard of. How strange.

Things change. I’ve watched humpback whales off the coast of Cape Cod (mother and calf), I’ve stroked a fox in England, I’ve danced with wolves and fed bears in Russia, I’ve touched and put my hand into the mouth of a rhino (well, there was an orange in my hand and she was caged which is why she didn’t mind very much – off on a round trip to London zoo for insemination) in South Africa, I’ve patted elephants in Tanzania and, of course, I have cuddled numerous whitecoats in or rather on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. I have met very dedicated scientists, have discussed the philosophy of animal welfare with politicians, have been to demonstrations for animal welfare (thus actually meeting the little old lady nutters with their placards – dedicated every one of them), have met colleagues from around the world, the passionate and the not so passionate. All this has given me a sense of belonging, a feeling for the plight of wild animals, the knowledge that animal welfare can change the face of this planet, that only positive human/animal interaction make a real difference and that we humans cannot live without nature and particularly animals surrounding us. For all the love and admiration for wild animals that I have developed throughout my early years at IFAW, as well as developing a philosophical and biological background on the kind of animals IFAW was trying to save, I was still very much reluctant to include cats and dogs in my daily canon of thinking.

After I had been with IFAW for about 3 years I was asked if I could help out in a crisis which had evolved in Asia. Apparently the Korean Animal Protection Society (KAPS) which had been working closely with IFAW for a number of years was not able to cope with their shelter in Taegu because of the large amount of animals and the lack of helpers. IFAW put together an international team with people from the UK, South Africa, the Philippines (yes, we used to have an office there), Australia and a vet from Hong Kong. Just before they were going to start work, the Australian staff member had to cancel the trip and I was asked if I wanted to go. I’ve always liked traveling so I jumped at the chance to get to Asia. And if that meant having to work at a shelter with dogs and cats, well, … curiosity got the better of me.

In the first couple of days I thought that curiosity would kill the cat, or rather me! I’m allergic to animal fur – particularly cat’s fur. Here I was, working in a cat sanctuary with hundreds of cats round me. I had bought a big box of Kleenex to deal with my constantly runny nose but strangely enough, every time I blew my nose the allergy got worse. The cats had discovered how comfortable it was to lie in the Kleenex box – soft and pliant, so I was literally breathing cat fur. Just a little tip for those allergic people out there: Allergies can be cured if exposed to the reactor for long enough. At least it worked for me: It took years before I was troubled by this ailment again.

Getting the cat shelter back to ship-shape was our first priority and was, frankly, a drudge. Fences had to be put up or fixed, the buildings cleaned and all of this without proper equipment. I was glad when we started on the dog shelter.

The shelter was comprised of 2 stories in a block of flats including part of the roof. The dogs were most interested at what we were doing and many a time we nearly hit a dog over the nose with a hammer if he got too close to what we were doing. More than 90 dogs in 2 large flats was too much – particularly as we couldn’t sort out the dogs. There were many dog fights going on all the time. It was loud, smelly and chaotic. All day we spent putting up new partitions, building a fence in front of the balcony so that at least some dogs could go outside for a while, assisting the vet in small operations, working until late in the evening, when we all sat down together in the cramped office to have a cup of tea.

The office was full of cages with dogs that had all kinds of problems. Some were sick, some were in quarantine, others had been mistreated. One evening I sat in front of a cage that seemed to be empty. When I peered in I saw a little white, curly haired dog, its body pressed to the back of the cage, as far away from me as possible. So, through the cage I tried to make advances, cooing and making soothing noises as the little one was so afraid, that I thought he would have a heart attack. That night I dreamt of the dog, its anxious eyes looking at me – what was he trying to say? It looked like: “Help me, please”.

Next evening I made a point of sitting in front of the cage again. The little Maltese (that’s the breed as I found out later) again pressed its body right at the back of his cage, but was he still trembling just as much as the night before? Carefully I opened the cage, but he shrank back to the back of the cage when I tried to reach him with my hand, as though he would rather melt or be spirited away by ancient doggy gods.

The next evening when I opened the cage, he didn’t press his little body into the farthest corner but came to the middle to take a better look at what was going on. And still those melting eyes were pleading to me. I didn’t want to force myself on him, so I just talked to him, trying to convey that he needn’t be afraid of me.

Me, talking to a dog? Now I’ve stated before that I was not a dog person – but could this little fellow really be able to change my nearly 40 year old prejudice? Obviously he could, because when I opened his cage the next evening he jumped out right onto my lap, made himself comfortable, curled up and went to sleep. I was so moved, I nearly cried. That evening I thoroughly, utterly, totally and irreversibly fell in love with this little white bundle of fur.

Heartrending as it was, we had to part company when our little international team was disbanded, as I had no way of looking after him once I got home (and maybe wasn’t prepared to share my love with my other love, my wife), so all that remains are fond memories of a most satisfying, gratifying and reciprocal love to a dog.

Since then I understand the pet programs better. I see the need for education. I understand that positive feelings for animals can best be conveyed by dogs. I understand why many people should have pets (although there are still many humans out there that definitely shouldn’t have pets). I can understand why particularly dogs become members of the family and why the family becomes frantic when the animal is sick or dies. Suddenly it all fell into place: I had discovered real compassion for animals.

Sure – I had loved watching the seals on the ice floes of Canada’s coast, I felt respect for the majestic whales the bears, the elephants, the rhinos, the wolves and all the other animals I had met, but these animals were a life apart – they have to be saved, no doubt, but they were part of the macrocosm, whereas this little Maltese pup was the microcosm that surrounded me personally. This little fellow had sent his plea to me in person – he had let me know that he wanted to believe in humankind again.

This fundamental change to my outlook on life made me stay at IFAW, because I firmly believe that together we can make a difference for animals and people.

By the way, I never gave him a name. Maybe I should have called him Puppy Love.