“You just can’t do this at home!” whoops Rachel, her ecstatic voice once again attempting but failing to compete with the intense buzzing of our Tuk Tuk’s engine, as we weave in and out of the wandering cows and water buffalo sharing the road. Like most volunteers Rachel works full-time back home, she’s a Metropolitan Police Officer and self-confessed animal-lover, sharing her busy life with a rescue dog and cat.
We only met yesterday but have already bonded over a mutual love of animals and keenness to help them, and our driver Bholu couldn’t be speeding us towards a more perfect destination. Just outside the magnificent Rajasthani city of Udaipur is located one of the shiniest jewels in India’s animal welfare crown, the Animal Aid Unlimited sanctuary.
Before even reaching the rescue centre gates, Rachel can’t wait to be handed her daily tasks, and with over 700 animals onsite there’s never a chance of anyone having nothing to do. Jobs are allocated to volunteers depending on experience of handling animals, as well as confidence around them. From farm animals to street dogs, and pretty much everything in between, there are plenty of rescued souls here for everybody to care for.
For example, with little or no animal experience you can brush and bottle-feed calves and baby goats, or spend time gently massaging the paralysed hindlegs of the many canine victims of road accidents, brought here from Udaipur’s hectic streets, but unable to ever be released back for fear of being struck again. As well as regular volunteer jobs, as a vet I was able to put my skills to good use, treating the sick animals and performing operations.
The sanctuary’s animals have over three acres of land to explore, roam, play, and snooze in throughout their days here. Long-stay residents are never confined to kennels or cages, except perhaps for short periods of time during treatment or extreme monsoon conditions. This charity’s mission is to always try to return the injured back to exactly where they came from, if of course it’s safe to do so.
If a rescued animal’s condition is such that even after recovery it’s unable to access or compete for food, escape predators, or avoid traffic due to blindness, lameness, or other disability, then he or she will spend the rest of their lives in complete safety here; enjoying great food, security, serenity, and emotional comfort.
Within seconds of arriving, I’m introduced to the vast array of the centre’s residents. Disabled donkeys who’ve suffered under impossible loads, however if given back to their owners they’d be forced to work again. Huge cows, many with limbs amputated from traffic collisions, or insides so bunged-up from scavenging plastic from roadsides that they require emergency surgery or hospice care.
Orphaned goats, calves, and chickens potter around, rescued from slaughterhouses or abandoned by abattoir trucks on busy motorways. Resident dogs, over the months and years spent here, have not only worked out their indifferences, but also developed friendship packs, some even staking out their own specific areas in the dust. As a lifelong animal-lover, I find the sheer diversity of saved lives all happily co-existing here totally overwhelming; everywhere I look it’s obvious that without Animal Aid Unlimited, none of them would’ve stood a chance.
The charity was set up almost 20 years ago by Jim and Erika Abrams; a warm, deeply philosophical and well-read couple who grew up in 60s middle-class America, eventually crossing paths in Seattle, before relocating to a small hilltop village near Udaipur in this northern state of Rajasthan. “Helping animals is my oxygen”, boasts Jim proudly, his successful background in major gift fundraising and the pair’s numerous trips here in the 90s providing their first steps to creating something more permanent. They began noticing injured street animals, and it broke their hearts.
In those days there was nothing they could do and no one to call, Udaipur had no facility for treating street animals – as is still the case throughout most of India. So instead of “Just doing nothing”, explains Erika, they decided to “Do something instead – to be the gate”, and, “just build a hospital and figure it out later!” Since setting up a prototype clinic nearby, prioritising a shared value system based around conscience and karuna (Hindi for ‘compassion’), Jim and Erika expanded to a purpose-built sanctuary with a separate premises for surgery. Together with over 80 full-time staff, they work hard everyday to maintain and preserve something so special, it really has to be seen to be believed.
Icelandic volunteer Halle, a professional sculptor now based in Florence boasts, “It’s the best place I’ve ever worked”, that she “belongs” here. It doesn’t take long to realise this magical place isn’t just a sanctuary for animals, but for humans too. In a Western society where health and safety guidelines rule, it’s never been more difficult for animal-lovers to get up close and personal to help stray dogs, cats, sheep, goats, cows, or donkeys.
