Ayesha says, “For many of us, it has become and will always be the way of life. And we cannot be more grateful to all those who have united to make this possible.” Image Credit: Supplied

Ayesha Chundrigar was twenty-four- years old when she established the Ayesha Chundrigar Foundation (ACF) in Karachi. The formation of ACF in July 2014 was simply an extension of Ayesha’s lifelong empathy and concern for all living beings, especially the be-zeban: animals. According to ACF’s website, “Compassion for the underdog is central to Ayesha’s vision. Since a young age, she has always felt a connection to those who were usually ignored and neglected. Ayesha has been rescuing animals since the age of five, from coloured baby chicks to birds sold in claustrophobic, tiny cages to set them free, to abused and injured dogs, cats, goats, cows and donkeys.”

ACF, located on almost one acre and staffed with fifty fabulous people who rescue, look after, and love unwanted animals, has, so far, rescued over eighty-five hundred animals, and helped over fifteen thousand through its outreach programmes.

As Ayesha says, “For many of us, it has become and will always be the way of life. And we cannot be more grateful to all those who have united to make this possible.”

What Ayesha and her team does is nothing less than pure heroism, courage and nobility that changes—with every broken animal they rescue, heal and love—our society to be kinder, better, more inclusive.

I asked the founder and president of ACF Ayesha Chundrigar a few questions:

Who was your first rescue?

Ayesha Chundrigar: There is one of my earliest rescues whom I’ll never ever forget. It was a cold December 2014 day. A mother dog’s head had been beaten in so badly her eyeballs popped out, her entire face almost destroyed. Nothing but bones and blood. Lying in the middle of a congested road in Saddar, people stepping over her body, she had four-five puppies around her. She hardly had any breath left in her, but I think she forced herself to stay alive for them. Even in that state she was feeding them. Seeing that I realized that it was the love of a mother. In her condition she somehow stayed alive for the sake of her puppies because of her concern to protect them.

In a rented van, I brought her to my then shelter. With the help of a vet, we tried to bandage her. I fed her puppies. She was struggling to breathe, holding on for her babies. I sat with her, consoling her that if she needed to let go, she should. I promised her I’d take care of her babies. And strangely she let go. She died. I felt that she understood what I was saying. Seven years and four shelters later, I still have her puppies. I stuck to my promise.

Making an animal shelter, the first of its kind in Pakistan, was clearly an act of love. What is ACF’s story?

I wouldn’t call ACF an animal shelter. I’d say ACF is the first of its kind movement—of kindness and [importance of] animal rights. I’ve travelled everywhere, and I’ve studied animal welfare, shelter science and shelter medicine. I’m very proud to say that what we do is so unique it’s simply wonderful.

We have about five different species living with us. We have massive areas for everyone to hang out and have their own space. ACF is more like a home not a shelter. It’s a hospital, a special needs home, an orphanage, an old age home, a sanctuary. It’s the most hopeful and beautiful place in the entire country. And I am not being biased. Anyone who visits ACF, they leave a little different, a little changed, deeply moved—at the beauty and the hope that you feel when you are at ACF. It’s therapeutic. If you go to a pet market or a zoo, you leave feeling drained of energy and hope as you sense the helplessness of those animals. In pet markets and zoos, animals are confined to cages, whereas I believe in a cageless sanctuary. All my animals—be they three-legged, paralysed, blind, or deaf—run around. Everyone is happy in this very wonderful place.

I see it as more of a movement because along with what we do and all our outreach projects we essentially create awareness, and we educate. I work on the grassroots level of education, and that is to teach empathy. It is teaching to do something for those who cannot do anything for you. The vision behind ACF is to take care of and to give a voice to the most vulnerable, abused, and neglected segment of society.

What is your reaction to the culling of dogs, and what steps have the ACF taken to convince the Sindh government to review its approach to dealing with stray animals?

Any sort of cruelty to animals is bad. Humans are the only species on the planet that kill for fun. Other species kill for survival and food but not for fun. As much as we have that instinct, we also have the capacity for empathy. It the choice of every human being if they prefer to exercise their capacity for empathy or their capacity for cruelty. The onus is on every individual who kills an animal.

All animals are innocent. Dogs are innocent; if you provoke a dog, only then a dog retaliates.

