Monday, October 13, 2014

Empathy 101 (How to help stray animals when you travel)

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my experiences with feeding stray dogs in Mexico. As I wrote back then, after seeing the sad state that these animals were in, I felt compelled to do something to help them. It upset me how few tourists (and even expats) actually did anything to help these animals, opting instead to take photos of them, or dismissing their plight as “local culture”. If you consider yourself an animal lover, when traveling in areas with large numbers of strays, don’t neglect their plight. I’d like to share a couple of things that I do when I travel to give you an idea of just how easy it is to help.

First, I go on feeding walks. I usually go out and buy dog food (or cat food, if that’s the case) and some paper plates, and walk around leaving food (and/or water) for stray animals. This is not hard to do, nor is it time-consuming. Once I have the food and the plates, it takes me no more than 1 hour to leave a couple of pounds of food for about a dozen (or sometimes more) dogs. Now, it is true that one meal will not make a big difference in a dog or cat’s life, but there are other things to consider. In many countries, strays aren’t even noticed by people anymore, or are simply considered a nuisance. By publicly feeding them, we remind people that these animals are living sentient beings, ones that suffer and go hungry much like we do. We can show people that we can and should help these animals. People forget that many of these dogs weren’t born this way, that they were most likely abandoned by irresponsible owners, let down and left to suffer and die on what are often very uncaring streets. By teaching by example that compassion is the key, we can hopefully get others to start doing the same. During my feeding walks, I have often been approached by people who are curious about what I’m doing, many of whom have been very supportive. Apart from reminding others about the benefits of helping, feeding walks serve to remind ourselves just how easy it is to help.

Second, while feeding walks are good, a long term solution would be to stop the trend of animals being dumped on the street, and to stop these animals from reproducing by spaying and neutering them. Of course we, as tourists, can’t really do this, but we can easily show our support for local organizations that are trying to solve this problem, ones that provide a no-kill shelter for these animals, organize spay and neuter events, etc. When I travel, I like to donate a bit of money to local organizations, and I encourage you to do the same. A little research will go a long way to finding an organization that helps animals in the area where you’ll be traveling, and most organizations will be happy to get any money you choose to donate to them. As hard as it is for such organizations in the US, Canada, England, etc. to get by, it’s even harder in poorer countries, where there is neither government nor private funding for the good work that they do. It’s really not that hard to donate (a quick PayPal donation takes a couple of minutes), and it’s very rewarding.

Stray animals have it tough. There is really nothing to romanticize about an existence that is full of hunger, fear, and suffering. Furthermore, although one does tend to see more stray animals in poorer societies, we shouldn’t just dismiss this as being “par for the course”. In my travels, I’ve met quite a few people who, despite their limited means, try to help animals as much as they can. Next time you travel to paradise, don’t forget about the creatures for whom life there is often nothing but. If you do indeed love animals, please do one (or both) of the above mentioned things to help improve the lives of strays, and to help those who help these animals on a daily basis.