It was a cold winter in China. My first experience with the Chinese New Year while living there was not going well. The school where I taught English was closed for the two-week holiday and my friends were on vacation. All of the shops and restaurants were also closed, with most of the Chinese citizens taking time off to visit their families. It was bitterly cold outside. Harbin was averaging -20 degrees Fahrenheit that winter, and it was impossible to go outside for more than a few minutes without your body going numb. To say I was a bit depressed would be an understatement. I was downright miserable.
Out of sheer desperation, I called up my boss, Aimee. Aimee was originally from Australia but had been living in China for the past fifteen years. She spoke fluent Chinese, knew the city, and was a person I knew I could turn to in times of trouble. Besides running the foreign teachers program at school full time, she and two other girls had grown tired of seeing the terrible neglect of much of the dog population in China and decided to do something about it. With very little money or experience, they began a mission that would later develop into the non-profit organization Harbin Slaughterhouse Survivors (Harbin SHS).
Though the tides are shifting in China today, it can still be a horrific life for many pets. Today, China is changing in large part because of the younger generations. However, Animal abuse is still common. Dogs are routinely beaten and starved. The government only allows certain breeds in the country, and many dogs are ripped from their owner’s arms and instantly killed by police if they are considered “illegal breeds.” Puppy mills are also rampant. Dogs are locked in tiny cages with little food. Their only purpose is to breed more dogs for sale on the streets as pets, or even worse, as meat to the local butcher. Dog meat is still considered a delicacy in many parts of China. It is also believed that torturing the animal helps to tenderize the meat. Dogs are burned, dipped in boiling water, their skin ripped from their muscle. All while still alive and having never once experienced a day of happiness or care.
Of course, I wasn’t thinking about such atrocities when I called my boss and friend. I was simply downcast and thought that taking care of some animals might lift my spirits. “Aimee, I’m going crazy, and I need to help some dogs,” I practically screamed into the phone. She could hear the desperation in my voice and agreed to meet me at the veterinarian an hour later.
The aim of SHS Animal Rescue involves three phases. First, all of the dogs who are rescued from abusive homes, meat trucks, and streets must go to the vet. There, they are put on a nutrition regimen, bathed and de-wormed, and treated for any serious injuries they may have. After they are fully healed physically, they are transferred to a safe house which Aimee and her partners procured with their own money and with help from online donations. While at the safehouse, the animals begin the arduous process of acclimating themselves to “non-threatening” humans and to other dogs. The team’s final and ultimate goal is to find permanent families in America, Canada, and Australia who are willing to adopt these animals, giving them a new home, and a fresh start.
When I arrived at the vet an hour later, I was not prepared for what I was about to experience. Aimee was already there, and she introduced me to the wonderful doctors before guiding me down the narrow steps to the various rooms where they kept the animals. Most of the dogs had been there for a while and were starting to recover. However, some of them were new, and it showed. They barely looked like dogs! I had never seen such emaciated and fragile animals as these. Covered with mange, or matted hair, starved to the point where they could barely lift their heads, and with open wounds left untreated, the poor things were terrified at the slightest movement towards them.
Aimee spent the morning teaching me how to properly feed the animals and introduced me to them by name. The team had taken to giving each of the rescues a funny name to match their appearance or personality. This process made it easier to keep track of the thirty or so dogs that were currently being treated and to make them more appealing for adoption when the time came.
My experience with Harbin SHS that day was both eye-opening and life-changing. I was amazed at the tremendous positive impact these three girls were able to have on the community. The day I spent at the shelter reminded me that I need to quit spending so much time feeling sorry for myself and start looking for ways that I too can be of service.
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