Kathryn Cleghorn and Animals Alive: dogs’ best friend

For Kathryn Cleghorn, Animals Alive — possibly the largest no-kill dog shelter in the Caribbean — is a genuine labour of love. Erline Andrews learns more

Two newly arrived residents at the Animals Alive sanctuary. Photograph by Edison Boodoosingh

The quiet of a Sunday morning in a south Trinidad village is broken by the sound of many dogs barking. The clash of high-pitched and deep woofs creates a cacophony that can be heard from atop the short, steep, freshly paved road leading down into a 3.5-acre compound, where four low, wide buildings hold kennels. It is visitors’ day at the Animals Alive sanctuary — perhaps the largest no-kill dog shelter in the Caribbean — and the sight of human strangers is exciting the three-hundred-plus non-human residents.

As volunteer caretaker Charlie Gunness leads a nervous reporter into the compound, the six or so dogs allowed free rein of the place suddenly scurry towards the tall, wide, yellow gates, yapping and wagging their tails as a dark green Jeep enters. They’re a ragtag bunch, mainly mongrels, what Trinidadians and Tobagonians call “pot hounds,” many rescued from horrific circumstances. One, small and black, has two circular areas — about the width of tennis balls — missing from the thick fur on either side of her torso. A beige and orange dog looks even more battle-scarred. She hobbles, and has one inch of slanted stitching where her left eye should be.

“Kathryn’s here,” says Gunness, explaining the dogs’ sudden excitement. Kathryn Cleghorn, who founded Animals Alive seven years ago, steps out of the vehicle amid yelping dogs, looking all-business. She is dressed in a two-piece workman’s suit, dark green with bright orange stripes at the wrists and ankles. Her dark hair is pulled back in a distracted ponytail, strands escaping and framing her serious face. Today is a busy day, and she has little time to talk to the press. Besides the usual cleaning and feeding, carried out by a few paid workmen, a litter of puppies has just been brought in, rescued from an ailing mother. Cleghorn and another volunteer are going to try to get them to suckle from a lactating dog on the compound. Then there is the stream of people here to look at the dogs and ask questions.

The best outcome from these visits is that members of the public agree to adopt animals, a process that includes representatives from Animals Alive visiting their homes to make sure they meet certain stringent criteria. The next best outcome is if they agree to “mentor” — the word used by Animals Alive — one of the dogs. The arrangement is an important source of funds for the charity, which costs around US$3,000 a month to operate, Cleghorn told a daily newspaper. It’s like the sponsor-a-child programmes run by international aid organisations. The sponsor pays a monthly fee of $15 for a dog of their choice, which remains on the compound. The sponsor receives photos and regular updates on the dog. Sponsors can visit, but this isn’t necessary. Many of them live abroad.

There are three fenced grassy spaces around the compound, furnished with garden chairs and tables under shade, where a sponsor can spend time with their dog, sitting or running around. Roger Marshall, who helps raise funds for and administer Animals Alive, came up with the idea. He helps other animal organisations in T&T. But Animals Alive is the target of most of his efforts. “When I came to visit them [for the first time], I was very impressed. They were doing so much with so little,” he says. “The dogs here are better off than most dogs in people’s homes.”

After Cleghorn, David “Charlie” Gunness is probably the most important contributor to Animals Alive’s existence. A man with twinkling, friendly eyes beneath a shock of dark, wavy hair, he built and maintains the buildings and tends the grounds. It’s partly a labour of love. He and Cleghorn have been in a relationship for twenty-five years.

He remembers how it all started, almost three decades ago. He and Cleghorn worked at a secondary school in south Trinidad. He taught math; she English. “She used to collect dogs and carry them by her house,” he says. Cleghorn, now vice principal at another secondary school, has seventeen dogs at her home. All are blind, lame, or otherwise undesirable by most people’s standards. Cleghorn’s dedication impressed him, and he “get hook” on the cause, says Gunness, who’s retired.

Lauren Ali, Cleghorn’s twenty-five-year-old niece and an Animals Alive volunteer, says the family got their concern for animals from her late grandparents. There were always pets in their house, and the children and grandchildren were taught to respect and love animals. But the bug bit Cleghorn hardest of all. “It was always Kathryn’s dream to have a place like this,” says Ali. “It’s what she’s wanted her whole life.”

“Charlie used to always tell me, stop talking and do something about it,” says Cleghorn. “That’s when I started picking up stray dogs and started bringing them to my home. Then I got together with a couple of people who were similar-minded and created Animals Alive.”

The land was donated by a benefactress and, besides the various fundraising events and initiatives, the compound is run by donations from individuals and businesses.

The no-kill concept is controversial, a source of deep disagreement among activists. The Trinidad and Tobago Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals euthanises, as does People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the renowned American animal rights organisation. In an article on its website, PETA suggests that euthanasia is ultimately more compassionate for the greatest number of animals. No-kill shelters leave the animals they can’t accommodate to suffer and die in even worse ways, the organisation argues. “Getting a spay/neuter law passed saves even more lives,” says PETA. “Stopping the problem at its source is where our time, energy, and funds are needed most.”

But for Cleghorn, and others in T&T who have turned their homes into unofficial shelters, deliberately killing unwanted pets undermines the very reason they’ve dedicated their lives to animal welfare. “Life is divine,” said Cleghorn, “and we should not kill any of God’s creatures. They all have a purpose and a reason for being, and we should preserve and protect life.”