Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Cultural differences to ponder
There were stray dogs in the restaurant with us, and this was a high quality restaurant. The Buddha Café in Tortuguero Village, Costa Rica is a lovely chic place to dine with a cool vibe where you can be seated with views of the water from the veranda. It’s no greasy spoon, and yet dogs were wandering in off the street. Charmingly, nobody seemed to mind.
Dogs are certainly allowed in some restaurants in the United States, most often at outdoor cafes or in especially hip, progressive cities, but those are generally well-groomed dogs who are attended to by caring guardians. The dogs I saw while eating out last week were stray dogs living in a humid tropical jungle climate. Some looked healthy, while others looked decidedly unwell, and none could honestly be described as clean.
People weren’t just tolerating them out of a sense that it was hopeless to shoo them out of this open-air restaurant. They behaved genuinely warmly to them, feeding them a few leftovers and happily watching them lying around on the floor or begging at tables. I had no problem with the dogs being there, although I did tell my kids not to pet them. Normally I’m happy for my kids to interact with the various friendly dogs we meet, but I don’t want them to touch dirty or sick stray dogs while eating—call me overprotective.
I’m used to eating in places where dogs are allowed, but eating where stray dogs in all conditions are welcomed without hesitation is new to me. Have you had this experience while traveling or at home? How do you feel about it?
Dog's Life: Travel
Revisiting Minnesota’s Highway 61.
Lake Superior, northernmost of the Great Lakes, is the largest body of freshwater in the world. While its Minnesota North Shore beckons adventure-seekers and their dogs year-round, fall is a particularly spectacular time to visit. Rocky cliffs, cobblestone beaches, rolling hills, spectacular waterfalls and ridges covered in boreal forest make it a perfect spot for leaf-peeping and dog fun.
Lake Superior Magazine’s list of premium parkway overlooks includes Bardon’s Peak, Thompson Hill, Enger Tower and Hawk Ridge. Local dog lovers point out that the area’s many cross-country-ski trails are also great places to walk your well-behaved dog off-leash before winter blows in. For more dog-pal diversions, visit the city-owned dog park at Keene Creek Park or take an urban stroll on the Lakewalk pathway along the shore of Lake Superior. On Lakewalk, dogs need to be on-leash, and you’ll fi nd fountains with pup-level faucets. The city’s Canal Park also has much to offer in the way of shopping and local fl avor. Cathy Kates, one of Duluth’s self-proclaimed “dog fanatics,” tells us that some restaurants—including Green Mill, Caribou, Little Angie’s and Bellisio’s—accommodate diners and their canine companions on the patio.
Pet-friendly accommodations include the historic Fitger’s Inn, a former brewery now a luxury lakefront hotel (happily, when it comes to canine guests, they don’t impose size restrictions or additional fees). As you explore the Fitger’s Brewery Complex mall, keep an eye out for A Place for Fido, which caters to active, outdoorsy dogs. Shop owner Jamie Parent tells us that dogs are allowed in all the shops, not just hers. Pick up some “made in Minnesota” Sojos-brand food and treats at Jamie’s place for your drive up the coast.
NORTH SHORE SCENIC DRIVE
On your way to Tofte and Lutsen, you’ll travel through the Superior National Forest, known for its 1-millionacre Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and more than 386 miles of trails winding their way through a truly breathtaking landscape. Stay in one of the dog-friendly rooms at the lakeside Bluefin Bay Resort in Tofte, or go on to neighboring Lutsen and the Cascade Lodge—log cabins and miles of wild, scenic and accessible shoreline surrounded by one of Minnesota’s finest parks, Cascade River State Park.
