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New group puts animal welfare first

Disease, infection and poor nutrition plague a huge number of the stray cats and dogs that live in Phnom Penh. Photo by: KENNETH INGRAM

ANSWERING a call for help, distant strangers are banding together with their notepads, mobile phones and laptop computers to form a humane society for animals – the first of its kind in Cambodia.

“We are a support group of people who really do care for animals and want to help in any way we can,” explains Theresa de Langis, a volunteer who is assisting the initiative during her short visit to Cambodia from the United States.

Gathering at the capital’s Foreign Correspondent’s Club for their second official meeting last Thursday, four representatives of a group that so far has less than a dozen members established their new collective identity: the Phnom Penh Animal Welfare Society, or PPAWS.

“At first we were thinking of calling it the Cambodian League for Animal Welfare, or CLAWS,” explains Nicola Scales, 47, a science teacher at the International School of Phnom Penh and a volunteer with the new group. “But after some thought [we decided] it sounded too vicious,” she adds with a laugh.

Also in attendance at the meeting was Nguyen Kim Loan, commonly referred to as Madame Loan, a 54-year-old woman whose battle to rescue animals in Phnom Penh was featured in the Post’s 7Days magazine in July which, as it turned out, inspired the others to take action, too.  

“You have profoundly made a difference and everyone wants to support you in one way or another,” says de Langis, offering words of reassurance to Loan, who has amassed a total of 67 dogs and is constantly waiting for responsible animal lovers who are willing to adopt to give a home to the animals she cares for.

Light-hearted whenever possible, the group is seeking long-term solutions for the grim reality facing hundreds, if not thousands, of stray cats and dogs living in Phnom Penh.  

“We see it, we hear it. I just can’t ignore it anymore,” explains Scales, who recites a long list of the various wounds, infections and other ailments she has seen among neglected animals on the streets.

Among the group’s numerous objectives is to shoulder the workload that Loan has carried out for nearly five years, such as securing a regular supply of food for the animals and finding people willing to distribute it. Referring to meeting minutes recorded the previous week, de Langis says that one restaurant owner has come forward to donate leftover hamburger meat. The group also intends to collect food waste from schools in the city if other supplies, such as storage bins, required to keep food cold, can also be attained.

According to members, Madame Loan is spending around US$700 of her own money each month to provide food, shelter and medical care for animals. As a baseline for the estimated operating budget of PPAWS, the volunteers say that funding is the major barrier.

“We are thinking about charging a fee for adoptions,” explains Wenny Kusuma, 48, who works in Phnom Penh for the United Nations and also serves as a volunteer with the group. “In return, we want to provide people with an adoption package that would include pet supplies, a collar, and instructions about how to care for the animal,” she says. But Loan, in response, expressed some concern that a fee might ward off some of those willing to adopt.

The exact details on how PPAWS will operate are far from being set in stone. However, members are in agreement that the animals will not be hand-outs.

“I really wanted to adopt a dog,” says Kusuma, recounting how she first met Loan. “Madame Loan turned me down [at first]. She said, ‘I will not give you a dog because you’ll only be here for a year or two and that is part of the problem, because when it’s time to leave, you’re gonna evict your dog on to the streets and just defer the problem’,” Kusuma recalls.

After a few more discussions, however, Kusuma says she was able to convince Madame Loan to change her mind. The next step for the pair was to head to a rubbish dump.

“We were beating a mound of garbage until they came out and [Madame Loan] said to grab one,” Kusuma, who is now the owner of a female puppy named Felix and an older dog called Buster,” says.

Members of PPAWS are also seeking partnerships with pet store owners, veterinarians and various stakeholders in Phnom Penh, including monks and students.

“We went around to some of the pagodas [where most of the animal outreach takes place] and some people seemed like they were not happy with what we are doing,” says Kusuma. “I think it’s because they were not part of the discussion,” she adds, optimistic that the group can gain more support from the community.

“Most of my students [at the International School of Phnom Penh] like the idea of helping animals because they are free from political connotations,” explains Scales, who says that a plan is in place to have students in secondary school help out as a part of their academic requirement for community service. She says students are presently working on creating a Facebook page for PPAWS.

Eager to utilise social media for their cause, Madame Loan is presently featured in a YouTube video and some PPAWS organisers such as Bill Grant, 70, says Twitter is also helping to attract attention for the cause from overseas.

“We’re on the right track,” says de Langis, who admits that had she not heard of Madame Loan, her short time in Cambodia would have likely been spent watching TV or reading a book.

Open to all who are interested, PPAWS meets this Wednesday evening, August 24 at 6pm. The meeting will take place at Pho de Paris, #260 Monivong  Boulevard near New York Hotel. Contact Theresa de Langis for more information via email at theresa.delangis@gmail.com

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