Sunday, September 27, 2009

Devastation of Manila floods

Last night my partner tells me there's a flood in the Philippines. I often don't keep up with the news and can count on my partner to keep me abreast. She asks me "where does your mom live?" as she's reading news online and looking at photos.... I see "Manila" then "Quezon City". That's where my mom lives. My heart pauses for a moment. Yet I return to my frenzy of getting ready for a business trip. My partner tells me to call my mom. I look at my watch -- it's too early to call her on a Sunday morning (they are 14 hours ahead). I'll call in an hour. Part of me wanting to not believe that the flood could be affecting my mom and my relatives.

In an hour I call. The phone rings and rings and rings. I hang up and try again. I must've dialed the wrong number. Still no answer. I try one
more time. Still no answer.

I email my brother and sister to see if they have gotten a hold of her. No luck. I wake up this morning to images posted on facebook by my cousin in California and a status update that she was able to get a hold of our one cousin on her cell phone: For now my mom is okay. My cousin went to check on her -- I can't even imagine what it took for Edith to get to St. Ignatius Village where my mom lives. My aunt (who is in her 80s) had been missing since Friday. The latest is she has found at the school where she teaches -- she and others have been stranded there for 3 days. Water is up to their shoulders. I pray they have been rescued and are okay.

CNN reports that at least 51 have been killed with at least 21 missing. I have no doubt that number is extremely low and the number will continue to rise.

The photos I have posted here were taken by Savann Oeurm on facebook (thanks to my cousin Didet for sharing). There are images of rescues by the Philippine Red Cross, of children on their parents shoulders walking through waist high brown water, of a man carrying three small white dogs, of dead bodies on a wood plank with only their feet exposed - their body covered by a tarp, of the lifeless body of a grey Benji-like dog - eyes still open.

Please send your prayers and good thoughts to the people and animals of the Philippines ...

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Growing problem of stray dogs in Thailand

In June, 2009 National Geographic reported the following on my home country of Thailand: "Thailand's capital city of Bangkok is struggling to cope with a growing population of stray dogs. It's estimated as many as 300,000 strays wander the streets." [To watch the National Geographic video click here.] A local organization, founded in 2002, Soi Cats and Dogs (SCAD), believes the numbers are higher as many cats are hidden from view. "Soi" is a Thai word that means "alley." I grew up in the heart of the city of Bangkok ... on Rajdamri Road ... i've perused current images of Rajdamri Road on the internet and see wide roads and tall buildings -- luxury hotels and the Bangkok World Trade Center have emerged. I left home when I was 15 and the last time I visited I was 18 or 19. How strange to feel like a foreigner in a country I was born and raised, and a country and culture that have shaped who I am today. I lived a privileged life as a child -- there's no denying that. Yet, I lived in a third-world country where poverty, homelessness (humans and animals), leprosy prevailed. I have memories of lepers begging on dirty streets filled with street vendors - small tin cans in front of them hoping for some kind passerby to drop some coins. I also remember stray dogs and cats ... lots of them. Looking back, it was as if I witnessed life and the horrendous poverty and suffering through a window pane. The poverty and pollution were simply a way of life. Decades later it haunts me now ....

One thing remains a problem ... and has even gotten worse -- the Soi (street/alley) dogs and cats of Thailand. Interesting that my work in animal rescue thousands of miles away, is tapping me on my shoulder to revisit the suffering of these beautiful furry creatures in my home country. The Huffington Post printed an article on the growing problem of stray dogs -- the article is titled "Buddhists Perpetuate Bangkok's Stray Dog Problem." It's a complex problem. "Soft-hearted Buddhists are perpetuating Bangkok's stray dog problem ... Buddhists, 95 percent of all Thais, are taught to revere living creatures and perform selfless acts called 'making merit' that reduce suffering in the next life. Few merit-making acts are as public or entrenched as feeding strays. Each night around dusk, merit-makers across Bangkok dump leftovers in the street - often on a banana leaf or scrap of cardboard to dignify the meal."