If a sense of adventure calls, head into the Northwoods for a stay at the Gunflint Lodge on the shores of one of the area’s numerous lakes—Minnesota is, after all, known as the Land of 10,000 Lakes! The resort was started by a mother/daughter duo, and has been operated by the same family for three generations. Their dog-lover weekends, which are offered throughout the year, include activities and seminars on dog massage, training, communication and pet health. Autumn’s Woofta Ufta and Waggalot weekends are great hits.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Pets Alive works to provide sustainable solutions for Puerto Rico’s “satos”
If you’ve been to Puerto Rico, you’ve surely seen them: stray dogs the locals call satos. You can spot them everywhere, trotting in the heat alongside roads from San Juan to Mayagüez and loitering on the periphery of seemingly every beach, parking lot, gas station and cluster of homes. Most are badly malnourished, with protruding hipbones and rib cages; some have coats patchy with mange, and they stagger from illness or injury. All too many are followed by litters of scrawny puppies.
By now, even those who have never visited the 3,500-square-mile island are aware of its teeming population of strays (estimated at between 100,000 and 200,000). Recent news stories, which have exposed the southeastern dumping ground of Playa Lucia—better known as “Dead Dog Beach”—and the 2007 Barceloneta massacre, when 80 dogs were thrown to their deaths from a 50-foot bridge, are myriad and awful.
However, this coverage has had at least one positive consequence: a proliferation of stateside-based organizations dedicated to rescuing satos. At least a half-dozen such groups now exist, and most work in a similar way: they collect as many strays as possible, nurse them back to health on the island, then fly them to mainland U.S. shelters for adoption. Through their efforts, they have given hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dogs new homes.
In the past year, however, a new dog rescue operation, Pets Alive Puerto Rico, has been expanding this conventional approach to the sato problem. As well as rehabilitating strays and sending them north for adoption (through the New York–based headquarters of its parent organization, Pets Alive), this group has launched new on the ground programs: educational outreach in Puerto Rican communities, low-cost spay-and-neuter programs and even a B&B that attracts a steady stream of traveling volunteers. Their aim is to address the issue where it lives.
Pets Alive Puerto Rico (PAPR) has no published address. The six-acre sanctuary sits at the end of a long, unmarked dirt driveway, off the winding main road that snakes through the mountain village of Utuado. On the drive there, banana palms and crimson thatches of bougainvillea line the roadsides; hairpin turns offer sweeping views over the Rio Dos Bocas—a shimmering river far below, bound by jungly-green slopes and low-hanging clouds.
Joy and Ken Carson, who have run the no-kill sanctuary since opening it in April 2012, greet visitors with an apology for the hard-to-follow driving directions. They keep their location under the radar, says Joy, because they try to avoid having locals abandon dogs on the property. It’s tough to stay incognito with up to 50 barking dogs on site, however. The parcel of land, which was purchased with a donation from Rob and Marisol Thomas through their Sidewalk Angels Foundation, was chosen in part for its remoteness.
A tour of the sanctuary reveals a highly shipshape operation. The resident dogs, which range from adoptable adults to week-old orphaned pups who need bottle-feeding every few hours, occupy three separate areas on the property, each with spacious, immaculate kennels protected by sun shades, and containing Kuranda beds and “dogloos” for shelter. It’s important to have separate zones, the Carsons point out, because newly rescued dogs are often in precarious health and must be sequestered from those who aren’t yet vaccinated. (During a recent visit, one set of kennels housed a litter of pups who were slowly recovering from a bout of parvo.) The Carsons’ days are taken up with providing basic care for the dogs—cleaning their enclosures, changing and laundering their bedding, feeding and watering them, giving them medicine.
Not only have they rescued and rehabbed more than 350 dogs in just over a year, they have also managed to do an impressive amount of community outreach in the region around Utuado. By knocking on doors, promoting their work on social media and hosting educational seminars at area schools, they are establishing PAPR as a trusted resource for locals concerned about the satos’ welfare. (Area residents often tip off the couple about dogs in need.) They have also launched a pilot spay/neuter-release program, which, once it’s funded, will help ensure that even unadoptable strays won’t continue to reproduce.
The efforts the Carsons are most proud of, however, have been the partnerships PAPR has formed with local veterinarians to offer the community low-cost spay/neuter programs. After months of engaging with locals, they realized that—contrary to popular belief—many Puerto Ricans were perfectly willing to sterilize their dogs (and even neighborhood street dogs) as long as they could do so affordably. With the help of charitable foundations (including Cold Noses and the Humane Society International), they arranged for a veterinary clinic in the nearby coastal town of Arecibo to offer spay/neuter procedures at a greatly reduced cost ($50 rather than the usual $150 to $250).