Away from those restrictions, whether stroking, brushing, feeding, or just playing with their new four-legged friends, this place is a haven for two-way animal therapy. Erika agrees, “The number of people who come here to save animals but end-up saving themselves”, she continues, “It’s easy to decompress – just spend ten minutes with an animal and our hearts lift every time.”
Whereas nowadays it’s not uncommon for disgruntled Westerners to experience epiphany moments, throw in their corporate towels and set up animal welfare projects in foreign lands, most focus purely on neutering to prevent stray animal overpopulation.
But Animal Aid Unlimited sets the bar much higher, for as well as daily sterilisation of cats and dogs, animal ambulances administer street treatments, patients are released and collected, cruelty cases prosecuted, schools are visited and local kids educated. The charity has seen an exponential rise in daily, due to increased public awareness and the aid of a network of whistle-blowers, fondly known as ‘complainers’, who pick up their phones to report incidents and cases of abuse to the charity’s freephone hotline.
Indeed, Animal Aid Unlimited’s inclusive attitude means that not only are most full-time staff here from local villages, but volunteers arrive from other parts of India too, often traveling hundreds of miles just to learn basic first aid for animals or overcome their fear of dogs. With all these visiting helpers, from holidaymakers turning up on the day for a few hours, to travelers spending days, weeks, or even longer at the shelter, Erika smiles and shares her dream of “Every volunteering guest leaving feeling more motivated to help animals – anywhere and everywhere.”
Only 10km from the sanctuary in Udaipur city are plenty of activities for visitors like myself to enjoy when not treating patients, fom chaotic narrow streets, to a vast array of historic forts, palaces, museums, galleries, gardens, and temples. Also known as the ‘City of Lakes’, Udaipur is simply stunning, with a guided tour around the corridors and treasures of City Palace (400 INR for personal guide) a fascinating way to spend a few hours learning about local history. Just down from City Palace is the impressive Jagdish Temple (free to enter), with Lake Pichola well-worth exploring by boat (450 INR), including a stop at Jagmandir Island.
The Dharohar Folk Dance, a traditional Rajasthani dancing and puppet show (150 INR), is one of the best seats in the house, or the impressive Monsoon Palace (80INR), a short taxi-ride out of town and recognisable to Bond fans from the film Octopussy. Set in the vast Sajjangarh Wildlife Sanctuary, it’s perfect for panoramic views of Udaipur, wild monkeys, and witnessing mesmerising sunsets over the Aravalli Mountains too.
The culinary scene in Udaipur is just as impressive. The day begins at Reflections By The Lake, a rooftop restaurant perfect for sampling the local Rajasthani breakfast of poha and aloo paratha, washed down with fresh mango juice, whilst spotting eagles, parakeets, pigeons, and waterfowl. For dinner with romantic views of the Old City the Lake Shore Restaurant is a must, and for the ultimate foodie’s experience visitors can learn to cook like a local in one of the city’s many cookery schools, or better still on a personal half-day with a family in their own home (from 3000 INR), learning recipes for daal, curry, chapati, and other delicacies to impress friends with when back on home soil.
The Abrams have created a unique way of life in magically Udaipur. While the city bustles the sanctuary’s safe and calm commune is an oasis of empathy, kindness, and karuna. Erika beams proudly, “Everyone’s invited!”, and any animal-lover would be a complete fool to ignore her.
Need to know
For information about volunteering at Animal Aid Unlimited, as well as how to donate, sponsor an animal, current Covid restrictions, and be inspired by hundreds of animal rescue videos please visit: animalaidunlimited.org. Marc flew to Udaipur via Delhi with Jet Airways (jetairways.com).
Marc Abraham is a TV vet, animal welfare campaigner, and author of ‘Lucy’s Law: The story of a little dog that changed the world’. Marc has long campaigned to end puppy farming in the UK, leading the successful Lucy’s Law 10-year grassroots campaign in Westminster, resulting in new legislation banning commercial third party puppy and kitten dealers in England. Marc is also Secretariat and Co-founder of the All-Party Parliamentary Dog Advisory Welfare Group (APDAWG), helped source rescue dog Dilyn for the Prime Minister and fiancé Carrie Symonds, and is currently campaigning to ban the legal import of sick puppies from overseas puppy farms.