Being on a gap year with a university offer and wanting to spend my time working towards improving welfare for animals in Pakistan, I signed up for Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation's (ACF) internship programme. Suffice to say, even before my internship ends there, I am a changed person.
Founded in 2014, the ACF's vision is to provide a platform for the marginalised communities within the Pakistani society. Founder Ayesha told me, the foundation started with the "lowest rung" of the societal ladder: stray animals.
Currently, the ACF focuses its efforts on three main fronts: their animal shelter, their spay/neuter program, and their donkey camps.
Also read: Clifton’s war on stray dogs: An excuse for sadism?
"We are a non-profit organisation, not a trust," says Ayesha. "We work on donations and have to do the best we can to make an impact; we still have a long way to go."
ACF’s animal shelter is easily the most recognisable facet of the organisation. Situated on Dalmia Road in Karachi's Gulshan Iqbal area, its red and white hues stand out among the dull, grey-scaled buildings surrounding it.
It currently houses around a hundred and seventy animals of all sorts — including two horses, five donkeys, a cow, five eagles and a countless number of dogs and cats.
"The shelter acts as a sanctuary for animals who are mistreated and unable to survive outside these walls," says Wajiha Ahmed, co-manager at the shelter.
She says that some injured animals live here temporarily. After attending to them, they are spayed/neutered and let out in localities where they know people will be friendly. The rest stay here.
Also see: Happy tails for handicapped pets
As I walk around the shelter, her words resonate with me.
One of the horses there, Iris, is a beautiful young mare — the kind who could easily win animal competitions with a single shake of her glossy mane.
Unfortunately, she’s blind, and would not survive alone on the streets with the unwelcome roar of vehicles as her only guide. The other animals are similarly, if not adversely affected.
One of the dogs — the three-legged Trio (who intermittently also serves as the watchman at the gate) had a maggot wound on one of his hind legs; it had to be amputated to save the pests from spreading further. Two other dogs, Zeus and Hercules, have paralysed hind legs.
Initially pushing themselves on their front legs, they now have a wheelchair each, and are pushed around gleefully by shelter visitors.
While the animal shelter is identified as the most significant aspect of ACF’s work, it’s certainly not.
The ACF carries out donkey camps throughout the city. Aiming to enhance awareness and reduce abuse of donkeys by their owners, the administration travels to different parts of the city with medicine and other supplies.
"We try to help the owners empathise with these ‘beasts of burden’," says Ayesha. "Most donkey owners abuse the animals and deprive them of their necessary sustenance."
Salman, co-manager at the shelter, explains the process. "We train them how to treat their donkeys properly, and guide them on the feeding and resting processes. We give them medicine and food items for free at the end. Between 18 to 50 donkeys can be treated in one camp; one camp costs Rs20,000."
Sometimes, the administration is compelled to take weak and dehydrated donkeys back to the shelter with them.
During my internship, I have wandered numerous times over to the donkey pen to see them acting like dogs. Quirky and playful, they respond when called out by their names, and bound over to play with anyone who visits them.
"All they need is love," explains Wajiha, and laughs, as donkeys Marvin and Juno try to nuzzle us.
While the shelter and donkey camps keep everyone busy, ACF doesn't stop there.
See: Animal abuse, in the name of protest
Interacting with Dr Farid, who is the animal vet at the shelter, I learned that the ACF has a spay-neuter program which has been designed to help reduce the spreading of rabies within the city.
Here, they spay each female dog before releasing her back onto the roads.
"We neuter the males as well which means we inject a solution to make them sterile. This ensures effective control of rabies, and also those who attempt to use dogs illegally for breeding purposes won’t be able to take advantage of them."
The foundation has also introduced the "Sponsor a pet" program for all those wishing to help.
Interested animal-lovers can choose a pet they would like to adopt. They can act as the "owner", pay for their pet’s monthly expenses, and even give it a name, while the shelter administration sends them their pet’s monthly progress report, complete with pictures from different angles.
The perfect fit for me
My work at the foundation has, in my opinion, been limited. But my growth has been phenomenal.
I love animals and have always wanted to work against animal abuse that is so rampant in Pakistan, and at ACF, I found the perfect opportunity to do just that.
Initially, my main focus was on helping the administration getting the files sorted, and so on. A week into the internship, I was done an hour early, and stepped out to explore the shelter.
Sitting on the bench, I was thrilled to find dogs of all shapes and sizes running up to me.
See: Is KU's mass dog-killing spree the only solution?
Demanding to be petted, they wouldn't let up. I looked around, observing the shelter inhabitants; most with four legs, some with one or two less.
As soon as a visitor would enter, all the animals would run to that person and demand to be petted. I thought to myself: these animals are all strays, hardly pampered pedigrees in air-conditioned houses.
They’ve all been abused and tortured by humans, yet they have unwavering faith in us and want nothing but love.
I looked ahead and saw Bano aunty, who works as a cleaner at the ACF. Her husband had thrown five bottles of acid on her and had disfigured her face completely, a little over 10 years ago.
Refusing to step out of her house in over six years, Ayesha encouraged her to seek therapy in 2013. This empowered her to emerge from her reclusion and begin interacting with those around her.
With therapy and surgery, she began working at the foundation, now earning a respectable pay compared to the pittance she would accumulate through odd jobs earlier.
I watched as Bano aunty handed out food to the animals; the dogs adored her.
Shunned by society, here, she was far from all discrimination. She loved the animals and they reciprocated the love unconditionally.
Viewing them, I felt like an outcast for a moment, watching this 'unwanted' members of our community unite in a tender, unwavering bond of their own.
"All they need is love," I repeated Wajiha's words, as I went back home that day. And I vowed then to do just that for Pakistan's abused animals.
—Photos provided by the ACF