These efforts culminated with PAPR’s participation last February in World Spay Day, during which volunteer vets working with the organization spayed and neutered more than 150 dogs in a single week. Since then, Joy says, they have continued to arrange sterilization for between five and 10 local dog owners each week.
While the amount of day-in, day-out work to be done at PAPR is daunting, the Carsons have been able to entice a steady stream of volunteers to help out, largely through what may be their most unusual program of all: offering the extra bedrooms in the sanctuary’s cheerful main building—which also happens to be their house—to paying guests who want to take a do-gooding Puerto Rican B&B holiday. Joy says that since last April, about 35 volunteers have done brief stints (usually about a week) at the property, during which they share not just chores, but meals and nightly happy hour with their everwelcoming hosts (Ken makes a mean rum-and-guava cocktail).
The work is undeniably arduous; there is always poop to be scooped, vet trips to be made, and Sisyphean heaps of dirty towels and blankets to launder. Still, several guests have already made repeat visits.
“It’s the puppy breath!” says Ken, using his favorite all-purpose description of the rewards that come from sanctuary work. Relentless though it may be, the work definitely allows plenty of time for petting, snuggling and playing with swarms of wriggling, grateful dogs. (Volunteers who’ve never before bottle-fed a litter find out pretty quickly just how magical puppy breath really is.)
“It may not be the most relaxing holiday you’ll ever take,” Ken quips. For dog lovers, though, it might easily be one of the most gratifying.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Terrifying and dangerous
Living temporarily in the urban area of San Ramón, Costa Rica, I have seen far too many near misses between cars and dogs. (There are a ton of strays as well as many dogs who wander all day even though they have a home.) A fatal accident can happen so fast, and I have felt very fearful watching dogs in the roads. It’s especially frightening here, where cars have the right of way, and pedestrians of both the human and canine variety are taking a risk every time they step off the curb to cross a street.
There are people who hurry across in front of zooming cars, taxis and trucks in situations in which I wouldn’t dare try to make it in time, and some dogs do the same. Just yesterday, I watched the same dog twice disappear from view alarmingly close to cars and felt enormous relief both times when I saw him reappear on the other side. I really thought that he hadn’t made it. A man walking near me said, “No va a llegar al edad,” which means, roughly translated, “He’s not going to reach old age,” and I worry that he spoke the truth. Presumably, dogs who lack the skills to safely navigate the city streets don’t last very long.
Perhaps that’s why most of the dogs I see wandering freely, whether they have a family to return to at night or not, seem to understand that cars are to be avoided. Either they learn that early on, or they don’t survive. Many watch and cross when people do, taking a followers approach to street safety. Others cross after watching for a break between cars. The majority of the dogs are playing it safe.
Still, I have a bad feeling that before the end of our four months here, I may see an accident with a bad ending. Have you ever had the misfortune to see a dog hit by a vehicle?
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Unexpected help with cultural adjustment
I am so grateful for the help a couple of dogs recently gave me in the middle of a period of cultural adjustment. This week, my family traveled to Costa Rica, where we will spend the next four months. I love this country, having spent close to a year here over the course of five previous trips. I speak Spanish, but it does not feel at all like using my native language of English, which is effortless and easy. (Hopefully no editors who have ever worked with me will be surprised to read that I consider myself so proficient in English, but that’s a whole different issue.) After 36 hours of speaking Spanish and translating for my husband and kids who are learning Spanish but remain less comfortable with the language, I was exhausted.
We were outside speaking with our neighbor Eduardo when I realized my bilingual brain needed a break. Just then, a couple of dogs from the neighborhood started to play together, and we all paused to watch them. They are small dogs of about 15 pounds, very peppy and extremely playful. They were leaping on one another, playing chase, taking turns in their roles, pausing frequently, performing plenty of play bows and using other play signals, all while maintaining a low and constant level of arousal. It was the kind of beautifully appropriate play session that anyone who has ever taught a puppy class would be ecstatic to observe.
