“Kindness to animals has no boundaries” is both the tagline of Animal-Kind International (AKI) and the kernel of its mission statement. The New Mexico-based nonprofit was founded in 2007 to support partner organizations in developing nations where animal welfare is not often a priority and local financing is scarce.
Anyone from a wealthy country who has traveled in poorer regions of the planet knows firsthand the initial shock of witnessing the maltreatment and neglect of animals. We’ve seen stones thrown at dogs in Tibetan villages, starving cats in Egyptian airports and South African townships, and terrified cats and dogs in bamboo cages in Chinese food markets. Coming from cultures where companion animals are treasured and spoiled by many — and a wide range of animal rescue organizations exist to help those animals who aren’t — we feel helpless, numbed and powerless to alleviate suffering.
Faced with the same shock, AKI founder and director Karen Menczer decided to do something about it. When she traveled to Central and South America in her role as a biodiversity specialist for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in in the early 1990s, she sought out local vets and animal rescue people. “Back then there weren’t nearly as many as there are now,” she says, “but I would find them, and I would try and help them.”
One of the first rescuers she met was Francesca Crosa in Paraguay. “She was thought of as a crazy person because she rescued dogs and cats,” Menczer reports. “That was the first time I really tried to help somebody. In Latin America, nobody cared about dogs back then. It’s a little different now. It has improved.”
Over the years, Menczer developed a network of friends in the animal welfare world in every country where she worked. Some of these organizations, such as the Uganda Society for the Protection and Care of Animals, receive grants from AKI to support local animal welfare programs. AKI is the rare nonprofit that can say 100 percent of the funds raised go to their partner organizations.
Menczer can’t remember a time when she wasn’t close to animals. The family dog, Candy, “was not even a year older than I was, I must have just glommed on to her in my eye and brain, and all I wanted was for that dog to love me.”
When Candy died at age 13, “it was the first time I saw my father cry, and I stayed out of school for three days,” Menczer recalls.
Menczer’s first memory of different cultural attitudes toward animals was a trip to Spain when she was five, where her family witnessed a bullfight. “My mother told me they were vaccinating the bull,” she remembers, but the cruelty deeply distressed her. After the family moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico, when Menczer was twelve, they sometimes visited Juarez, Mexico. She was upset by the sight of underfed and neglected donkeys and street dogs.
By the age of 15, Menczer was volunteering at the Animal Humane Association of New Mexico, playing with puppies, and cleaning dog and cat cages. “My parents were inspiring. My mother always volunteered on the phones.”
Menczer finds it hard to find words to describe her connection to animals. “If I see a dog, or wildlife, or sometimes it’s cats, I get this feeling that I think is like somebody who’s a mother, which I have never been, but I feel that for animals.”
Passion fills Menczer’s voice as she talks about her own companion animals and the work of some of AKI’s partner organizations, now in 11 countries. A cattery in Uganda was recently upgraded with a sturdy weatherproof metal pen thanks to a generous $1,500 donation. It houses 25 cats who will be adopted out to Ugandan families and expatriates working there.
A humane education program run by the Ghana SPCA teaches schoolchildren the concept of kindness toward other species — as well as each other — through “kindness clubs.” Spay and neuter clinics reach rural Namibia. Dogs are rescued off the streets of Jamaica, and then healed and rehomed by Menczer’s longtime friend, Deborah Binns, and her organization, Kingston Community Animal Welfare.
Not every animal can be rescued, but Menczer shares a recent story with a happy ending. In Uganda, she and SPCA shelter manager Alex Ochieng were at a busy outdoor market buying uniforms for the staff. “We heard a cat meowing and saw it with its tail hanging off, burned.”
Ochieng immediately said they needed to do something, and asked people to find a box for the cat. “People thought it was the very strangest thing,” Menczer reports. They finally put the cat in her knapsack and zipped it up. The gray male’s tail was amputated, and he now lives at the shelter. They named him Nakasero, after the market where he was found. Nakasero will either be adopted or live out his life well cared for and loved at the shelter.
AKI and its partner organizations are making headway dog by dog, cat by cat and donkey by donkey. In wealthier countries with a middle class and disposable income, “we think of pets as family,” says Menczer. “Very few Africans would say that a dog or cat is part of the family, but I think that’s changing.”
She reels off a list of longtime friends and colleagues who simply love animals and want to help them, even though it is frowned upon in their cultures. There is the engineer in Liberia who loves dogs and wanted books about them for his children; Aby, a cat-loving volunteer in Liberia; Morris, who founded the Liberian Animal Welfare and Conservation Society; and the Kenyan-born Ochieng, of whom Menczer says, “You couldn’t have a more warm person who cares more about animals and will go out of his way to help an animal.”
“Being kind to animals is being kind to people too,” Menczer points out. AKI’s partner organizations provide employment to people while rescuing animals and raising consciousness about the value of respecting other species.
Menczer points to the role of social media in changing cultural attitudes toward animals. Those who have internet access, especially the growing middle class in many countries, see the cute kitten and dog agility videos that show “how crazy we are over animals.”
In response to some people who question whether resources should go to animals in areas where humans are suffering and impoverished, Menczer believes, “As long as you do something in life that’s useful, and you have some compassion and passion, then that’s a great thing, go for it. I think human welfare gets a lot of attention and animals don’t. There are so many people helping children, and women entrepreneurs, and my thing is animals. When we are helping animals, we are helping people too.”
AKI’s board carefully vets partner organizations each year. They don’t set specific requirements for what grantees do; instead, they look for organizations that can communicate clearly about their activities and results, and that are financially accountable.
Partner organizations themselves determine how best to use AKI funds, as they are more aware of needs on the ground. The work includes humane education in Ghana and Liberia; hands-on rescue of abused animals in Jamaica, Armenia and Bosnia; and various shelters and adoption programs. There is a strong emphasis on spaying and neutering. AKI’s support of partner organizations also enables them to pay salaries to staff, and keeps up morale in countries where caring for animals may still be regarded as at best a luxury and at worst a little crazy, so that staff and volunteers feel good about what they do.
Menczer’s continued contract work with USAID enables her to visit many of AKI’s partner organizations on a regular basis. It also gives her an extensive network of friends and colleagues who travel frequently and can securely hand-carry donations, thereby avoiding expensive bank and wire transfer fees. This, as well as volunteers who provide necessary services such as website management and graphic design, enables AKI to give all funds raised to partner organizations.
Menczer feels that AKI’s work contributes to a greater kindness in the world. “There is a link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans,” she observes. Even though her energy is focused on helping animals, Menczer is inspired by the innumerable helpful and compassionate people she has met. She shares that she is happy “knowing that sometimes something that I do keeps them going.”
Animal-Kind International intends to continue growing in a sustainable manner. Last year’s $47,000 budget went a long way in supporting its 11 partner organizations, and every year they hope to raise a little more. Donors can choose to support a specific partner organization in a country they feel connected to, or let AKI’s staff choose according to their assessment of greatest need.
All of AKI’s partner organizations are extensively documented on their website: www.animal-kind.org.
People looking for animal welfare organizations as they travel can find them by going to www.worldanimal.net.
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