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MANILA, Philippines — One rainy week in July, three dogs around Commonwealth in Quezon City were chained by the roadside with no food and clean water after being left by their owners.
In a couple of days, one of the dogs would pass away and the other two would be rescued by 53-year-old Leah Borbon Dopelis from Antipolo City, Rizal.
“Matakot tayo ngayon sa mga tao, hindi sa aso (Fear people, not dogs),” she said to one of the witnesses at the area.
Dopelis, a full-time caretaker of neglected dogs, has traveled to different places across Luzon to rescue dogs and give them a home at Hope for the Angels located in Sitio Abuyod in Antipolo City, Rizal, a shelter that she established in 2020 as a response to the multitude of neglected dogs she encountered on the streets.
“Masaya ako, lalo na makuha ko sila ng maayos. Sa taxi pa lang kinakausap ko na sila, ‘Ako na ang magiging mama niyo forever, hindi ko kayo pababayan tulad ng ginawa sa inyo.’ Ayun lagi kong ipinapangako sa kanila,” Dopelis told Rappler in an interview.
(I am happy, especially when I rescue the dogs successfully. When we’re inside the taxi, I talk to them, ‘I will be your mama forever, I will not abandon you like they did.’ That’s what I always promise them).
At present, she takes care of 233 dogs, the majority of which have endured abuse, abandonment, or were close to being slaughtered and cooked for consumption.
“Wala naman na akong ibang hangad sa buhay ko kundi alagaan ang mga stray dogs na nangangailangan ng tulong (I have no other wish in life but to take care of stray dogs that need help),” she shared.
A life-changing rescue
In 2020, Dopelis and her family relocated to Sitio Abuyod from San Luis in Antipolo due to her husband’s work as a foreman at a construction site.
The place proved to be ideal for her rescued dogs, which were 68 at that time, as there is ample space, fresh air, and no neighbors in proximity.
“Doon po kami, kung saan malaya mga dogs ko (That’s where we stay, where my dogs can roam freely),” she shared.
When she started rescuing dogs in 2016, Dopelis admitted that she wasn’t naturally a dog lover. However, the love grew after she saved a dog from being butchered and cooked by her husband’s co-workers at the construction site.
That dog was given the name Chuchay and a home at her shelter. Since saving Chuchay, Dopelis became motivated to make it her life’s work to rescue and care for neglected dogs.
“Ito ang kayamanan ko talaga, ang pag-rescue (This is my fortune, rescuing dogs),” she said.
Before doing her rescue work full-time, Dopelis ran a canteen from 2016 to 2019. With the assistance of helpers, she was able to balance her work as a canteen owner and rescuer.
In 2020, she closed her canteen and the pandemic became the heyday of her rescue work. “Ginamit ko ‘yung ipon sa pag-rescue ng mga dogs… Andami kong natagpuan na mga aso sa kalsada, mga abandoned (I used my savings from the canteen to rescue dogs… I saw many abandoned dogs on the street),” she said.
“Then sabi ko, ‘sa pag-rescue ko, sisiguraduhin ko na ‘yung mga asong makukuha ko, talagang pangalagaan ko sila’ (I told myself, ‘I will make sure that the dogs I rescue will be well-taken care of),” Dopelis added.
One of those dogs is Nic, who had boiling water thrown on his face, which took over a year to heal.
Recalling the stories of how she met her dogs pained Dopelis, but seeing them recover with newfound happiness under her care continues to motivate her in rescuing.
Another one she recounted is Mira, a stray dog from Valenzuela. She said, “Si Mira, kinadenahan ang bunganga niya tapos ni-lock sa dila. Sobrang nakakaawa talaga siya.”
(Mira’s mouth was chained and they shackled her tongue with a padlock. I was very saddened by what she experienced).
Bingot, who experienced a similar trauma, was found with half a nose and a maimed mouth after being abused. He was a rescue from the streets of Pasig.
But not all of the dogs she rescued ended up at Hope for the Angels. “Si Mini Angel, hindi nakauwi sa akin, namatay siya sa vet. Hindi niya kinaya ‘yung surgery,” Dopelis shared.
(Mini Angel wasn’t able to come home because she died at the veterinary clinic. The surgery was too much for her body).
Mini Angel was found badly deformed on a street in San Roque, Antipolo City, after having her front and back legs tied to her back, which caused irreparable bone fractures. “Ang sakit nung pagkakuha ko sa kanya (It was a painful experience rescuing her),” she recalled.
Holding on to kindness
Dopelis shared that her journey as a rescuer is filled with challenges and uncertainties as her funds for the shelter are running low.
“Malungkot ako minsan gumigising ako na walang pambili ng pagkain nila (Sometimes I am sad when I wake up without money to buy for their food),” she shared.
“Ang hirap, ang rent ko sa tricycle P800 balikan every day. Pinakamasakit kung may sakit pa ‘yung dogs ko. ‘Yun ang number one na problema ko, kapag mamalengke at may dadalhin sa vet,” Dopelis added.
(It’s hard, my rent for the tricycle amounts to P800, back and forth from the market to my home every day. It’s even harder when my dogs are sick. That’s my number one concern, buying their food and bringing them to the vet).
Her husband, who witnessed her struggles, helps continually by pitching in his salary as payment to the shelter’s helpers.
Throughout the years, Dopelis also attributes the success of her rescue work to the kindness of strangers — donors, sponsors, and concerned citizens who notify her of dogs that need help.