When the dogs came over to me, I was able to interact with them just as I do with dogs anywhere. They responded to the way my body leaned, the tone of my voice, my posture, my energy level, and the direction I moved. The familiarity and lack of uncertainty were exhilarating. I always enjoy meeting friendly new dogs, but in this case, there was an extra perk. I understood what was going on and it was easy to observe and react appropriately. My brain was not translating, and I was not guessing or using context to fill in gaps. I was simply interacting with some new friends.
I’m fond of saying that I understand dogs, but that “canine” is definitely not my first language, which simply means that I’m aware that only dogs can understand dogs as native speakers. And yet, in that moment, I felt more comfortable with the ease of communication with canines than with people in a language other than English. It was such a joy to be with dogs, with whom I am so comfortable and so familiar. It was a surprising gift that these dogs gave to me as I adjust to life in a foreign country. I often find that when I am tired, I am only truly able to converse with ease in my native language, but dog “language” is apparently an exception. Hallelujah for that!
Sometimes we know when dogs will help us feel better and we even expect it: When we are heartbroken but we know that they still love us. When we have a bad day at work and we get to come home to them. When we head out to walk them because it’s the right thing to do, but being out does us every bit as much good. Yet the unexpected times that dogs give us a little lift are some of the best simply because they blindside us. How have dogs unexpectedly helped make you feel better?
Dog's Life: Travel
Upcoming dog-friendly events in Philadelphia
Philadelphia has a cure for the dog days of summer, starting with an extraordinary event—Woof Fest, a fido-friendly musical festival on August 24. This multimedia summer concert is especially designed for dog-lovers. Videos and pictures will celebrate famous dogs, service dogs, and your favorite cartoon dogs, while a professional orchestra conducted by the acclaimed Maestro Steven Mercurio will play A Grateful Tail: the first-ever symphony composed as a tribute to canines everywhere. Featuring samba rhythms and a gospel choir, this four-movement symphony will make you (and your dog) get up and dance! wooffest.com
Monster Milers will host, The Rescue Run, Philadelphia's first 5k to promote adoption and rescue on Sunday, September 29 at 10 a.m. at the Navy Yard. During the post-race Rescue Rally, hundreds of runners and spectators will greet adoptable dogs, enjoy favorite foods from area food trucks, and meet local vendors and rescue organizations. Early bird registration is $25 until July 31st, $30 after August 1st and will increase to $35 on race day. The Rescue Run 5k will be chip-timed and all runners who register online will receive a race tech-tee.
Monster Milers is an all-volunteer organization, whose primary mission is to connect Philadelphia runners with homeless dogs as running companions. Over 330 “Milers” or volunteers take out pre-screened dogs from PAWS Wellness Clinic in Grays Ferry, the PAWS Adoption Center in Old City and the Street Tails Animal Rescue shelter in Northern Liberties on runs throughout the city and nearby parks. To learn more about Monster Milers: call 267-282-1270, email email@example.com or visiting their website or facebook. Since Monster Milers hit the ground running in 2010, they’ve helped hundreds of dogs find their forever homes, one step at a time.
Square 1682, a popular Philly restaurant, has partnered with Philadelphia Animal Welfare Society to host its third annual Bring Your Own Dog weekend brunches—offering healthy, gourmet meals for guests and their canine companions throughout the summer. Each fresh, natural dish on the BYOD menu is named after an employee’s pooch and benefits a great cause. Dog will adore “Lola’s Desayuno,” a dish which features organic eggs, ham, spinach, and mushrooms. Plus, PAWS representatives will be on site with adorable, adoptable dogs in search of loving homes!
Dog's Life: Travel
Bark editors share their summer picks.
Unleashing our inner farm dog
Trailer Life Lite
Al fresco film
TIP: Do not wash the antlers, just dry-scrub off any dirt or plant material. Water might cause mold.
