After spending an amazing day at the Animal Welfare Society Helderberg (AWSH) kennels and cattery in Gordon’s Bay, I struggle to describe my feelings.
The words “astounding, inspirational and impressive” come to mind, but in the face of often desperate suffering, so do “heart-breaking, tragic and shocking”.
Yet beyond these haunting images I felt an overwhelming, all-embracing sense of hope – testament to general manager Julia Evans and her passionate team, who work 24/7 to offer a superior service to the Helderberg’s most underprivileged owners and their pets.
Lesser mortals would be short-fused, but all here radiate the serenity and inner joy that come from doing something worthwhile and doing it well.
It is said that a cynic is essentially a coward. Despite ample reason for both, there is no place (or time) here for either.
Animals stream in, and each receives individual care, love and medical expertise until they leave healed and ready for their new lives, or mercifully released from further suffering.
No brief summary could cover the enormous scope of the work done here, but here are just a few of the images that continue to fill my heart and mind.
Reception is a busy place, with Patty Daniels and Maritza Groenewald fielding continuous calls, making vet bookings, dealing with the public, keeping up with paperwork and selling dip, flea medications, etc.
Scrupulous records are kept, from admission to medical assessment to treatment to rehabilitation and discharge (returned to owner or adopted).
Patty and Maritza are (unofficially) assisted by two “front-of-house” canines, one a black Alsatian-cross who arrived in a dreadful state, hairless and emaciated, a sad but likely candidate for doggy heaven.
But she definitely had other ideas, and having comfortably installed herself in reception, she now welcomes humans and animals alike, cuddling up on whichever lap stays put for a while.
Julia’s tiny office is a frantic hub of activity, presided over by a tank of guppie fish (unwanted by owner) and a guinea pig with upmarket accommodation, adored by visiting school-children.
The cattery, run by Eugenie McQueen and daughter Caitlin, with its sunny lounge filled with scratch poles, a log ‘jungle-gym’ and activity toys is a warm and happy place.
While some felines prefer to laze in the sun, others just wanted to play – with my spectacle case, note pad, pen, camera etc which proves again that toys are vital to stimulate institutionalised cats (and dogs) especially long-term.
Two “bedroom wings” accommodate nursing mums or kitties not yet socialised, which in time will mix with the others.
The canine camps are graded from small to medium to large dogs, each with private “bedrooms” with patios (for rainy days), and roomy exercise yards, with trees or shade-cloth and little splash-pools in summer.
Currently German volunteers (as part of a student exchange programme) exercise the dogs and do other hands-on jobs.
But as adoption is for life, the protocol is strict to ensure animals previously traumatised will not repeat the experience.
Home checks are carried out before and after adoption, by volunteer and professional dog-trainer Susan, which afford AWSH the opportunity to ensure suitable placement and the adopters a chance to raise concerns.
Members of the public can also meet dogs outside the kennel environment at the monthly Blaauwklippen Fun Walk.
The general organisation of this shelter is mind-boggling. Everything is spotless and odour-free: camps, kennels, cages, cattery, storage areas for food, towels and blankets, laundry, hospital and quarantine-wards (for parvo-virus, ring-worm and other contagious conditions).
This is a huge achievement, considering the current occupancy of about 180 dogs and 84 cats (more than 100 percent). Though great care is taken with cross-infection (shoes to be disinfected before entering “at-risk areas”), I had a privileged peep into the cat-flu ward, gently heated and humidified to ease chronic coughs and sniffles.
Mid-morning it was time to join an intrepid inspector on his rounds in Sir Lowry’s Pass Village and Nomzamo: first to return Scotty the terrier-cross (his broken leg healed) to a heart-warming welcome from his humans and canine pals, then Bruno (not his real name), recovered from a viral infection, sadly reluctant to go home to his distinctly underwhelmed owners.
The AWSH will continue to monitor him and an emaciated pup at a house nearby, whose owner seemed keen for help.
Fostering trust in the community is vital, and involves patience, compassion and the ability to give gentle non-judgemental advice and practical help. Inspectors (on call over weekends) keep detailed logbooks and communicate with Julia by radio, so our next call was to a sea-gull at the Strand with broken wing, while other recent unusual rescues include a seal, a goat, an ostrich, a boa constrictor, a dolphin and two tortoises.
One of these (for nine years cruelly chained up via holes drilled in his shell) has flourished in the garden at reception, and endeared himself to staff and visitors alike.
He’s off today to a safe farm environment to live out his days in freedom. Needless to say, everyone (furry, scaly, slippery and feathered) is welcomed, with suitable foods and (often ingenious) habitats available for whatever critter comes through the door.
Meanwhile the operating theatre was in full swing with state vet Dr Tiaan Visser working through today’s list: surgical removal of the festering eye of a dog whose owners had waited too long; three cat-spays (all animals are spayed before discharge); a difficult lumpectomy, and emergency treatment for a little Dachshund-cross savagely beaten with a golf club.
Tilly Kuboni has been the AWSH assistant for 30 years and still brings enormous enthusiasm to her job, as do the current in-training candidates Clodine Arnolds, Caitlin McQueen and Wendy Goodwin.
This sentiment is echoed by all staff whose positive energy enables them to face the daily challenges of their demanding jobs. Surgeries can cost (and usually do) thousands of rand, and owners may take a long time to pay (or never) so AWSH bears the cost.
Major orthopaedic work goes to private vets, but Dr Tiaan carries out all other surgeries, amputations and, of course euthanasia.
While “no-kill” shelters do not euthanise, they also turn pets away, which inevitably end up in a facility like this one, and AWSH has no choice but to euthanise in cases of severe pain and injury, unsuitability for re-homing and chronic lack of space.
The daily decisions Julia has to make in this regard are truly heart-breaking, as the team have often bonded with the animals, but each one “goes to heaven” with the dignity in which sadly it did not live, the memory of loving care at the kennels and a volunteer holding and comforting it to the end.
Then after a quick coffee standing up (anyone have a contact for plastic garden chairs?), Dr Tiaan and Dr Gareth Bain (the permanent vet) start the afternoon consultations, as owners queue up with their pets.
Medication and treatment are prescribed or pets admitted where necessary. Pets whose owners genuinely lack transport are collected from townships and dropped back again, while a daily mobile clinic in various areas offers vaccinations, dipping, general health checks and feeding advice, and identifies animals at risk or emergencies like motor vehicle accidents that need admission to the AWSH clinic.
Needless to say, enormous vet bills are an ongoing challenge, so indigent clients must prove through a means test that they qualify as welfare candidates. But even if there is no payment, every animal is assisted.
As I reflect on this awesome day, I see the faces of these brave little heroes, feline and canine, who through no fault of their own have suffered so much.
And it struck me that the deep reserves of love and compassion the staff of this wonderful shelter bring to their work is surpassed only by the long-suffering forgiveness of animals horrendously treated by humans, yet still willing to trust and love them again.
That, I think, is a reason for hope. Please let us not betray that trust. “It is better to light one candle, than to curse the darkness.”
Helen Wynne-Dyke is long-time member and volunteer at AWSH.