Alex Ochieng, Haven Manager, offers insights into animal sheltering & rescue in Uganda
On Thursday 6th April, Samantha (Sam) Maw interviewed Alex Ochieng, Manager of the Uganda SPCA shelter, The Haven. Here's what they talked about.
I used to live and work in Uganda and made regular visits to the USPCA. I rescued a couple of puppy litters and fostered two young pups during my last year. I even took my class on a school trip there to learn about the work of the USPCA and the vision of Alex Ochieng, its manager. I remember my first visit to the compound very clearly. One of the staff members took me into a room full of puppies, and as they crowded round my feet all desperate for attention, I had tears rolling down my cheeks. The lady discreetly left me as I bent down and petted the sea of wet noses and tiny waggy tails. I told them all not to worry as I was sure they would all find loving homes, but the magnitude of this task overwhelmed me. So many little lives relying on human kindness for survival. When I left Uganda I was put in touch with Animal-Kind International who have been supporting the USPCA for many years. Two years after leaving Uganda I have returned, in support of AKI, to find out how Alex and the rest of the staff are getting on, and what changes have occurred since I was last here. I also got to know my old friend Alex a little bit better.....
How long have AKI been supporting you?
From the very beginning. It’s been 20 years since we started. Karen used to stay in Kampala and then returned to the U.S. Now AKI supports many animal charities all over the world. At the USPCA they pay for rent, salary, transport – everything.
How long have you been working for the USPCA?
This is my fifth year as a manager running this place.
You’re from Kenya – what made you decide to come to Uganda?
In Kenya I was working with wildlife as a Game Warden. In 2007 my relative was a friend to a board member of the USPCA and they connected me. I started working at the USPCA as a caretaker; then they promoted me to Manager. My bosses give me some days off to visit family as they are still in Kenya. If they have time they can come and visit me for a few days.
How has the USPCA grown since you have been here?
There have been very big changes since I started working here. From 2011/12 the followers on our facebook page have shot up and the numbers keep increasing. We are now approaching 4,000 followers. Every single week we update followers with what is going. Since January we have rescued 40 animals - 9 cats/kittens and 31 dogs. Sometimes a mother comes in with 8-10 puppies so since January we have rescued four mothers with more than 20 puppies.
I would like to thank AKI for our new dog pens. The old ones were in bad condition and AKI mobilised its donors to replace them with these new ones. We have built 15 new pens which should hold 5 dogs each. Unfortunately now they are full because the animals keep coming and adoption has been slow. We also don’t have enough space for more pens.
Who brings in the animals when they are injured/ mistreated?
This morning I got a call from Entebbe road about a dog they found in a school. The dog has injured its leg so they want me to go and collect it. In some cases the community find an abandoned or injured animal and call me. Sometimes when I am out doing fieldwork I can find an animal in the street that is suffering so I just bring it here. Most cases it is people calling the USPCA night and day – we are open 24/7.
Do you think people are becoming more aware of how to care for animals here in Uganda?
There has been a change in attitudes over the years. When I joined the USPCA, Ugandans were not aware of how to take care of animals. Because the USPCA is now running educational programmes in schools and in the local communities, people are realising it is important to care for animals. The number of Ugandans to ex-pats now adopting is 50/50. Uganda is so big, in the villages there is still the old mindset about animals. They just chain the dog up to guard against monkeys or intruders. This morning I removed a dog from a home after somebody had given me a tip off. I went there and found the dog in great suffering and he might have died. I brought him back here and our Vet started treatment, so I am hoping he will recover. The dog was full of ticks and needed serious treatment. If the dog is not in bad condition but you are neglecting it, I will visit you and talk to you about how to care for it. If you don’t improve then I will visit you again and give you a warning. If you still don’t improve the D.V.O (District Veterinary Officer) will write me a letter to authorise me to remove the dog from you. It is not just Ugandans that are accountable in this way- it is anyone living in Uganda. The dog I removed this morning was owned by an Indian gentleman. He wasn’t giving the dog food – it would have made you cry.
Many people in Uganda want guard dogs, so they lock them away in small shelters and mistreat them to make them aggressive. I often have people come to me and say, “My dog is not doing his work; he’s not barking; he’s not eating; he’s just sleeping.” However, that dog won’t want to protect you if you mistreat it, fail to feed it and lock it up in isolation for the whole day. It will get very stressed and frightened. I don’t like people taking dogs for security reasons. Keep a dog only if you want it to become part of the family. Training it to follow basic obedience commands is good but training it to become a `guard dog` by beating it is cruel.
What else do you do to encourage the community to take care of animals?
We get donors to sponsor a clinic in a local community. We then go out to the villages and the slums to offer free spaying and veterinary treatment. Recently we went to Kibuli slums and administered free vaccinations and de-worming to 68 animals in just a few hours. Paying for a clinic includes transport for staff, water and food for the day, tents, medicine, veterinary procedures. The Government doesn’t help us at all but we do have a local hotel chain that supports us.
What happens when you are full to capacity and you can’t take any more animals?
We have reached the maximum already but the USPCA is the only shelter in Uganda. If we can’t take the animal it will suffer or die. That is not the right thing to do. We accept the animal anyway – the compound is full of about 10 extra dogs that I can’t fit in the pens. No animal is turned away.
Any recent adoption success stories?
Recently two puppies in very poor condition were brought in. One puppy had to have an operation on one eye. Unfortunately, one of the puppies passed away but the surviving one recovered and went to a good home last month when he was four months old. We also had a dog that came to the centre with very bad mange. Mange is a condition where the skin becomes very itchy and the hair falls out. After treating that dog for two months it survived and we called it `Lucky’. Lucky recently found a good home and he is very happy. There is a condition to adopting the animals at my shelter though; I must go and visit the house and the potential owners first before the dog goes home. The dog will have suffered enough on the street and when it goes to a new home I want it to be loved and happy.
What is your biggest need at the moment?
We have run out of space and also we need to look for a new plot because soon we will be shifted from here as we are just renting. There are many new housing developments in the immediate area and they will soon want to sell this land for developing. Then we will have to move. Where will we go? We need to look for land that is not in town because people will complain about the noise if we move next to them. But land that is outside of town is more expensive. So we are hoping that AKI donors will be able to help with this and this is our current fundraising focus.
There are 15 new kennels with places for the dogs to shelter and sleep and they are all in immaculate condition. The dogs themselves look well cared for and moderately happy. They all line up to greet new visitors with tails wagging furiously and noses pressed against the wire. There's also a cattery with various levels for the cats and kittens to climb on, and scratching posts, toys and blankets to make the pens seem a little more inviting. It’s hard not to fill your car with dogs and cats on the way out because there are so many of them that need a home. But you do get the sense that these animals are the lucky ones and that there are so many that didn’t quite make it. The staff at the USPCA are a small but mighty army of animal crusaders trying to relieve suffering and promote animal welfare in Uganda. Sadly, the premises and its inhabitants are at risk of being moved out to make way for residential developments and Alex is very worried about whether they will be able to afford to continue their vital work elsewhere. AKI can help with this so please donate what you can to make sure the USPCA doesn’t become homeless and can continue its precious, life saving work.
HOW YOU CAN HELP
You can donate through AKI/USPCA's GlobalGiving project https://www.globalgiving.org/projects/transform-ugandas-only-animal-shelter-the-haven
or directly on the AKI website, https://www.animal-kind.org/aki-donate