Community dog wash
TIP: Tick season is here, so check your dog thoroughly for signs of ticks — and remove them properly and immediately. If a tick is attached for more than 48 hours, it might infect your dog with Lyme disease. Bring along a tick removing device on hikes.
Dog's Life: Travel
If you and your dog enjoy off-leash parks, traveling and outdoor activities, dog camp is for you!
Good socialization and play skills make dog camp more fun for everyone. Your dog should enjoy playing with — or at least be neutral toward — other dogs and people. Young dogs should be able to read cues from other dogs and older dogs should be able to tolerate jostling by faster, younger dogs. Small dogs should be comfortable around big dogs. All dogs should be willing to share toys, and possibly cabin space.
Solid, basic obedience skills — sit, stay, coming when called — are critical for off-leash games, heavy-duty play, hikes, swimming and other activities. Good manners help everyone relax.
Research dog camps to determine which best meets your vacation goals. Some focus on competitive agility and obedience, others on off-leash games and hiking, and some are quite rustic. Then, sign up and give dog camp a whirl!
It’s all here. The classic summer camp experience you remember from childhood — swimming, hiking, boating, rustic cabins, campfire songs and lots of socializing — tailored to four-footed guests. That means days packed with agility, flyball, Rally-O, lure coursing, dock diving, clicker training, freestyle, even painting, not to mention well-earned naps. Two-footed campers can bone up on animal communication, Tellington TTouch, canine massage and much more. Each camp has its own flavor, style and emphasis, but here are a few favorites: Camp Dogwood, Ingleside, Ill.; Camp Gone to the Dogs, Stowe and Marlboro, Vt.; Camp Unleashed, Asheville, N.C., Berkshires, Mass., and Sequoia, Calif.; Camp Winnaribbun, Stateline, Lake Tahoe, Nev.; Canine Club Getaway, Lake George, N.Y.; Dog Scouts of America, St. Helen, Mich.; Happy Tails Daycamp for Dogs, Fennville, Mich.; and Maian Meadows Dog Camp, Lake Wenatchee, Wash.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Standing up for a dog in Haiti
It was a strange place to cry, but I had no other place to go. In Haiti, a 10-by-12-foot classroom in a small schoolhouse served as a makeshift hotel for the evening. I sat down on the end of the bed—a green army cot beside a laminated poster of the human eyeball—and sobbed. My tears lacked the grace of my 35 years; childlike, inconsolable, they were tears of shame. I felt that I’d done something wrong.
I also sensed I was not alone. Chest heaving, nose running, I turned and checked the skeleton on the wall behind me. It stared back with empty eyes, its jaw unhinged in a perpetual state of laughter, or maybe horror.
Then I saw them, or rather, the tops of their heads. All three of my host family’s children were on tippy-toes outside the window, a square hole in the cinder block wall, listening. Their presence made me want to cry even harder, but instead, I forced myself to stop. They’d already seen and heard enough of my Ugly American behavior for one afternoon. I pulled a book out of my backpack and pretended to read.
The incident began with a dog. Or maybe it started with my decision to backpack across the Central Plateau of Haiti. An adventure-travel journalist, I was on assignment to cover the inaugural trek of Expedition Ayiti, a new adventure tourism company. Instead of camping, our small group of Americans and Haitians stayed in rural settlements along the remote route, paying local families for a meal and a place to sleep. The idea was to provide a source of income for some of Haiti’s poorest communities and to foster cultural understanding—or in my case, cultural misunderstanding.
We’d arrived earlier that afternoon in the tiny village of Lamarre after a seven mile hike. I was dozing in the schoolroomturned- hotel when a dog disturbed me. The rest of the group had gone to check out a church built by American missionaries. Feeling sluggish in the 100- degree heat, I stayed behind. I’d been napping for only a few minutes when the dog began to bark. I shifted in the cot so my back was to the window, yanking a pillow over my head. It didn’t help. I heard scuffling in the dirt beneath the window, a boy’s voice, a dog’s yips, more barking and then a dog’s cries. I winced. It was clear my nap was over.
