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Africa Outreach

Rather than give in to anger, Karen’s response was to use Sammy’s murder as a community education opportunity. With the help of a friend—a large, powerful, eloquent Ugandan man who commanded respect through dignity—she rounded up the children and their parents, and he spoke to them in Luganda, their own language, to affirm the ideals of sanctity of life and talk against cruelty to animals. He cajoled, he shamed, he encouraged and he enlightened. Karen is certain that this community meeting changed the attitudes of the children present, and that they will carry the lessons learned that day into adulthood. Single actions can make a difference.

As we sifted through the Simba pictures, Karen told me more stories about how most dogs in East African cities live. Unlike in the villages—where dogs are kept for hunting, for herding and as companions, and where crime is rare—life in the city has changed the relationship between humans and their dogs. People in the cities have dogs for guarding. Dogs are “trained” to guard by being confined to a small wooden box, which is rarely big enough for them to stand up or turn around in, for about 18 hours a day. Sometimes, multiple dogs will share one box. The dogs can see nothing outside the box; their world is the lifeless space of those few square feet. Only one person is allowed to feed the dog; everyone else is the enemy. Tough behavior is encouraged by feeding the dog hot chilies, beating on his box, prodding him with sticks to make him angry, perhaps even starving him to make him alert and always on the prowl for food—a sure recipe for a mean and mistrustful canine.

The Uganda SPCA is trying to educate people about more humane methods of keeping and training dogs, while providing free spay/neuter and other veterinary care for animals in need. In Kampala, Karen discovered that many people thought vets treated only livestock, not cats and dogs. Moreover, most were not aware of the use of anesthesia for animal surgery, or even that surgery could be done on animals. As a USPCA field supervisor, Karen helped develop many of these USPCA services. Her management style also encouraged a sense of collegiality as she worked with local professional staff and training volunteers, some of whom have gone on to spread the word and work for change in Ugandans’ perceptions of animals. For example, Katia Ruiz Allard, one of the founders of USPCA, continues the work, ably aided by Berna Nakanwagi, the USPCA vet, and Ibra Nakasero, the volunteer humane officer; Nakanwagi and Nakasero are both Ugandans who care about dogs and are trying to improve the lot of Uganda’s animals.

In a developing country rife with pressing social issues, Karen also encountered some of the other challenges of being a grassroots animal welfare activist: negotiating with Muslim leaders in a village before setting up a spay day; learning that when you instruct someone to put their dog “inside” for a day or two after she has been spayed, “inside” might mean inside the chicken coop; and dealing with a shelter manager who is selling dogs and pocketing the proceeds. One of the pleasures: discovering that it is often the poorest people who treat their dogs with the greatest respect and care.

Leaving Uganda in 2002, Karen moved on to other aid projects—first to Gaborone, Botswana, and later, in 2004, to Accra, Ghana, where she served on the boards of the national SPCAs. There was no shortage of enthusiastic local volunteers in either country, but each had a different perception of dogs. In Botswana, a prosperous diamond-exporting nation, dogs are kept in open yards primarily as guards, and pedigreed animals are increasingly common as local attitudes toward improved care and feeding have shifted. In Ghana, dogs simply are not very popular. While it is uncommon in both countries to see dogs running around on the streets, when Karen walked dogs in Gaborone people would sometimes approach her with curiosity, even pet the dog, but in Accra, people showed no interest, or sometimes even shooed her away. They explained that since dogs are unable to speak, they cannot have feelings; and besides, they are dirty. And there were rumors about some tribes even eating dogs.

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