"... Exempting the city's sanitized downtown, stray dogs fill Bangkok's streets. They roam the night in packs, eyes glowing green in the headlights' glare, sinking through traffic, toppling trash bins for food ... But in Thailand, most strays are regarded as 'community dogs' which the Humane Society International distinguishes from 'ferals.' Both are homeless, but community dogs stick to one area, receive food from locals and produce bountiful litters. Ferals are wanderers, diseased and desperate, and typically produce weak and puny litters."

"... Giving food is among the simplest and truest
forms of merit making, says Phra Mahajatuphom Thummopalo, a monk and radio disk jockey at Bangkok's Thammongkol temple. Thais, aware of monks' devotion to sustaining all life, often drop their unwanted dogs at temple gates after dark. When food is scarce, he said, monks will actually forego dinner to feed the strays. 'Us monks, we don't know that overfeeding dogs makes more puppies. Maybe the laymen need to educate us," Thummopalo says. 'We have a lot, we give. We have a little, we also give.'"

I encourage you to read the full article.

Soi Cats and Dogs is working actively to reduce the number of stray animals in Bangkok. They work in target neighborhoods and encourage whole communities to become involved in their Animal Birth Control projects. Community cats and dogs are taken to SCAD's health centers and sterilized, vaccinated against rabies and treated for injury or disease. They are they returned to their home territory. Here in the U.S. there are TNR (Trap-Neuter-Release) programs for cats around the country.

As I've immersed myself in the world of animal rescue I have learned that we, the community of animal rescue lovers and activists are in many ways, a unique breed of our own. I challenge myself every day to keep my mind and heart open. There is no simple answer and simple sol-
ution to the growing problem of poverty, suffering and homelessness of both animals and humans. It's a global problem. I am thousands of miles away, and in many ways, a "foreigner" to a country I once called home .... I've never really given much thought to "community dogs or cats" since I've been in the United States. Recently, I've been touched by homeless people and their pets. I ran across a video created by reporter who went into a Tent City in Tennessee and interviewed homeless people to ask them about their relationships with their pets. It was clear how much they loved their pets and cared for them. Many choose homelessness over giving up their pets because homeless shelters won't allow them to keep their pets.

In March, 2008 Ontario was "tagging" residents who lived in Tent City to attempt to reduce the numbers down from 400 to 170. "The no-pet order caused widespread anger and tears as some homeless people said they could not imagine life without their dogs. Many have three or four and vowed to leave Tent City before giving the dogs up. 'I will go to jail before they take my dog .... that's a part of me as much as anything. The dogs are as homeless as we are."

There's an incredible bond between animals and humans. The more I learn and the more I immerse myself in the work of animal rescue .... I find so much truth in a line from the prayer of St. Francis of Assissi: " .... O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console, to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love .... for it is in giving that we receive, pardoning that we are pardoned, dying that we are born to eternal life."

Ironically, as president of Pet Haven and assisting in co-leading an animal welfare coalition here in Minnesota ( I find myself filled with questions. Some think that I should have all the answers to be leading these organizations .... the reality is, I don't.

What I do know is that my heart aches for the suffering of both animals and humans. What I do know is that I have so much more to learn. What I do know is that our spirits are strong .... and I believe goodness prevails. I may not have the answers, but I what I do have, is hope.

[Photo credit of homeless man and dog: Stephen DesRoches]

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Shen - 3 years later

Three years ago today, on September 15, 2006, I held my sweet girl Shen as she took her last breath and set her spirit free. I adopted her as a scraggly 9 month puppy that no one wanted ... shaggy and "ears too big for her head" according to the person next to me at the St. Louis Petco hosting an adoption event for a local rescue.

I miss you Shen. You are the reason I am doing the work I am doing in animal rescue. You are the reason I am living my passion. To this day, three years later, your photo remains taped on the wall at the top of the stairs. That was your favorite place to sleep. And when you led me to Pet Haven through Missy (whom we officially adopted on 10/1/06), the first few days she was with us, she slept in the exact same spot you used to sleep. I still feel your spirit in Missy.

