MANILA, Philippines – Susan Lara has been rescuing animals for as long as she can remember.
She started with house pets – dogs, cats, birds – those that were neglected by people she knew, as many animals as she could care for with her teenager’s allowance.
Later on, with her daughter Tammy Yao, Susan would save animals – limping dogs, malnourished cats – from the street and bring them home. Sometimes, they’d even take in pets given up by families who could no longer care for them. These animals quickly became part of Susan’s family.
“Animals in need always seem to find me. Lame birds land on my balcony. When I dive, sharks come next to me to show the hook in their body. Dogs who are supposedly aggressive come up to me to show me their wounds,” she told Rappler.
From Taal and beyond
When Taal volcano erupted in early 2020, it was Susan’s turn to make her way to animals in need. The eruption left hundreds of thousands injured and homeless – including animals.
“We impromptu rescued over 200 different animals over a span of three months,” Tammy shared.
Piling into cars and driving in a convoy, Susan, Tammy, and their friends headed to Taal with no set plan. The only thing they knew was that they would be saving animals.
“We had never taken in this many rescues before, and we obviously could not keep all 200 dogs. So for the first time, we decided to open up our rescue operations and adoptions to the public,” she said.
Just like that, their animal shelter came to be. They called it Lara’s Ark.
“‘Lara’ is not only my mom’s last name, but also stands for the ‘liberation of abandoned and rescued animals,'” Tammy explained.
Lara’s Ark currently has two shelters, one in Mandaluyong, Metro Manila, and another in Nasugbu, Batangas. They’re currently caring for around 100 dogs. Some are up for adoption, while others are still in rehabilitation. A few have become permanent members of their pack – mostly senior rescues who are often bypassed by adopters for younger puppies.
“[Senior dogs] are often overlooked by adopters, and we want to ensure they get all the treatment and care they need in their golden years,” shared Kai Yulo, who manages the group’s social media channels.
And it’s not just dogs too – they also take in rescue cats, pigs, horses, and cows.
With so many animals to attend to – most of them still recovering from trauma – one can imagine that life at Lara’s Ark gets pretty hectic. From being neglected and abandoned, their rescues become first priority.
“A typical day revolves around the animals’ schedules: feeding, grooming, exercising, socializing,” Kai shared. For their team, saving a dog from a bad situation is just the start. “And it’s probably the easiest part!”
“Rescuing requires so much more effort behind the scenes. It’s about healing – psychologically, physically, mentally, emotionally,” she said.
A hundred dogs are a lot by any measure, but there are still more dogs that Lara’s Ark has had to say no to – not because they don’t want to save them, but because they want to be responsible about rescuing.
“We can only save as many dogs as our facilities can take without compromising the health and well-being of our pack,” Kai said.
She highlighted the importance of adopting and how it affects more than just the life of the pet finding a new home: “Dogs come into the shelter much, much faster than they leave us. And this is why adopting doesn’t only save one dog’s life, but it makes room for us to save another!”
The underrated aspin
In the Philippines, animal adoption isn’t the norm. If a person wants to get a dog, they’d probably buy a pure-bred pup off a friend, or go online and find a backyard breeder. So few people would think of getting an aspin (asong pinoy), much less a rescued aspin.
Even with celebrities like Heart Evangelista or Sharon Cuneta lending their star power to the cause of aspin adoption, native-bred dogs have yet to eclipse the popularity of corgis, frenchies, or shih tzus.
“There is still a very shame-driven narrative when it comes to helping aspins. A lot of rescue groups post gruesome and graphic photos of the dogs,” Kai said.
“Although they reflect the reality of what we do, there’s also another reality to rescue: the joy, hope, and resilience of animals, as well as the compassion and dedication of the people who saved them,” she said. “We don’t want people to adopt out of guilt, but instead inspire them to adopt because of how much love and happiness aspins can bring them.”
For the team at Lara’s Ark, aspins are an underrated breed.
“Aspins aren’t only street smart, but clever all around. They know how to navigate the world and understand people on a very deep level,” Kai said. Apart from that, they’re hardy and well-adjusted to the local climate, making them less prone to the health issues that plague imported dogs.
In the same intuitive way that dogs can sniff out kindness in humans, Kai said that rescued aspins are “full of love and gratitude.”
“Rescues know that you’ve saved them, and they’ll happily spend the rest of their lives saying thank you,” she said.
She added that aspins also come with quite the history – they may be among the “village dogs” that were descended from the earliest dogs that accompanied humans 15,000 years ago.
How love heals
As much as they need adopters though, the Lara’s Ark team wants people to know what they’re getting into before bringing a dog home. After all, caring for a dog may be fun, but it isn’t always easy.
“Do your research and understand the commitment! Dogs can live up to 15 years, so don’t get one on a whim. Be sure that you’re willing and able to support them financially, emotionally, mentally, and physically. Dogs require exercise, food, regular vet checkups, companionship, patience, training, space, love – the list goes on,” Kai said.
For those who aren’t ready for a big commitment, fostering is another option.
“Fostering is part of our rehabilitation process. It’s a chance for our shyer and more traumatized dogs to have one-on-one time with you to overcome their fears and adjust to a home environment. As a foster mom or dad, you’ll be giving them the care they need to heal both inside and out,” she said.
“Be mindful that fostering is for people who have the time, means, and heart to work with rescues who need more help than others,” she added.
As of this writing, Lara’s Ark has between 20 to 30 puppies and dogs that are up for adoption. Most of them have been through hell, but you can never tell from their shiny coats and bright eyes – a testament to what can happen when those that have been abandoned become the center of someone’s world.
Witnessing this – “how love can heal” – is what keeps the Lara’s Ark team going despite the challenges they face as animal rescuers.
As Kai said, “Seeing our rescues recover with us and seeing them blossom in their forever homes, it makes it all worth it.” – Rappler.com