Her very own animal planet

Last Updated : 21 May 2010, 09:52 IST

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It’s 7 pm on a sultry evening. The phone rings at Animal Aid in Udaipur. A cow is sick on the road and cannot get up. Within minutes, an ambulance — a Tata 207 Pickup — is on its way to help. At the site, the animal is given primary aid, picked up and brought to the hospital, where surgeons are already on stand by. It’s at this juncture that Claire Abrams (20) takes over to ensure that the wounded cow is given the best possible treatment.
When Claire is not working online — with her parents, Erika Abrams and Jim Myers — raising funds and recruiting volunteers, or delivering talks on compassion for animals at schools as a way of involving children to help street animals, she is usually at the hospital.

The Abrams have lived in Udaipur’s Chota Hawala village since 1999, looking after “abandoned, the feral, the gracious and rambunctious street animals”.
They had started a hospital in the village in 1999 but have recently shifted it to a new, better facility 10 minutes away, near Udaipur’s TB Hospital. “Each day, there are around 250 animals in our care,” says Claire.

‘India is home’
Her parents began coming to India as tourists in the early 1990s. At the time she was only four or five years old. The couple soon fell in love with the country and got a strong feeling this was where the family was meant to settle down. They began living in Udaipur for a few weeks but gradually the stays lengthened and, in 1999, they built a home in Chota Hawala. This was when they realised they could help the beautiful, nameless, street-dwelling, often hungry, ill or injured animals in the city.

“We settled in Udaipur because it was a small and peaceful place and it was safe for me as a young child to wander through the streets, make friends with other kids, without my parents worrying about my safety. Mom and Dad decided long back that eventually we would shift to Udaipur permanently, but because of my grandmother in the States we had to wait some years to make the complete shift,” says Claire.

Garnering local support
In 1999, Udaipur had no treatment facility for ownerless animals who suffered from hunger, chronic dehydration, broken limbs and maggot-infested wounds. In 2002, Animal Aid Unlimited was registered in USA as a charitable organisation.

The mission was to bring relief to suffering animals. “We began by hiring a local man who had been for many years an outspoken advocate for animals. During the first six months, he simply walked around the city picking up stray, injured and ill animals and delivering them to a government animal facility that had inadequate and dirty cages, no medicine, and a staff who could not be counted on even to provide regular water. We obtained permission from the facility for our Animal Aid staff to be allowed to feed and water the animals,” Claire explains.

Today, a dedicated staff of 20, including three veterinary surgeons, makes Animal Aid a life-saving force for thousands of animals every year. Most of the animals treated here are released back into the neighbourhoods they came from. But the hospital becomes a permanent home for those who cannot live independent lives. On any given day, there are about 45 dogs in the kennel, 28 cows — including calves — in the paddock and around 20 donkeys that have been freed forever from their painful work. The sanctuary is surrounded by lush agricultural fields, and the chatter of birds and monkeys that live in the trees around only make living here a pleasurable experience.

More than half of the rescued animals live at Animal Aid permanently because they are either crippled, very old, blind or semi-paralysed, and cannot be sent back to the streets.
“We are always sad to return them, but we must do so in order to give room to the next wounded creature who needs our help,” says Claire, matter-of-factly.

Whenever an animal is released, Animal Aid makes a call to the person who had informed them of it in the beginning — “to tell him that we are now releasing the animal because he/she is fit and healthy, and to request him to call us again in case the animal meets with any further problem.”

Compassion unlimited
Claire went to school in the States until high school “and then I was home-schooled”.
She has made ‘Compassion For Animals’ presentations to about 25,000 kids in 120 Udaipur schools, between 2005 and 2009. “And,” she hastens to add, “15,000 Udaipur residents have sprung to action by calling Animal Aid to report suffering street animals since 2002. The people have been very supportive on the whole.”

But when they started out, did they face cynicism? Did people not doubt them? “No,” she answers. “We did not face cynicism because I think everyone could see that we were willing to give up the luxuries of the West to dedicate our lives to saving street animals in a rural part of India, that we are honest and trustworthy people. Also, my family is Animal Aid’s biggest donor, so there is no issue over the source of the funds.”

Claire in not a citizen of India, but says she has always felt that India is her home. “So I have never had the wish to go back to the States, although I do go back once every two years to see family and siblings. I’m not yet a citizen of India on paper, but in my heart I am.”

In fact, she speaks flawless Hindi. “I learned Hindi in Udaipur. I didn’t learn it academically, but picked it up from my friends.” As for her other friends, she has them in plenty — “each one of them has either fur or feathers, hooves or tails, bills or muzzles.” And even as I wonder what made this 20-year-old give up so much for the sake of animals, she asks: “Did you ever scratch a donkey under his chin? Have you ever bottle-fed a baby goat? Ever helped a dog that has lost her leg to learn to walk again?” It’s never lonely in this animal planet it seems.
Women’s Feature Service

Published 21 May 2010, 09:52 IST

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