Recently, a friend of mine deemed me an “accidental philanthropist.” It’s true.
I was never looking to start a nonprofit, but a series of events starting in May 2008 led me down a path I could not turn back on now if I tried.
When I was about to turn 40, I decided I needed to do something that would really expand my horizons. My life was good, but something was missing. A feeling of making a true contribution on this planet was lacking deep down inside me.
The need to fill that void led me to Dharamsala, India to spend several weeks volunteering at a preschool. Working with the children proved completely overwhelming, as did the chaotic culture of India. What truly got to me, however, was seeing an injured and bloody dog lying in the temple where the school was held, apparently left to die. It broke my heart to watch the dog suffer — and to see how little the local people seemed to care about his condition.
The dog, later named Tommy, was far from alone in his plight. There are thousands of homeless dogs living on the streets of Dharamsala, many of them sick, injured, or starving. Dogs in India are rarely spayed or neutered, and in order to control the population a mass killing was implemented by the government in 2006. If a dog is hit by a car, it is left to die in the road.
Rabies is not uncommon, and if there is a known outbreak in the community, people will stone street dogs to death to prevent getting infected themselves. Indeed, if a human gets bit by a rabid dog, the chances of survival are not very good. The local hospital does not carry the serum needed for treatment. In fact, you need to drive for 24 hours and then pay $200 each for the injections needed to save your life. Even people who know what to do if they get bit often cannot afford to be treated. By official estimates, 20,000 people in India die of rabies each year.
Clearly, the dogs of Dharamsala needed decent health care and accessible spay/neuter surgery. The most important thing of all, though, was public education, a shift in the way Indians perceive and deal with dogs.
As fate would have it, I soon met a local man who was dedicating his life to exactly this cause. Arvind Sharma, founder of the Himalayan Nature Society (HNS), works tirelessly to vaccinate and spay or neuter stray dogs, as well as rescuing, sheltering, and healing those that are sick and injured. After telling Arvind about the injured dog at the temple, he immediately dispatched one of his volunteer vets to help.
I felt devastated as I headed home to Colorado. I had finally found a way to make a meaningful contribution and was being pulled away from the work too soon. I was determined to continue helping the dogs of Dharmasala by supporting Arvind’s mission and founded Piyara Kutta (which means “beloved dog” in Hindi) to raise funds and awareness. In October 2008, Piyara Kutta received 501c3 nonprofit status.
We continue to work in collaboration with HNS to improve the lives of India’s animals and change people’s attitudes toward them, which we believe will also save human lives. Happily, Tommy, the focus of our first collaboration, is alive, well, and lovingly cared for by neighbors of the temple.
We have made some great progress. In the spring and summer of 2009, Piyara Kutta funded the construction of a small veterinary clinic in Dharamsala and purchased an animal ambulance. We now have volunteer vets and employed staff who can rescue injured dogs on the street. The animals are housed in our kennels until they are healed, sterilized, and vaccinated – and, if we and they are lucky, adopted. We also run community education programs at local schools to educate residents on the prevention of rabies and why vaccination and sterilization are essential.
Piyara Kutta has raised enough money to make a good start in Dharamsala, but we constantly need funds for medicine, surgical supplies, dog food, gas for the ambulance, improvements and expansion of the existing clinic, etc. Our mission and work are carried out exclusively through donations and the efforts of dedicated volunteers.
If you can help us end the needless suffering of India’s stray dogs, as well as senseless human deaths from rabies infection, we would love to hear from you.
Visit http://piyarakutta.org for more information and to learn how you can help. Also, consider participating in our first volunteer trip with Inside/Out in Fall 2010 and see for yourself how your donations are improving the lot of homeless dogs in Dharamsala.
Deb Jarrett of San Francisco is the founder of PiyaraKutta, a middle manager at a telecommunications company by day, and loving guardian of her 11-year-old Golden Retriever, Wesley.