Dear sweet Shen, I want you to know that I still miss you. I miss your brother Shadow too who chose to join you 8 months later -- i think he missed you so much. Our house is full again ... with 3 big black dogs (Missy, Mister and Ahnung) and a tuxedo kitty, Henry. All absolutely beautiful animals with beautiful spirits. Somehow, that doesn't take away the pain I still feel in my heart, three years later.


Shortly after Shen died, I wrote a piece "Passion Emerges from the Ashes from Grief". On her 3 year anniversary I would like to share that piece .... may her legacy live as we continue the work we do at Pet Haven, and now also in collaboration with other groups through MnPAW ( Thank you Shen for giving me the courage to live my passion.

Our 11-year old collie/shepherd mix, Shen, is in surgery at the University of Minnesota’s small animal hospital. An ultrasound confirms that Shen has a mass in her spleen. The doctors suspect cancer. I am thrown into the hellish vortex of cancer. The only way we can confirm cancer, and the extent of how far it has spread, is through surgery. No guarantees. In fact, I am told, “She’s dying. Any surgery would be palliative. You may get a couple more weeks with her, maybe three, if you’re lucky.” My head is spinning; my heart is burning. I am not ready to say goodbye. Just days ago she was acting like her usual self. Today, life has been drained from her like a tornado ripping through a town, demolishing and flattening what was once a living, breathing community. Today, there’s heaviness in my heart - an all-consuming tightness. It’s as if tentacles of an octopus have latched onto my heart, with their suction cups working tirelessly to drain the remaining life out of me.

I prepare to say goodbye to a family member, to a spiritual companion, to my best friend. I opt for surgery. The vet assures me she is not suffering. If we discover the cancer has spread, we can make the decision to humanely let her go while she is still “sleeping.”

I pace the hallways - waiting and hoping. Outside the hospital - it’s sunny and feels like spring. Is today the day? Is the sun shining brightly in preparation for welcoming Shen into heaven? I pray for strength, wisdom and courage to do what is best for Shen, not what’s easy or comforting to me.

The doctor comes out. She’s wearing blue scrubs; her face carrying a somber look. With empathy, she says, “The cancer has spread. Shen is losing a lot of blood. We have done one blood transfusion. She is stable now. We need to remove a large tumor that has formed in and around her liver.” Since it will be awhile, the vet recommends we go home. They will call when the surgery is over and we can come back to visit her.

It’s been a long day. We heed the vet’s advice and head home to wait for news with our other dog Shadow, an 11 year old 36 pound black lab mix, whom I rescued from the country roads of Owasso, Oklahoma nine years ago – a survivor of a gun shot wound to his head. By now, Shadow is most likely having a serious panic attack from being left alone. He has known Shen since the day he joined our family one hot summer day nine years ago. Together they have shared adventures, dog beds, car rides, and much to my dismay, an occasional escape from our fenced-in yard, via a dog-made underground tunnel, as they explored the backyards of neighbors’ homes before being “captured”; or, in Shadow’s case, he waits for me with his front paws on the back bumper of my orange Honda element, as I’m tearing around the corner, running down our alley, frantically searching and screaming out their names. I swear I see a smirk on his face as I hear the words, “Where have you been? I’ve been waiting for you to come home! Did you find Shen? She couldn’t keep up with me so I had to ditch her!” Fortunately, my partner who was driving around in her vehicle caught sight of Shen a few blocks away – as soon as she saw my partner, she came flying down the alley, like a gazelle, and went flying into the safety and warmth of the Honda CRV.

The phone rings. Our caller ID indicates it’s the University of Minnesota vet school. It’s way too soon for them to be calling. “Is this Marilou?” the voice on the other end asks. “Yes.” I’m afraid to ask any questions, to say anything more. “Shen’s condition is far worse than we anticipated. The cancer has spread. She’s losing blood. We need your permission to do another blood transfusion.” At that moment, in my head, someone hit the pause button on the DVD player. The frame freezes: “she’s losing blood; we need your permission…. She’s losing blood, we need your permission” plays over and over again. In the background, the rhythmic, powerful beats of bachi sticks on taiko drums, vibrate and beat the message, “It’s time Marilou. It’s time.”

