Saturday, March 5, 2011
I’m sitting in the front passenger seat, fully engaged in the conversation with Nicola and Larisa but occasionally gazing out my window at the heavy pollution suffocating the passing city. My nerves are calm, but it’s because I’ve accepted my fate for today. Visits to animal shelters are always emotional for me; every one of my senses is accosted by sadness. Today I’m visiting the TUAPA (Taichung Universal Animal Protection Association) shelter.
Nearly 1,000 dogs are housed in cages in multiple buildings. Many of these animals have previously been mutilated, abused, abandoned, tortured, and otherwise mistreated. The homeless dogs I see around Hsinchu on a daily basis leave me feeling hopeless, and now I’ve accepted Nicola’s invitation to visit hundreds of these dogs housed in TUAPA’s compound. What have I gotten myself into?
I know Nicola from work and through Gretchen, my roommate, and I respect her absolute dedication to this cause. We’ve picked Larisa, whom I’ve never met, up from the High Speed Rail station near Hsinchu, and I immediately like her. During the hour-long drive to Taichung the three of us talk, and much of our conversation, of course, revolves around our pets, TUAPA, the other volunteers, and Taiwan’s treatment of animals.
Feeling a bit like a child listening to two adults talk, I pay attention to what Nicola and Larisa have to say. Their passion for TUAPA and their volunteer work there is palpable. I’m almost jealous, wishing I had something I could be so wholly invested in; as much as I want to be a part of TUAPA, as much as I adore animals and dogs, I just can’t. I know that my heart is going to be ripped out of my chest today, and I can’t hurt like that very often. I don’t know how much I can take.
Nicola turns at an intersection once we’ve exited the highway, and we’re quickly leaving civilization. Larisa chides her for speeding down the narrow lanes, and Nicola giggles. “I’m just so excited! I can’t wait to be there!”
I, on the other hand, am bracing for emotional impact.
The car glides into a parking spot near four chained dogs. “Don’t touch them; they’re not ready yet,” instructs Nicola, and I climb out of the car. Several free-roaming dogs approach me, and I greet them. I take a deep breath and look around, taking in the dilapidated buildings and the barking coming from inside of them.
Our arrival time is 9:30am. I should be tired; I’ve been up since 7:00 after a restless night’s sleep that began around 1:30. Now, though, the adrenaline has kicked in. I’ve already seen a couple of dogs missing limbs or with visible ribs. I don’t want to be a burden, so when Nicola, Larisa, or Rachel, one of the lead volunteers, invited me to do something or asked me to help, I do.
The next couple of hours are a blur. When volunteers arrive, they begin freeing the dogs from their assigned building and letting them into the playground, which is a fenced-in grassy area. Some dogs are on leashes; if they haven’t been at the shelter long or if they have behavioral issues, leashes are clipped to their collars in case a volunteer needs to control them.
I spend much of my time in the playground, and the dogs run free and enjoy being out of their cages. Once all the dogs are out, I’m surrounded by nearly 300 of them. I’m comfortable around them, but even if I wasn’t, there is nothing to fear. None of the dogs growl at me; one howls at me in short bursts, but it’s such a funny sound that I laugh and talk to him every time he does it.
In fact, I laugh a lot. At the dog that just sank his entire body into the water bucket and shot me a startled look, then popped out like a hot kernel of popcorn. At the little ball of white fur that jumps into my lap when I sit on an upturned bucket and promptly angles his butt into my chest. At the smile on one dog’s face as Rachel, another volunteer, rubs behind her ears. At the dogs that try to cover their messes with overextended and overly dramatic kicks with their back legs.
I have brief moments when the adrenaline plummets and I nearly lose it. The dog that greeted me in the playground looks like she just recently lost a toe, and her limping makes my heart plummet. One dog, Thea, is so forlorn at the recent death of her master that Nicola half-carries and half-drags her out to the grass. Three dogs in separate cages, set apart from all the other animals, are too dangerous to humans and other dogs to be taken out. They are set to live the rest of their lives in those cages because TUAPA is a no-kill shelter. The volunteers and staff care for them as best they can, but these dogs may never recover from their previous lives.
I’m shaken by these three dogs, but then Nicola snaps me into another train of thinking: “Out of 1,000 dogs, these are the only three we can’t rehabilitate.” TUAPA’s success rate of helping dogs socialize with other animals and love humans is unbelievably high. It’s uncommonly high. It’s unheard of. It can be summed up in one word.
Larisa and I talk a while later, and I tell her how hard it is for me to be in this kind of environment. She tells me to look around and see just how much love there is at TUAPA. The dogs adore the volunteers and staff. The people who have dedicated so much to these dogs treat them with so much love and respect that even some of the dogs with the biggest obstacles to overcome do so with patience and time.
The passion that was so evident on the car ride from Hsinchu to Taichung permeates every square inch of the TUAPA compound. From that passion arises an absolute love, and that love takes every other emotion in my heart and squeezes it out. I’m no longer emotional because of the pain and suffering I expected to see here, because that’s simply not the case at TUAPA. I’m emotional because I’m overwhelmed with the love here.
Black Pearl, a young dog that was nearly killed by a man who attacked her with a knife, is one of the most people-friendly dogs I’ve ever met.
Pickles, a dog that no longer has a bottom jaw, comes up to me as I sit on the ground; when I begin rubbing behind her ears, she melts into my lap and soaks up the love. A medium-sized white dog approaches me, and I massage his head and give him butt rubs; Nicola takes pictures of our interaction.
One dog enjoys butt-rubs so much that she lifts her back legs as high off the ground as she possibly can, so she looks like a Riverdancer.
One dog, though, affects me more than any of the others. She had greeted me when I first entered the playground and is the dog with the recently-amputated toe. When I try to approach her, she limps in the opposite direction; she isn’t sad, as I see her romping around the yard and interacting with the other dogs. Still, though, I’m always watching for her and trying to pet her a second time.
My chance comes when the dogs have trotted back into their cages, which they do so willingly after a few hours outside. I sit, alone, by the gate. She walks out from the small grove of trees, sees me watching her, and slowly comes to me. There’s nothing cautious about her approach. This dog strikes me as an old soul, and she knows I desperately want to interact with her again before leaving. She stands between my knees and allows me to rub her ears. The entire time, she stares into my eyes. I feel that she’s looking at my soul, and I become so overwhelmed that I tear up. She is a calm animal, quiet, powerfully soulful, and after I murmur a few words to her, she turns and walks away.
I’m so impacted by this dog and that moment that days later, thinking about her look as she held my gaze, causes me to become emotional again.
Nicola, Larisa and I leave TUAPA at 2pm. We’re not tired and enjoy a spirited conversation the entire way back. Once I’ve returned to my room in my apartment in Hsinchu, I allow myself to replay the day, and my overwhelming emotion was not sadness, as I’d anticipated. I feel love. The spark of passion I tried to quench out of fear has grown into a fire, a bright light that makes me want to do everything I can to help TUAPA with its mission to take care of these animals.
I’ve never felt so driven before. Upon learning of TUAPA a few months ago, I decided to donate money and do what I could that way. Now, it’s far more personal. I wrack my brain every day to think of ways I could help. The homeless animal situation in Taiwan is dire, and TUAPA struggles every day to do as much as it possibly can to help. Now I need to do as much for TUAPA as I can.
I am only one, but still I am one.
I cannot do everything, but still I can do something;
and because I cannot do everything,
I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
– Edward Everett Hale