“Malaking tulong sila sa akin (They help me a lot),” she shared. Her benefactors would wire her money, as well as donate dog food and medicine.
For Dopelis, the love she has for dogs keeps her going. But as much as she’s determined as a rescuer, the expenses of upkeeping her shelter have taken a toll on her.
However, it isn’t as simple as stopping altogether, not when Dopelis continues to encounter stray dogs that need a home.
She said: “Hindi ako mapakali, masakit ‘yun sa akin, lalo na kapag nakikita mo sa mga [Facebook] posts, na wala na talaga. Punuaan din kasi sa mga shelters eh.”
(It makes me restless because that pains me, especially when I see dogs that need help on Facebook posts like there’s no hope left. Other shelters are also full).
“Sa tuwing tinitingnan ko sila, mga dogs ko, sinasabi ko ‘Ang dami niyo na, pero mas madami pa rin ang mga nasa kalsada,’ mga asong nakatali, nasa ulan, init, walang tubig. Basta kinakausap ko ‘yan sila, umiiyak ako,” Dopelis added.
(When I look at my dogs, I tell them, ‘You are many already, but there are more on the streets,’ dogs who are tied down under the rain, heat, with no water. I tell them that and I cry).
Plight of neglected dogs
According to a 2019 data by the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS), there are around 12 million stray dogs and cats in the Philippines. In the same year, Network for Animals also published a report that over 300,000 dogs across the country are slaughtered in secret annually.
The plight of helpless dogs continues to exist across the country, such as the mass dog poisoning in Northern Samar and the slaughter of dogs in Pampanga for pulutan, a snack typically consumed with alcoholic beverages. More recently, a case that gained a lot of traction online was the security guard who threw a puppy from a footbridge outside SM North Edsa in Quezon City.
On July 14, with the help of witnesses, PAWS filed a criminal complaint against the security guard in violation of the Animal Welfare Act of 1998, a national law that protects animals from cruelty, exploitation, and abandonment.
Though social media can be an effective tool in galvanizing netizens to help, PAWS urges people to report incidents of animal cruelty and neglect to proper authorities, not social media, as no legal action can be made based on social media posts alone.
Echoes of hope and struggle
Similar to the woes experienced by Dopelis at Hope for the Angels, other shelters in the country grapple with various challenges in order to continue doing their rescue work.
One of them is Second Chance Aspin Shelter Philippines Incorporated (SECASPI) located in Calamba, Laguna, which was established in July 2018. It is a non-profit organization that cares for approximately one hundred aspins and puspins (native dogs and cats in the Philippines).
“One of the main and most significant challenges for shelters like ours revolves around financial constraints. We rely solely on donations to sustain our operations,” SECASPI Social Media Coordinator Sherilyn Sangalang told Rappler.
The expenses of SECASPI include the food for the cats and dogs, caretaker salaries, shelter rent, cleaning materials, transportation costs, and veterinary-related needs.
“Originally, our shelter’s capacity was around 50 to 60 dogs. However, due to the alarming increase in dog and cat abandonment in front of our shelter, we have exceeded our maximum capacity,” she shared.
The efforts of SECASPI in welcoming more animals began in 2020 during the Taal Volcano eruption. Despite also being affected by ash fall and earthquakes, the organization opened their doors to animals that needed refuge.
Sangalang admitted that it’s challenging to upkeep an animal shelter because of financial difficulties, as she also mentioned that SECASPI isn’t a widely known shelter.
“Unfortunately, even with recent adoptions, we still exceed our limit,” she said.
Another shelter that hopes to continue helping animals amid challenges is Noah’s Ark Dog and Cat Shelter, which is based in Mabalacat, Pampanga.
Noah’s Ark, a volunteer-led shelter established in September 2018, houses 65 dogs and 125 cats. Ms. Ma. Leah Ibuna, the founder, shared that her clothing business supports the shelter as they don’t have regular donors or sponsors.
“Yes, we really have financial struggles… Their medical needs are also a struggle for us especially if we have a rescue operation,” Ibuna told Rappler.
Some of Noah’s Ark’s followers on Facebook send donations when their dogs need help, such as the hospital bills for the recent surgery of Dau, who sadly passed away.
But donations alone aren’t enough to sustain the shelter’s operations. Nevertheless, Ibuna commends those who adopt their cats and dogs as adoptions help shelters.
“We are lucky to find adopters for them,” she added.
The tough reality persists for local shelters across the country. Despite the challenges, Dopelis shared that she will do whatever it takes to care for her dogs as she also believes that she was meant to become a rescuer.
“Parang dito nagkaroon ng kabuluhan ‘yung buhay ko (It gave my life purpose).” – Mia Seleccion/Rappler.com
For monetary donations, you may send them through the following:
Hope for the Angels
- Account name: Leah B. Dopelis
- GCash: 09776478583
Second Chance Aspin Shelter Philippines Incorporated (SECASPI)
- Account name: Cherry Licup
- GCash: 0917 772 0395
- Metrobank: 007 022 510 238 (OTC), 0227022510238 (Online)
- Union Bank: 109350553208
Noah’s Ark Dog and Cat Shelter
- Account name: Ma. Leah Ibuna
- GCash: 09338240324
- BDO: 007 730 224 485
Mia Seleccion is a third-year communication arts student at the University of Santo Tomas and an intern for Rappler’s Digital Communications team.