W e are an English couple who are spending 6 months travelling around South India. We came across HAS on the WorkAway website, a volunteer placement site which we had been using all across India to help us find interesting new experiences and to get well and truly off the tourist trail. The HAS WorkAway listing immediately caught our eye – in fact, I remember sitting in a WiFi café somewhere in Karnataka and flagging it as one of our favourites, and then being really surprised and pleased that they actually had space for us to come and volunteer there! From the moment we arrived in India, it was apparent that there is an enormous problem with the sheer number of stray animals, mostly dogs, who are often hungry, mistrusted and mistreated. I was mostly attracted to HAS by the fact that they don’t just treat the symptoms of this problem – they also aim to address the root cause, through their sterilisation program and their various education and outreach activities. Sterilisation is so important for the street dogs: for every dog which gets sterilised, this could be a huge number of puppies who will never have to experience a life of hardship, illness and hunger. HAS has two sites – a Shelter in Coimbatore city, and a farm in the countryside.
We first started working at the Shelter, and despite their enormous workload, the welcome we received from the vets and from the owner was probably the friendliest of all our volunteer placements so far. We felt instantly welcome and were made to feel like we were valuable to the organisation, which must actually be quite difficult to do for volunteers who have just arrived and have relatively little experience of working with animals. We spent most of our time at the Shelter bathing and de-ticking the dogs; many of the dogs have mange, and need bathing and treating every week to get rid of the mites which cause it. It’s an incredibly rewarding process – many times, dogs which had been terrified of being handled and hated the water, and which growled, whined and wriggled throughout the entire process, would run up to us the next day as if we had been their best friends for life! It was also amazing to see the condition of the dogs improving over the few weeks we spent there.
One dog who I bathed had the loveliest soft thick black fur, yet when I went to update her case notes, her description on arrival at the Shelter read “almost furless”. Being brought to the Shelter clearly made such a difference to this sick dog’s life, and by the time we left she was ready for release. There are few greater gifts in life than to gain the trust of an animal. My partner spent time every day sitting with one of the most scared and aggressive inhabitants of the Shelter, a dog called Henry who had recently lost the use of his back legs and was still coming to terms with his new disability. Over the course of many days (and many packets of biscuits!), they became close friends, and the dog which had originally growled every time someone came near his enclosure would sit quite happily at my partner’s feet.
My personal favourite was a pooch called Coffee, who was friendly but seriously nervous. After a few weeks at the Shelter, she was free of mange and was well enough for us to move her to the Sanctuary, but at first when she reached the farm I was so worried about her, because she would follow me everywhere I went (even to the toilet!), and I hated leaving her every time I went home for the evening. But she gradually found her confidence and started making friends with the other dogs at the farm, and clearly started enjoying her new-found freedom of space to run around in. By the time we left to continue our travels, she was healthy, putting on weight and playing with the other dogs, and I’m she will be very happy there. It is to the enormous credit to Mini and the vets for their continued determination and hard work in the face of such an enormous task. Every animal is just one drop in a big ocean; yet I felt that in Coimbatore at least, over the years HAS has somehow managed to make quite a significant difference. There are hundreds of dogs out there who are now sterilised, vaccinated and healthy thanks to the tireless efforts of the vets and staff in that shelter. And just as importantly, maybe there are now many people in Coimbatore who will think twice before ignoring (or kicking!) a stray dog or cat in need of medical treatment, thanks to all their outreach work with the local communities. We left Tamil Nadu with really fond memories of all the people and animals we met at HAS, and hope very much to return one day. I wonder if Coffee would remember me…!