By Duncan Strauss
To hear Erika Abrams tell it, she’d barely ventured outside of the Seattle area before all this happened.
By “all this,” I’m referring to Animal Aid Unlimited, the rescue operation, animal hospital, and sanctuary––in India––that Abrams co-founded with her husband and daughter in 2002.
“It was my husband’s idea to visit India, because he had come as a young man,” Abrams recalled in an April 4 Talking Animals interview. “He is 77 now, but when he was 19, he came to India for the first time.
“We met much later, when I was 30, and I really had traveled very little out of Seattle. In 1986, he said ‘Let’s go,’ and I dreaded it. I thought ‘Oh my God, it’s going to be poor people, and it’s going to be dirty, and I’m not going to like it. I’ll be scared.’
“Within about 10 minutes of arriving in Mumbai, my world was transformed and I was so happy to be there. It was exotic, interesting, smiles from everybody, 360 degrees of smiles.
“And then a huge appeal was the presence of animals on the street. And at the time, I was very naïve about what that meant for the animals. I was only romantically enjoying seeing cows and pigs and goats just wandering on the street.”
Well, we’ve already provided a spoiler to the plot of this tale: In launching Animal Aid Unlimited, we know that Abrams and her family took a significant step toward helping those animals on the street she’d been so charmed by.
But there’s a lot more to this story, including themes of awakening and transformation.
We see hints of this in Abrams’ comments thus far, and there’s a profound ripple effect in the metamorphosis experienced by the Abrams family, as well as an underlying inclination to pay it forward.
The early parts of this video are tough to watch, but stay with it, as the folks from Animal Aid Unlimited, India, rescue a dog suffering with mange and lying neglected on the side of the road. Nursed back to health, the canine’s recovery is as amazing as it is heartwarming.
Much as that 1986 visit was eye-opening for the family (her husband is Jim; their daughter, Claire) it didn’t spur them to do anything drastic, like pick up and move to India. Not immediately, anyway.
But they did start making periodic return trips over the years, often involving extended stays.
Much as these longer stints enabled them to roam across much of India, they reached a point where they decided they needed to curtail that wanderlust, to provide Claire the stability she increasingly craved.
“She was born in 1989, ” Abrams explains, “so she was like three or four when we first started to bring her to India.
“And we would just stay for a few weeks, and than a couple of months. As the years passed, she hated traveling. So, she had some little friends here in Udaipur, and just on that note, it seemed like ‘Why don’t we just go deep instead of broad, and get to know this almost random community better than we otherwise would.’
“And maybe I would understand India more deeply by staying put, rather than traveling.”
One notable by-product of hunkering down in Udaipur––actually, initially, it was a village about 10-15 minutes outside of Udaipur––was seeing more clearly the challenges faced by the dogs and other animals living on the streets.
When the street animals fell ill, there was no veterinary care for them. “There were a couple of private vets, but they didn’t have very much experience with dogs, and they were more government vets,” she said.
“Most of the vet training is oriented in India toward dairy production, artificial insemination and animals that are used in farming.
“When we first started to want to get help for street animals, the light bulb went off that they have nobody. I looked very diligently to find somebody else who was already doing that in Udaipur, so that we could support them, and maybe help expand whatever they were doing.
“We looked and looked, and there truly was nobody doing it. So that was the ‘a-ha” moment for us, and for me, of saying ‘Wow, if we’re going to get them help, we actually have to do something ourselves.’
“That was a monumental declaration because I had never helped animals in any organized way––only spontaneously, like the dogs and cats and the occasional fallen bird, and that was the extent of it. ”
Undeterred by this glaring lack of experience but recognizing the critical need––and with Jim and Erika both having worked in the fund-raising, strategic planning, writing, and consulting sides of nonprofit organizations (generally, health care and education-oriented)––they forged ahead.
“When you start, it becomes so much easier when you’re fueled by the individual animals,” she said, noting the animals’ needs continually trumped any uncertainty or greenness they felt.
She suggested that this is likely to be a universal phenomenon amongst those who create rescue organizations, propelled more by the mission at hand than having a resume that suggests being equipped to execute that mission.
‘The One Dog Who Saves Thousands of Lives’: Animal Aid Unlimited co-founder Erika Abrams speaking at a TEDx event.
Still, she recalls some challenges in the earliest days that probably weren’t nearly as universal. “One of the problems when we actually launched was people didn’t have cellphones, and they didn’t have landlines.
“Telephones were almost non-existent in our area of Udaipur. So it’s hard to run a rescue service when people don’t know you exist, and there are no phones. Initially, we didn’t have a good rescue vehicle, and our staff weren’t very well trained. We ourselves didn’t know very much about how to rescue, and our vet was a wonderfully nice person that we hired right away, but he didn’t have very much experience, he was fresh out of university. He had a really lovely attitude, but there were not very many colleagues that he could turn to. None in Udaipur. So it was such a makeshift operation.”
I think it’s safe to say that Animal Aid Unlimited has come a long way, baby.
It now a well-oiled, multi-faceted operation that functions as rescue facility, animal hospital, and sanctuary, depending on the immediate short term and long term needs of the critter in question.
By the numbers, Animal Aid Unlimited houses some 700 animals overall, including about 110 large animals, about 40 donkeys or cows that live there permanently, in addition to those who arrive for treatment. There are also chickens, a few pigs, goats and sheep. There are three vets and numerous volunteers, many who’ve been with Animal Aid for numerous years.
A guiding principle that’s come to characterize the organization is embracing–and espousing––vegetarian and vegan values “everywhere we go, to try to save more animals.”
And for an enterprise that started off without any phones of any kind, Animal Aid now boasts an enormously sophisticated and prolific social media presence, most notably on YouTube.
Animal Aid Unlimited provides a permanent, safe home for street dogs disabled after being hit by cars. Carts—‘angel wheels’––allow the dogs almost normal mobility.
While she also holds down the duties of hospital manager, Claire Abrams Myers works as videographer, and in that role has posted, over the last five years, more than 150 videos on YouTube. These tend to be before-and-after pieces, rescue videos with happy endings, and have generated an aggregate total of 270 million views.
When persuaded to reflect on these and other achievements-“forced” might be more accurate than “persuaded”; Abrams is consistently humble and self-effacing––she allows that she’s pleased with what they’ve accomplished, including helping fledging animal organizations in India and beyond travel a similar path.
I also can’t help thinking there must be countless animals who are counting their blessings that Erika Abrams overcame her reluctance in 1986 and took that first trip to India.
About the Author: Combining his passions for animals, radio, journalism, music and comedy, Duncan Strauss launched Talking Animals at KUCI in California in 2003. Since late 2005 the show has aired on Tampa’s WMNF. Producer-host Strauss lives in Jupiter Farms, FL, with his family, including four cats, two horses and one dog. He spends each day talking to those animals, and maintains they talk right back to him, a claim as yet unverified by credible sources.