Pushing open the wooden door, I stepped outside into the humid heat. Instantly, a layer of sweat formed on my brow. Around the corner beneath the window, a boy of about seven, my host family’s son, struggled with a skinny orange dog. It was a horrid game of tugof- war. The boy yanked a rough piece of twine he’d knotted around the dog’s hind foot. The dog alternated between trying to pull his leg back and letting himself be dragged, crying and whimpering all the while.
I yelled “Hey!” or something to that effect. Startled, the boy dropped the string and looked up. The dog limped away. The boy moved to chase him. I stepped between the two. “Stop it. Can’t you see you’re hurting him?” I said.
The boy didn’t understand. In rural villages, children speak only Haitian Creole, not French, and certainly not English. He lunged for the dog. I backed off. The dog scampered around the back yard, licking at the twine tied around his foot, which the tug-of-war had cinched down painfully.
My work wasn’t done. I needed to get the twine off the dog. But every time I moved toward him, he scurried nervously away. The boy watched, having found an even better source of entertainment than bothering the dog. I caught the dog once, but when I touched his back foot, he nipped at me. I cursed out loud. The boy giggled. By now, his mother and two sisters had come out of the house to watch the action.
The dog and I went round and round the back yard, each time garnering more laughter. The few scrawny chickens scattered. The goat tied to a tree bleated in alarm. Frustrated, I stood and faced my human audience, wiping the sweat and grime from my forehead. I knew they wouldn’t understand, but that didn’t stop me. “It’s not funny,” I said. “This dog is hurt.” More laughter. I searched each face for a sign of compassion. Their eyes were empty.
Finally, I caught the dog by the scruff of his neck, and he nipped at me again. I began to shout at my host family. I don’t remember exactly what, but it was aggressive and accusatory and, due to the language barrier, irrelevant. The dog was the only one who seemed upset. I let go of him and burst into tears.
The mother ducked back inside her concrete home and emerged with a leg bone—part of the soup we’d later be served for dinner. She lured the dog easily, and I realized that he belonged to the family. She untied the twine and shooed him away. I waited for her to look at me, for a moment of understanding to pass between us. But she didn’t. It didn’t.
I retreated to the schoolroom to finish crying. My clothes, soaked in the pungent sweat of adrenaline, stuck to my skin. I was disgusted with my host family, but more so with myself for losing it over a dog. What’s worse, a bored sevenyear- old abusing his dog or an Ugly American throwing a fit because of it?
A week later, I returned home to Boulder, Colo. During my time in Haiti, I’d lost 10 pounds and found an intestinal parasite and a heat rash. It was a challenging trip, on many levels. After a few days, the weight came back and my digestive system recovered. The rash, along with the nightmares of impoverished people in a ravaged landscape, faded. But the incident with the dog stayed fresh.
I thought a lot about suffering, specifically the relative amounts felt by animals versus people. The Haiti dog was suffering, and I’d wanted to alleviate that. But could I really blame my host family for their indifference? They had been dealt more than their fair share of suffering—scarce food, rudimentary shelter, parasites, cholera, devastating natural disasters. My concern with animal pain was a luxury their culture couldn’t afford. Who cares about a dog when you can only feed your family two meager meals per day?
I was ashamed of my behavior, my cultural insensitivity. And even a bit guilty about my privileged perch at the pinnacle of Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs.” My basic needs are so well satisfied that I have nothing better to worry about than lofty concepts like self-actualization and animal suffering.
Surely I wasn’t the first person to lament such things. During a restless night in Boulder, I turned to the soothing search engine of Google. I typed “animal ethicist” and found Dr. Bernard Rollin. It turns out that one of the world’s experts on the ethical treatment of animals teaches at Colorado State University, an hour away in Fort Collins. Desperate for closure on my experience in Haiti, I sent him a long, late-night email.
Dr. Rollin called me the next day, which surprised me. His response surprised me even more. He told me that abuse of animals is a hallmark of an abused culture … But that doesn’t make it right. “What you did was absolutely the right thing to do,” he said. “Not only as a 21st-century American, as a human being. Why should an animal be allowed to suffer to gratify the whim of some child who hasn’t been taught any better?”
