Yet some seem immune to the magnetism of dogs. I’ve been with people who can easily ignore a “crying” dog. I’m mystified by this. Why do some of us have deep reactions to dogs, while others show no response? Is it nature or nurture that makes us dog lovers?
Because I work in animal rescue in Africa, I have many chances to investigate this mystery. I meet people who fall along the spectrum, from those who love dogs to those who despise them. Paterne Bushunju, from Bukavu in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), is a dog lover. Over the course of a few days, we talked at length about our feelings for dogs, where and when they started, how they grew, where they’ve led us. His story is fascinating, but for me, it only adds to the mystery. This is an excerpt from our conversation.
Like most people in Bukavu in South Kivu Province, Paterne Bushunju’s parents didn’t like dogs. Kids Paterne grew up with were afraid of dogs, and weren’t particularly interested in them or their welfare. Because so many dogs carry rabies, parents teach their children early on to avoid them, usually through the use of stories: Dogs and cats are evil. They are sorcerers who turn themselves into dogs and cats. Given a chance, they will bite you. Paterne’s friends ostracized dogs; when a dog passed by, the young people ran behind the animal, shouting and throwing stones.
One day, the kids in Paterne’s neighborhood were chasing a puppy. Paterne tried to stop them. His feelings about dogs were different than the others’; he wasn’t sure why, and he wasn’t sure what made him stand up to his friends that day. The young people turned on Paterne and attacked him with a knife. But when the puppy barked “ferociously” at the kids, they backed off and ran away.
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That was the day Paterne came up with the idea to hide dogs to protect them from abuse. From that moment on, he committed himself to helping animals, although he knew nothing of shelters for cats and dogs; there was no such thing in Bukavu.
Paterne told me that when he reflected on that first rescue, he thought about the execution of a Rwandan refugee in the Panzi refugee camp. As horrifying as it had been, it left him with the realization that both the man and the puppy had felt the same thing—absolute terror—and that both had a right to live, and to live without fear.
The first dog that Paterne welcomed to his home was a stray whose leg had been cut off. He named her Hatia, which means “innocent.” Unfortunately Paterne’s parents didn’t want this dog, and he was forced to find an alternative hiding place. He decided to use a small abandoned church next to his home. There, Paterne quickly welcomed three more dogs, fed them, washed them and watched over them. More dogs followed—of course!
Paterne began researching cat and dog rescue to learn more about how to help animals. Online, he read about others who rescue animals, and about shelters. Following their example, Paterne posted on Facebook about the dogs he had hidden at the church. At first, he did this just for fun, to see how his friends would react.
Mr. Giancarlo, director of a spiritual foundation in Europe, saw Paterne’s Facebook posts and wrote that he appreciated what Paterne was doing, and asked if he could help him. At first, Paterne didn’t believe him. But the conversation continued. Giancarlo said the Facebook pictures were very blurry and that Paterne needed a better phone. Giancarlo offered to send him one that would take good-quality pictures.
Still skeptical, Paterne sent his contact details. A week later, DHL notified him that a package was waiting. In the package, Paterne found a Samsung SII phone.
Paterne explained to Giancarlo how dogs are treated in South Kivu Province. Thanks to Giancarlo, Paterne discovered that many people in Europe help cats and dogs. Giancarlo encouraged Paterne to open a bank account and sent Paterne his first donation: 400 euros. That allowed Paterne to rent a house for his dogs and helped pay for their food. Paterne reported back to Giancarlo (sending the much-improved pictures taken with his new phone), and Giancarlo sent more money.
In 2014, Paterne created an animal protection organization and called it Sauvons nos Animaux (Save Our Animals). The number of Paterne’s social media followers grew. People shared his Facebook posts and sponsored dogs at the shelter. Thanks to Giancarlo’s ongoing support and connections*, in 2016, Paterne was able to buy a large plot of land and create a permanent sanctuary for cats and dogs. Currently, the sanctuary houses about 70 dogs and 20 cats.
People who live in the area were surprised to see someone invest so much time and money in dogs and cats. As Paterne told me, “Many of them wonder what I gain from it. Many people think I am a psychopath and others, a Satanist. Still, for most people, the dog in Bukavu is nothing; you can kill it without anyone worrying or asking a question.”