I return to the phone conversation. With sadness and acceptance, I say, “No more transfusions. It’s time to let her go.”

I make it back to the University of Minnesota in time to hold her, as her spirit, wrapped in mine, is set free. I wrap my hands around Shen’s paw as the doctor inserts the needle into her vein. There’s a deep sadness in my heart, yet a sense of relief for her. Her chest rises, and she takes one last breath. I close my eyes and breathe in her spirit, as tears of denial and acceptance, roll down my cheeks.

In the weeks that follow, I immerse myself in ways to relieve myself of the pain in my heart. I cry in the arms of my partner. I hold Shadow. I take walks with Shadow, feeling Shen’s presence in the wind that blows gently on my face. I write. I doodle. I make home movies of Shen. I share my grief with friends. As days pass, the tentacles holding my heart hostage loosen their grip, one suction cup at a time, till one day I innocently search Petfinder. Shen’s spirit guides me to a dog rescued

by Pet Haven, a foster-based animal rescue. Not quite ready to adopt, we offer to foster.

In search of an outlet for the floodgates of grief, I throw myself into volunteering and helping the homeless, abused and abandoned dogs. I begin by fostering Missy, only to “fail” [In the animal rescue world, the term “foster failure” is an affectionate term for someone who ends up adopting the dog they are fostering] within hours. Next, as an intake phone volunteer, I return calls from people finding strays, or surrendering their own dogs for one reason or another. In a month I move into the role of Volunteer Director. Seven months later, with surprise and gratitude, I am asked to take on the role of President of a 55 year old animal rescue organization.

The pain of losing Shen pushed me forward to live my passion. I had always wanted to do something with animals. I guess I didn’t know how to “make it happen”, or maybe I was too afraid to follow my heart. What emerged from Shen’s ashes, was a new Marilou. Out of the ashes and tears came conviction and passion to be a voice for the animals. Out of the ashes came defiance for standing on the sidelines of life.

I found myself, and I found purpose by volunteering for a cause I believe in. As I held Shen in my arms, the afternoon of September 15th, 2006, unbeknownst to me, I was on stage – the prologue - for a play that was yet to unfold. Of the many possible roads leading from grief, she led me to the following:

Spirit of Shen -

Finding your voice,

Living your passion,

Transforming the world.”

- Marilou Chanrasmi, 2006

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Squirrel Rush

I must confess I've been a little hesitant to run with Mister since my mishap at the end of July where I tripped over Mister, cheek first into the concrete, as he darted in front of me to catch a squirrel. Check out the photos from that eventful day. A month and a half later I still carry the scars on my cheek and my shoulders from the sudden impact into unforgiving concrete.

This morning though I could tell my boy was needing some exercise. He starts acting a little crazy if he doesn't get his play time or exercise. I wanted to go for a long run (at least an hour) but Mister starts to fade after 30 minutes. We compromised - 45 minutes. He was actually very good and ran like a perfect angel right next to me. I watched him like a hawk though and as soon as I saw his ears twitch and perk up i knew --- squirrel sighting! I was quick to get his attention and have him focus on me, not the much more appealing and attractive squirrel. On our final stretch down Jefferson Avenue, Mister's tongue hanging off to the side, I was grateful for the squirrel sightings as that perked him up and gave him the needed squirrel rush to make the final dash to home.

By the time we got home, he did his usual ... like a guard on duty, he stood still as could be while Missy and Ahnung sniffed him up and down and all around. When that ritual came to and end, Mister plopped down on the patio.

A tired dog is a happy dog. A happy dog makes a happy Human.

All is well.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Homeless Man and his dog -- heading south

On Friday as I was leaving my office in downtown Minneapolis (the hustling Nicollet Mall Avenue between 8th and 9th street) I noticed Nick and his dog Samson. In late July I met Nick for the first time and wrote about it on my blog. Instead of heading to the parking garage I head towards the revolving door of the US Bancorp Center building and out towards Nicollet Mall. I am upset with myself that I did not have my camera with me. Nick and Samson's story need to be told. Nick has his cardboard sign next to him, "Penny for a Poem." I make eye contact with Nick and say "Hi." His 7 month old shepherd dog, Samson, has his head burrowed under Nick's coat as if to keep the sun from beating down on his head. I get down on my knees to pet Samson. He comes out from a little cove he has created for himself to give me kisses and leans his body against my leg.