His forceful words that morning served as a literal wake-up call. I realized what was really keeping me up at night: I was trying to justify my host family’s behavior, telling myself that it was somehow acceptable, and that I was the one who was out of line. Dr. Rollin turned me around. Animal suffering shouldn’t be tolerated just because the person abusing the animal has also suffered. Nor should my privileged position in the world be reason to feel guilty about passing judgment on those in a less fortunate culture, or acting on my own ethical responses.
Dr. Rollin told me that Americans are so afraid of being labeled culturally insensitive that they become overly tolerant. “Even if an entire culture condones an unethical behavior, you should try to educate individuals out of it,” Dr. Rollin said.
I couldn’t take back my outburst in Haiti, but maybe that was okay. Maybe it was appropriate to show my host family how upset another human being was over animal suffering. Dr. Rollin perhaps put it best: “The last thing I’m worried about is offending people. We’re not here to be loved. We’re here to leave a better world than we found.”
Maybe that family is still talking about the crazy American woman who tried to help the dog. Maybe those three kids will hesitate before abusing their dog again. And maybe, just maybe, one of those kids will step in someday, the way the crazy lady did.
Dog's Life: Humane
Transformed by volunteering, Nora Livingstone helps others do the same
Four months after hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005, college student Nora Livingstone decided to drive from her home in Toronto to New Orleans to assist at an animal shelter during winter break. Livingstone, a double major in environmental studies and anthropology, thought she’d be walking and grooming dogs who had been separated from their owners during the flood, in an otherwise comfortable setting. The experience wasn’t what she expected. “Up in Canada, we had no idea how bad things had gotten in New Orleans,” Livingstone, now 29, says.
Her first clue to the chaos came when she entered the city. Beside the road, a dead horse hung from a tree. “Everyone was too busy helping themselves and their families to deal with the horse,” says Livingstone. “It sort of set the precedent for the rest of the week.”
The section of the city where Livingstone had signed up to volunteer didn’t even have full power. She spent her Christmas vacation working up to 20-hour days at a makeshift animal shelter at Celebration Station, a former fun park. She slept on a cot alongside other volunteers in a second-floor loft overlooking hundreds of displaced cats caged on the floor below. Outside, chain-link fences separated the runs that housed about a hundred homeless dogs. “At that time, there were still houses on top of houses,” Livingstone says. “There was tons of debris. There was no food. There were stray dogs everywhere.”
Livingstone’s volunteer work in New Orleans was difficult, both physically and emotionally. Each morning, she fed hundreds of dogs and cats, and cleaned just as many bowls and litter boxes. She picked up countless piles of dog poo. By the time she had completed the breakfast routine, it was time to feed the animals dinner, and the whole process started all over again. The sheer number of dogs meant that she could only spend a couple of minutes with each. “I cried every day,” Livingstone says. “There were some dogs who were just so bewildered and scared. The hard part about working with animals is that you can’t rationalize with them. You can’t explain what happened, and that things are going to be okay. All you can do is lie down beside them and pet them.”
Despite the challenges, Livingstone considers her time volunteering in New Orleans as some of the most rewarding in her life. The sadness she felt was tempered by the joy of witnessing daily reunions with families who had come to claim their lost pets. She learned that in many cases, people had had their pets taken from them by authorities who prohibited them at human shelters, or were forced to leave their animals behind at gunpoint by the National Guard during evacuation. “I realized that the work I was doing was helping not only animals, but also people struggling to make their families whole again after a really awful situation,” Livingstone says.
While she didn’t know it at the time, her experience planted the seed for what would become her life’s work. Six years later, Livingstone co-founded Animal Experience International (AEI), a travel company dedicated to providing animal volunteer opportunities around the globe.
But before the idea for AEI could materialize, Livingstone would return home to Canada and finish university and a post-graduate program in Outdoor Adventure Leadership, which involved activities like canoeing and kayaking. Unsure how to combine her education, her outdoors experience and her love of animals into a career, she headed to Nepal in 2007 for another round of volunteer work. She hoped to find some direction, or at least the same satisfaction she had discovered in New Orleans.