But some local people show a healthier curiosity about what Paterne is doing. Some are interested in learning about rescue, and about dogs in general. Paterne enlists the most sincere and trustworthy people to help him rescue dogs from abuse.
Members of Paterne’s family were the first to discourage him in his dog rescue efforts (they asked if he had lost his mind!). Paterne had become an environmental engineer, and his family wondered why he was taking care of dogs instead of “doing something big.” Today, they understand that he’s on the track he was meant to follow, and that defending animals is something big. Three of Paterne’s younger brothers are now volunteers at the Sauvons nos Animaux sanctuary.
From the beginning, a few of Paterne’s good friends understood what he was doing, and they encouraged him. Many of these friends have become “whistleblowers”—they alert Paterne to abuse or abandonment cases. (Other friends have never understood his motives and still think his work must involve something devious.)
Although it’s a slow process, Paterne has witnessed attitudes changing for the better toward cats and dogs and the sanctuary. “I am very proud of that, because that is not the image these children used to have of the dog and cat,” Paterne told me. “The children come to the shelter to play with the animals without any issues, just to play. Their parents do not forbid them, which proves that we are a good role model. I am convinced that these children will defend the animals all their lives.”
Of course, serious challenges remain. Eastern DRC has high levels of poverty; violent conflict is common; and the area is prone to natural disasters—earthquakes, floods, landslides. Most recently, in early 2021, devastating floods and landslides not only caused many deaths in and around Bukavu, but damaged the Sauvons nos Animaux cattery. A second flood and landslide damaged one of the dog kennels.
Another challenge is that there’s no veterinary clinic in Bukavu that meets reasonable standards. Paterne has managed to attract a caring and qualified vet who visits the shelter when needed to spay/neuter, vaccinate and treat animals, especially in emergencies. But unsurprisingly, without funding to cover the vet’s costs, the sanctuary animals are a lower priority than his paying clients.
Paterne’s dream is to have a vet clinic onsite, with a full-time vet for the shelter’s animals, for animals living on the street, and for families with animals who need vet care but are can’t afford it. Since it’s impossible to obtain financial support locally, Paterne must look beyond his borders for help.
Sauvons nos Animaux employs five helpers recruited by Paterne for of their love of animals. Three were volunteers before becoming paid staff. Of the 12 volunteers who currently help at the shelter, some started out as animal lovers and others learned to love animals while helping out at the shelter. Speaking of the latter, Paterne said, “It was our duty to show them that the well-being of the animals is most important, and that they must protect them. Now they understand and do their work with love and passion.”
Local families sometimes adopt cats and dogs from the shelter. Paterne is aware of shelter standards employed in the West, and to the best of his ability, implements them. Shelter staff try to match animals to a family’s needs and interests, and all animals are spayed or neutered prior to adoption. Paterne described the adoption process as a “serious responsibility that involves the whole family. All of them must be committed to making it work.”
Looking to the future, Paterne said, “To improve the situation for cats and dogs in our community, we have created a Youth Club. We are strongly committed to this because it is our responsibility to train and educate the adults of tomorrow to know and understand animals so they will respect and protect them. It is one of the major tools in the fight against abuse and neglect.”
Through the Youth Club, children gain an understanding of animals by volunteering at the shelter, where they are given responsibilities appropriate to their age and abilities to help them learn how to care for cats and dogs. Some even show an interest in veterinary work.
Today, the Sauvons nos Animaux shelter is a welcoming place, with large kennels for the dogs and beautiful gardens where dogs can move about freely if they are so inclined. A spacious cattery (rebuilt after the landslide destroyed it) with play toys keeps cats well-occupied. Paterne is satisfied with his efforts. “Every day as I approach the shelter, I feel warm in my heart and when I arrive inside the shelter, I always tell myself that my biggest regret would be not to do more to help the animals. It's like I have to.”
Although worlds apart, Paterne and I share that same feeling for dogs. We are drawn to them; we have to help them; we have no choice. Is it nature or nurture, or some of both?
*Sadly, Paterne’s benefactor, Mr. Giancarlo, passed away in 2019. In addition to Animal-Kind International, his foundation continues to be one of the main sources of funds for Sauvons nos Animaux.