November 2014. I was one month into a three-month stay volunteering for a street dog charity in India. Back in London I had a lovely life, I was earning good money and, as a happily single 38-year-old woman, I was enjoying the freedom to do what I wanted. But I’d started to get bored just thinking about me.
On a holiday to India a few years earlier I’d been very affected by the plight of the street dogs, so one evening I hit Google and came across a charity in Rajasthan, called Tree of Life For Animals (TOLFA). They were looking for volunteers so I applied.
To my surprise (and slight alarm) someone got straight back to me. A few weeks later I came home a little bit drunk from a night out and booked my ticket.
Arriving in India
India is an assault on the senses, let alone volunteering at a charity there. TOLFA is a shelter and veterinary hospital dedicated to the rescue and care of India’s vulnerable animals.
Many of the dogs there were in a shocking state, yet I was bowled over (quite literally sometimes) by how affectionate they were. I was a nurturing volunteer and it was my job to cuddle orphaned puppies and spend time in the kennels giving TLC.
One afternoon I came into the main office for a chai (tea) break, when I spotted a cardboard box by the desk, containing what looked like a pile of old blankets. Then I saw a pair of amber eyes looking up at me and the tiny creature swaddled up inside.
There was something about that direct gaze that made me feel an instant connection.
Kneeling down, I carefully lifted the puppy out. He was filthy and skinny, his shrivelled back legs dangling limply beneath him. TOLFA’s rescue truck had been out answering another call when they’d spotted him lying by the side of the road.
He was only a few months old and very weak, but his spirit was unmistakable. We called him Pedro, or ‘Wee Pedro’ as he became known to me. I’d already met lots of paralysed dogs at TOLFA – road traffic accidents in India are common.
Pedro’s condition was something he’d probably been born with. Not that he let it stop him! Within hours of arriving he was shuffling around at high speed in the thick of the action.
Everyone loved Pedro, but he and I had a special bond. He would follow me everywhere, often sitting on my foot so I’d know he was there. I loved his ‘can-do’ attitude and positivity. Even when he struggled physically, he’d just pick himself up and try again.
Pedro was gregarious, but he also had an innate wisdom. In the beginning he depended on me to help him. As time went by, it became the other way round. When I was feeling homesick or overwhelmed we’d go and sit in our favourite spot in the sun.
Each time I held him I was reminded how fragile he was, yet there was such composure to him and a deep calmness would come over me, a moment of peace and stillness amongst the chaos and colour.
My trip to India had also been the proverbial ‘finding myself’ mission. I’d thought I’d find enlightenment through the teachings of some guru, or at the top of a mountain, but certainly not in the bones of a tiny, paralysed street dog.
It was hard to leave Pedro, but I knew I’d be going back to see him. Back home, when I was feeling a bit lost or down, or plagued by the familiar doubts and anxieties, I’d think of my little mate haring around on his backside nearly 5,000 miles away and it would make me smile.
My step would become lighter and nothing would seem so much of a problem. I called it my daily dose of ‘Pedro Positivity’. I couldn’t wait to see him again.
I was at a friend’s house when I received the message that Pedro had died. He’d been under the weather for a few days and a member of staff had found him one morning curled up under a tree. It might have been a virus, or maybe his little body had just gotten him as far as it could.
I needed to express my grief for this funny little dog that no one knew, in a foreign land far away, so I wrote a Facebook post to ‘Wee Pedro’ that night, saying how a light had gone out in the world. I expected people to think I’d lost the plot, or that it was the most self-indulgent post ever. The response I received was touching and lovely.
Going back to TOLFA a year later was very emotional but I felt like Pedro was still around, both in his essence and in the other dogs there. Many have suffered terribly at the hands of a human being, but they bear no ill will or malice.
It made me think about all the grudges I’ve held in the past and how it was a waste of time and energy – the only person I was hurting was myself. Spending time with these inspirational animals taught me about the power of forgiveness.
Volunteering for a frontline animal charity can be challenging and upsetting. Some animals do die, no matter what. But they are also inspiring and uplifting places, full of hope and resilience.
Pedro died in 2015 and I still think about him every day. Before, I’d always been a worrier but now I see life – as well as people – much more favourably. I now try to be braver and more adventurous, even with seemingly small things.
Pedro taught me that role models come in the unlikeliest of forms and that we shouldn’t overlook ourselves, or others, because we’re not deemed ‘perfect’ or ‘important.’ Pedro was left to die at the side of the road like a piece of rubbish, yet here I am writing about him now, and how he has changed me at every level.
Here’s to living with a bit of ‘Pedro Positivity’ every day.
Take your own volunteering journey
Big charities like Dogs Trust and the RSPCA are often oversubscribed with dog walking and kennel volunteers, so if you want ‘hands on’ contact with animals, try local charities and rescue centres – Instagram is handy for finding them. The Greyhound Trust always needs walkers.
What kind of animals do you want to help and in which country? Do some Google research to explore the opportunities. Make sure the charity is registered and find out beforehand if they provide accommodation, transport etc. Lots of the bigger organisations charge a fee for volunteering programs.
If volunteering in countries like India, it is essential that you get all the right vaccinations beforehand and a reputable charity will insist on this. Check what you need with your doctor or a travel clinic.
If you can’t go abroad, you can still fundraise at home and help charities. TOLFA aren’t currently taking volunteers but you can get involved in other ways. Visit their website or find them on Instagram.
Photography by Jo Carnegie and various photographers on Shutterstock.