Skimming Uganda’s morning newspaper in April 2001 over my almost burnt toast and black coffee, I was struck by a story—or maybe by the picture. An American woman living in Kampala, working on conservation projects, was inspiring big changes at the Uganda Society for the Protection and Care of Animals (USPCA), setting up spay days and community education programs and helping to build a new animal care center in an impoverished neighborhood. She has serious challenges ahead, I thought to myself. Most likely just another do-gooder whose idealistic dreams soon will be shattered against the rocky shores of reality.
Later that night, in the quiet of my room, I was reminded again of the story. My window was open, and through it came a sound common to many East African cities: the barking of dogs. Their vocalizations pierced the night, moving in waves, getting closer, moving away, sometimes wailing or high-pitched, sometimes yippy, sometimes singsong, like the cries of wild animals. I never thought much about these urban dogs and their lives, even though I had spent many nights lying awake listening to their howls.
In much of rural Africa, dogs are highly regarded—I have often come across a herder or a hunter cradling his dog’s head in his lap, gently petting her or scratching her ears, and I know a man in rural Tanzania, a market trader, who carries his crippled dog around with him everywhere he goes. But life in the cities is different for dogs. That closeness, that warmth of relationship, often is lost in the urban hustle.
Face to Face
Some weeks later, in Kampala, I was meeting with the Uganda Wildlife Authority, the agency responsible for the country’s national parks. Sitting across from me was Karen Menczer, the woman from the newspaper, the do-gooder, the person I’d thought of as an overly idealistic “junkyard warrior”: She was short, with muscular arms, a shock of dark hair, and water bottle at hand (an obvious fitness fanatic). After the meeting she approached. “Hi, I have a big favor to ask you.” Here it comes, she wants a copy of one of my books, I thought. But that wasn’t it. Instead, Karen asked me to look over her “Simba collection,” about 500 pictures of Ugandans with a dog named Simba.
Daily, with the permission of his owners, Karen took Simba for a walk so he could get out of the small wooden box to which he was confined when he was not guarding his owner’s shop from midnight to 6 AM. Walking a dog is an unusual sight in most African cities, and Kampala is no exception. The pair first elicited stares, then curiosity overcame shyness. Before long, Karen and Simba had plenty of company on their walks. Karen used Simba as a humane-education dog, showing people how to approach him and pet him. Then she began taking pictures of Simba with his new friends and giving out the pictures as souvenirs. Children were especially curious about Simba, and Karen requested and received permission to bring the dog to schools to help educate children about animals.
The Simba pictures really grabbed me. There was Simba with friendly Ugandans in Kampala’s rough suburbs—muddy roads, piles of garbage, places with mostly no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Karen had captured the children and their parents in their homes and yards, goofing off for the camera and having a ball with Simba.
But it was not all rosy success stories.
Key to Change
In her wallet Karen carries a key, a reminder of the cruelty that befalls animals, the sad reality for many dogs and cats in the world. Karen had given a USPCA doghouse (one of the organization’s projects, intended to encourage humane treatment) to a young boy she befriended. The boy, Joshua, had a small puppy he’d named Sammy. Karen liked both the boy and the puppy, and visited them often. Sammy loved the new, airy doghouse, so different from the dark, cramped crate he had lived in. Joshua explained that the doghouse needed to be locked because someone might try to steal Sammy; he kept one key and gave Karen the other as a sign of trust. One day, she went to visit, but Sammy was not there. Karen asked where he was. “Oh, we killed it,” one of the local boys said. He and his friends, including Joshua, had stoned Sammy to death. Karen was stunned.