The first time I traveled to India I was searching. I was armed with my camera and spent my days searching for beautiful images. I thought that it was the photographs that I was searching for, but what I ended up finding was much bigger than that. Without being fully aware, I was searching my soul and in India I found a few answers.
It was a country so much more incredibly complex than any other I had ever been. My eyes were wide and my camera was busy! My mind was opening to the extreme differences of India. It seemed around every corner there was something waiting to shock and fascinate me. Everything from the simple acts of eating and going to the bathroom, to the complexities of family structures and ethics were so very different that anything I had ever known.
I had completed a few months of traveling through India and was looking for something to do in Udaipur. I found the website of an animal shelter and decided to take a break from my travels and volunteer for a couple of weeks. I needed to do something to ease the ache I felt in my heart for the street animals of this country.
Animal Aid Unlimited (www.animalaidunlimited.com) was situated about 10 minutes outside of the city center. Here a couple from the U.S. and their teenaged daughter were doing their best to rescue and treat as well as spay and neuter the injured and ill ownerless animals of the area. Like in most Indian cities the streets of Udaipur were filled with animals in constant risk of illness and injury with no one to help them.
The family acquired a small building with a courtyard. They built a row of kennels and a small area to house large animals. The place was crammed. Chained, injured dogs in every direction, puppies piled on top of each other, donkeys and cows confined in one muddy corner. The staff of 12 didn’t care much for animals and were mostly afraid of dogs. They were a mix of lazy, dishonest, shady characters that often didn’t show up for work.
The challenges of setting up an organization in a foreign country had been presented to this family in major ways. Recently, they had been robbed of $60,000 US, by a local “friend”, that was helping them with the hospital. There was a constant stream of name bashing and gossip from the local people who didn’t appreciate nor understand why they would want to help animals. Despite all their struggles they continued to devote their futures to helping the animals of India. They sold their home in the US and determinedly trudged forward.
I was about to complete my 2-week stint of volunteer work and I had mixed emotions about my experience. I was pleased that I had found a place that was helping some of the street animals in India. But I felt unsettled by the vast need of improvements at the shelter. I wanted to make a list of suggestions, but who was I to assume that this smart, compassionate family had not already thought of all these things? I wanted to help more but how could I? For as long as I could remember I had this longing to help animals. The enormity of animal suffering around the world is overwhelming, and painful to comprehend. For most of my life a feeling of helpless frustration nagged at me but I kept quite.
Again with the same frustration in my gut I turned to leave Animal Aid. I had donated 2 weeks of my life. I had comforted a bunch of puppies and had given many dogs long walks. But I still felt unsettled.
It was the eve of my departure and I was spending my evening photographing a festival happening in the city. I was searching. I wasn’t paying attention and I fell off of a high step. I went over on my foot badly. It only took me a minute to realize that I had broken my foot. The next morning I had a plaster cast ½ way up my leg.
Traveling through India can be challenging. The thought of doing it on crutches and on an aching foot defeated me.
It didn’t take much to convince me that I should stay put. After all I could handle another 3 weeks of helping the sweet angels in need at Animal Aid. I decided that since I had some more time I would try focusing on making some permanent changes that may last longer than my stay. I started with the staff. I knew that if I could get them to see what I could see in these beautiful animals things could improve for everyone. It was a bigger job than I imagined but after 3 weeks I did start to see some positive changes in the eyes of the staff. But I had barely touched the surface.
As I worked to change the staff at the hospital I was going through some major changes myself. I was inspired. I was learning about what it means to be actively compassionate, to follow your heart, and to stand up for the rights of others. I was learning about giving, just for the sake of giving. And it felt good.
When the cast was finally hammered off my foot, it was my heart that was unable to leave. I never did continue that trip through India. It has now been 4 years since that fateful fall, and I have spent much of it right here at Animal Aid, in India.
In 4 years Animal Aid has transformed from that small, wobbly shelter, to a beautiful paradise which staffs 37 animal LOVING local people, on 8 acres of land. There is a large paddock for injured cows and donkeys, an extensive sandy wing for disabled dogs and greens fields for all of the rescued animals to freely recover, rest and play in. Animal Aid has frequent volunteers from all over the world, who come and give what help they can.
Playing a role in the transformation of this animal shelter in India has had an enormous impact on my life. Not only am I very proud of the work that is done here for animals, I have learned of the power that we all have within us to stand up and follow our hearts. I am not saying that my search is over and I doubt that it ever will be, but thanks to India, Animal Aid and the amazing animals that I have met here, I have discovered just what is possible if we try.