Nick and Samson are heading to Florida soon. Last year Nick went to New Orleans. This will be the first time he's gone to Florida. I ask him, "how will you get there?" He sticks out his right thumb and gives me the hitch hike gesture. He'll be back in the spring though when it's warmer. He's originally from Minnesota. I ask him "where do you and Samson sleep at night?" "Anywhere we can - mostly under bridges."

I want to ask more questions. I want to learn more about his story, yet I stop. I don't want Nick to feel like he is being interrogated. Maybe he doesn't mind all the questions. Maybe he's happy that someone stopped to talk to him. Maybe the $15 change I had in my pocket will help even just a little bit. I decide to stop with the questions. I hang out with him and Samson for another seven minutes or so. "Everybody loves Samson." I ask, "does he need food?" Nick says he doesn't. Apparently the grocery store he visits loves Nick ... "they love Nick more than me," he says with a smile. As I get up to leave, he looks directly at me and says, "God Bless."

Looking at him, then gently sweeping my eyes to Samson (who is now burrowed again under Nick's coat), i say "God Bless you. Safe travels to Florida. I'll see you and Samson next spring."

As I was searching the internet for photos of a homeless man and his dog (since I didn't have my camera with me last Friday) I ran across these photos of Chris and his dog Brandy on Flickr. Here are excerpts of their story:

"I found this homeless man with his dog, he was ever so gentle and loving with man's best friend. Chris told me his dog, Brandy, was all he had in the world. His last dog was taken away from him by the police because he did not have tags or a licence for the dog. The dog was euthanized..... whether homeless or not, our pets are sometimes the only love any of us really have.

It's ironic, but Chris saved this dog as a puppy when it received a beating in a hotel room by a man that just threw the dog to the streets. Chris, being homeless, heard the puppy dog crying and being beaten and repeatedly hit. For as a homeless man he was in the nearby trees spending the night. Chris saved Brandy, and in turn Brandy has saved Chris.

Chris and Brandy have such beautifully soulful eyes. Through all the pictures I took, this man was smiling. I kept wondering what made him so happy? Maybe it boils down to being happy with the one you love. How simple is happiness...."

To read more about Chris and Brandy click here.

Behind every homeless person and their beloved friend, there is a story. There is a connection so deep and a tie that keeps them bonded. Oftentimes, a person chooses life on the street with their loyal friend, passing on the opportunity to enter a homeless shelter and give up their beloved companion.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Joy: Lessons from a dog

There is so much I learn each day, each moment from our dogs. Mister, our 2 year old, reminds me on a daily basis of how to find joy in the simple things. What could be considered a mundane task of watering flower pots (and patches of grass) always turns into a game. The moment the hose comes out, Mister is following me ... he loves the "shower" or "full" mode best on the hose. The "stream" mode isn't his favorite, but even that won't stop him.

Joy. Pure joy.
I see it in his eyes.
I see it in his body.

How can I not get pulled away from wherever my mind has wandered ... and come back, like Mister, to right here -- right now.

I love you Mister, and I am truly, truly grateful for you.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Buzzing mind

For some reason I woke up a little after 2 am this morning and couldn't go back to sleep. My mind buzzing .... our kitty Henry is sick and has not been eating for the past few days. Yesterday he spent the day at the vet attached to an IV and going through a series of tests and x-rays. Funny isn't how, the crazy, fiesty behaviors of our pets can bug us ... like how Henry will start knocking rocks and small ornaments off of our buffet when he's hungry and believes we need to feed him; or how he will start chewing on our blinds when we're comfortably seated on the couch because he wants to go hang out on the porch;or how he will wake us up at 3 or 4 am because it's time to play (which is why he has been banished to sleeping downstairs) --- I admit, I am much more of a dog person. My partner gives me grief about it (and rightly so!). But I must confess that Henry has nuzzled his way into my heart - in his quirky feline way. In July, 2007 when he first met Mister he hissed and hissed and hissed ... why the heck were we bringing into our home a crazy puppy? You would never know they had a rough beginning as they are now best friends ... I made a video to capture their love story and posted it in on an old blog of mine.