It is our collective societal dilemma; I was also a victim of this mindset growing up here. We are so prone to take animals as the “Other” because animals don’t look like us. If we don’t understand their behaviour, we just think of harming or killing them. That is the first sign of how intolerant we are towards anything that is different. It is the opposite of what we should be teaching our children. We should be teaching them to embrace and celebrate “different” because no two people, no two species are alike. And that is the most beautiful thing about the world: to open your mind to understand difference.

ACF has been doing trap-neuter-vaccinate-release (TNVR) for the last three years. We respond to reports from all over Karachi. We neuter, vaccinate, and collar dogs. We also distribute educational materials and visual aids to educate people about our work and why it works.

ACF has created the concept of neighbourhood pets; we tell people to adopt stray dogs in their areas and feed them leftovers from home, the stale rotis and bones that you don’t feed humans. Fill a clay bowl with your leftovers, and another one with water, and you would be saving so many lives. Call our team; we will TNV the dogs in your area, and you can take care of them. That is how we have developed the concept of neighbourhood pets. Three years of continuous work, and we are now at a successful point.

No change comes about overnight; everything takes time. You must be patient, consistent, farsighted, and work with a strategy. What I do is first I showcase my work because my work focuses on changing mindsets. I do that to show our society what it is that I do, and that what I do works.

Image Credit: Supplied

That is what I did with my shelter, animal welfare in general, and TNVR. People started to call us because they understood that culling was counterproductive. There is scientific proof that culling does not work at all. In fact, the number of dogs grow as their survival instinct kicks in, just like any species, and they end up mating more. That is the reason why the city authorities’ claims of killing so many dogs fall flat, and the number of dogs keeps increasing.

The only humane way is to neuter them. To achieve good results for anything, especially if you are dealing with lives, any kind of lives, one must come from a place of knowledge, understanding and empathy, rather than from a place of violence and emotion.

I’m very grateful that the authorities have taken notice of our work. Our offer to them is that we are willing to train their staff and give all our services. We are happy to address any of their complaints. Getting here been a very slow and a very tough journey, but I’m hopeful that they will continue to take notice, and more positive steps will be taken.

Share with the readers some of the truly incredible work ACF does to make ours a kinder world for stray and abandoned animals.

Much of what I said in the beginning of the last answer could be taken for this one too. ACF is essentially founded on the vision of taking care of the most abused and neglected of society, the ones whose pain is completely ignored. Since my childhood I could not fathom why the suffering of animals was ignored. I believe in empathy. It is very different from sympathy. Empathy is when you genuinely feel someone’s pain, it makes you restless and uncomfortable, you are unable to bear it, and you will do anything in your power to help end that suffering.

If you have a passion that you truly believe in, you are truly consistent even when you just want to give up all hope, when you persevere in the hardest of times, and when you don’t see any way out, the universe makes space for you to be able to do what you wish to do. That is how your dreams come true.

I think this is a message more suited for the younger generation. Many people say to me, “You are a hero, you are an angel, you are the chosen one to be able to do all this.” And I say I’m not. I was just a girl who couldn’t stand what I was seeing, and I wanted to make a difference. ACF is a bunch of likeminded people who have the same fire within them to make a difference. That doesn’t mean this work is easy, or we are the chosen people. We choose to be brave when things are terrifying, and that is the only way you ever know if you are brave.

I spread awareness. I focus a lot of our energy on outreach. In our medical camps for donkeys, we give free treatment, water, and food. We provide harnesses and carts to donkey owners. We educate them on how to treat their animals better. We educate their children—who will be taking over their fathers’ business—to treat their donkeys better.

I have designed every programme to benefit animals and humans simultaneously because we are interconnected in the ecosystem—be it through our TNVR for stray dogs or our donkey medical camps. We do many things, in our capacity, to make a difference. It is not a good thing if you have hundreds of animals at your shelter. That is not a success story. That means you are failing. The aim should be that the streets become so safe for stray dogs, donkeys, and cats that no one harms them. That you are not needed any more. That is my long-term vision.

I want my work and ACF to become obsolete because the streets have become safe. The moment that happens, I’ll know I have achieved my goal. I might not see that in my lifetime, but then I wasn’t expecting to stand here nine years later, achieving everything that we have achieved. I’m always positive. I hope better things will happen.