While in Nepal, Livingstone volunteered at a medical clinic and as an English teacher. She noticed that dogs were not treated the same as they were in the west. Dogs in Nepal guard homes and gardens, and are not typically considered pets. Most Nepalese believe dogs are the reincarnations of bad prophets —humans fated to live as dogs as punishment for past misdeeds.
One day at a bakery in Kathmandu, Livingstone discussed her observations with a British woman she’d just met. The woman had been living in Nepal for more than 30 years and told Livingstone about a groundbreaking dog clinic, the Kathmandu Animal Treatment Center (KAT). Shortly after, Livingstone showed up at KAT’s door and offered to volunteer. She wound up spending several weeks at the center, which aims to improve the lives of street dogs through vaccination, injury rehabilitation and spaying/neutering. After dogs are treated, experts at KAT evaluate them for pet potential, and keep those with promise at the shelter for adoption instead of returning them to the streets. “I loved being there,” Livingstone says. “A place like KAT is so rare in Nepal. I wanted to find a way to get more people involved, to let more people know about it.”
An idea formed once Livingstone returned to Canada. Wouldn’t it be great if there were a company that connected standout animal sanctuaries, shelters and conservation programs around the world with interested travelers like her? The vision stayed in the back of her mind even as she took a job as volunteer coordinator at the Toronto Wildlife Centre. It was there that Livingstone met veterinarian Heather Reid, who helped bring her idea to fruition. Reid shared Livingstone’s passion for travel and her interest in volunteer work with animals. One step ahead of Livingstone, Reid had been considering what it would take to create international animal-based volunteer experiences for other veterinarians. “My brain practically exploded after talking to Dr. Heather because it was just so obvious,” says Livingstone. “I’m passionate about volunteering and encouraging others to volunteer and travel and stir up their lives, so why not get paid to live my dream while helping other people live theirs?”
In 2011, the two women founded AEI, launching it in March with five trips, including one to KAT, the dog clinic where Livingstone had volunteered in Nepal. Within a couple of months, they had 20 travelers signed up. In June, a volunteer tourism portal, GoVolunteering.com, picked up some of their trips and blasted them out to more than 13,000 subscribers. A few months later, AEI’s client list doubled. “We knew there was a market for this,” Livingstone says, “We were just surprised at how quickly it took off.”
Animal-based organizations from all over the world started contacting AEI to create volunteer travel programs at their locations. But Livingstone has been careful to add trips slowly. One of AEI’s core values is to partner with only the best and most effective organizations; Livingstone or Reid visits each before adding it to the lineup. After one year of operation, AEI offers 26 trips to locations ranging from Canada to Thailand and Australia. Travelers can choose to volunteer with dogs, cats, bats, turtles, monkeys, elephants, parrots, bears, leopards, tigers, crocodiles and kangaroos, among others. “People have been knocking down our door, which is both inspiring and a little overwhelming,” says Livingstone.
AEI travelers can also customize the length of their trip, from two weeks to two months, with longer options available. One client signed up for a full year working with orangutans in Sumatra. Her cost of $4,390 includes accommodations, meals, transportation, travelers’ insurance—everything except airfare. While $4,390 seems like a bargain for a full year abroad, Livingstone recognizes that money is the biggest inhibitor to international travel. She and Reid have devised aggressive fundraising techniques for clients, as well as a scholarship program. “If someone is inspired enough to go on one of our trips, we’re going to do everything in our power to get them there,” says Livingstone.
Trips also include cultural experiences and sightseeing excursions. Both Livingstone and Reid want AEI travelers to experience the natural and manmade wonders that draw tourists to the destinations where they are volunteering. But they are also clear that AEI trips are not typical getaways. “We’re not offering a vacation,” Livingstone says. “This is not going to a resort, this is work. But it’s work that’s transformational— through the animals you work with, through the family you homestay with, and through the community you live in.”
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