And as my mind continued to buzz after I came downstairs to write ... to start my early morning ritual a little earlier than usual, I found myself drifting back to our week up north. I found myself captivated by the bees hovering and pollinating flowers all around our cabin and on the paths I would walk. With camera in hand I would get as close as possible to the bumble bees. I find myself wanting to learn more about bees, about bumble bees. I stumble across a website with an entry on "Bumble Bee's inspiration" - it begins with a quote: "Aerodynamically, the bumble bee shouldn't be able to fly, but the bumble bee doesn't know it so it goes on flying anyway"- (An inspiring quote by Mary Kay Ash). It then goes on to talk about a folklore: "According to 20th century folklore, the laws of aerodynamics prove that the bumblebee should be incapable of flight, as it does not have the capacity (in terms of wing size or beats per second) to achieve flight with the degree of wing loading necessary. Not being aware of scientists 'proving' it cannot fly, the bumblebee succeeds under "the power of its own ignorance".

I learn that this was a myth that became popular in the 1930s. More recent studies have shown, however, that the bumble bee's flight is characterized by an oscillating wing that shares more characteristics with a helicopter rotor than an airplane wing. Bumblee bees are social insects known for their black and yellow striped bodies. They have a hair-like substance (called pile) that makes them appear and feel fuzzy. They are typically found in higher latitudes ranging from warm to cold climates where other bees might not be found. This is apparently due to their ability to regulate their body temperature - using both solar radiation and internal mechanisms of "shivering" and radiative cooling from the abdomen.

My mind, like a bumble bees whose wings can beat up to 200 beats/second, is beating and firing in all directions. I could choose to calm my mind through meditation. This morning, I feel like immersing myself in the rapid beats of a bumble bee. I find comfort and beauty in folklore ... at the same time, I find comfort in facts and evidence of science. I also find comfort in the questions, and simply not knowing.

I am amazed when I see bees in flight; when I look up in the skies and see an eagle soaring; and in the not too distant future I will again be hopping on an plane (this time to head to New York for work) ... when I see planes in the skies, I am amazed. Science and exploration has enabled us to enter once unchartered worlds ... there's a part of me that's grateful for the convenience of getting to New York in 3 hours versus days (and even that is another "miracle" with the invention of automobiles) ... but I wonder, what is the real miracle?

Robert John Russell, founder of The Center of Theology and Natural Sciences, says:

"The universe is more mysterious than either science and religion can ever fully disclose, and the urgencies of humankind and the natural environment demand an honest interaction between the discoveries of nature, the empowerment afforded us by appropriate technology, the inherent value of the environment, and the demand that we commit ourselves to a future in which all species can flourish. We can no longer afford the stalemate of past centuries between theology and science, for this leaves nature Godless and religion worldless. When this happens, our culture, hungering after science for something to fill the void of its lost spiritual resources, is easy prey to New Age illusions wrapped in science-sounding language — the 'cosmic self-realization movement' and the 'wow of physics' — while our 'denatured' religion, attempting to correct social wrong and to provide meaning and support for life's journey, is incapable of making its moral claims persuasive or its spiritual comfort effective because its cognitive claims are not credible. Nor can we allow science and religion to be seen as adversaries, for they will be locked in a conflict of mutual conquest, such as "creation science" which costs religion its credibility or "scientific materialism" which costs science its innocence."

I return to what I have felt in my gut ... life isn't an either/or; life is nothing and everything, all at once.

For now, I return to the the reason my mind even began to buzz ... to Henry. Science/veterinary medicine can't seem to figure out the cause for his illness right now. My spiritual self, when faced with challenges and unanswered questions, seeks to find comfort in trusting in a journey where God, or some higher being, is in the driver's seat. It's a scary, yet empowering feeling ... yes, to relinquish control and simply trust.