For animal welfare advocate Maria Parsons, driving her SUV on Good Friday and seeing streets filled with praying Catholics, the passion of a dying savior translates more appropriately into her own crusade to save the most innocent of victims—223 pit bulls rescued from dogfighting rings in San Pablo City and Calauan, Laguna, in a police raid on March 30.
It’s a passion Parsons shares with other people who spent Good Friday in San Pablo with the dogs—a passion that borders on rage on learning that the same Koreans who were arrested in December last year in Indang, Cavite, for running an online dog-fighting operation were out on bail and simply relocated their activity.
“Aside from not wanting to see dogs fight,” Parsons says, “I think what enraged a lot more Filipinos was that this was done by people who had already been arrested, and are still operating with impunity here.”
At the site, an expansive, grassy area planted with banana trees at Barangay San Gregorio, Parsons met with Nancy Cu-unjieng and other women from Compassion and Responsibility for Animals (Cara), the group which, along with the Cebu-based Island Rescue Organization (IRO) headed by Nena Hernandez, has taken over the care of the Laguna pit bulls.
Hernandez is rehabilitating the 61 surviving Cavite pit bulls, which were moved to Cebu after spending over a month at the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) shelter in Quezon City after their rescue.
Members of PAWS, who were first on the scene after the raid, took on the grim task of putting down 33 sick, badly injured, and dangerously aggressive dogs.
Since then, IRO and Cara have decided that there will be no more euthanasia: They will try to save as many of the dogs as possible.
“We will try and do what we can in the best way we can,” Cu-unjieng says, “and we’ve decided that we must give the dogs a chance to survive.”
The good news is, people have been stepping up to help.
“When I first read about this a couple of days ago, I thought they would need help rehabilitating the dogs,” says Henry Monzones, a dog trainer who lives in San Pablo and belongs to the group, Laguna Search and Rescue. “Locals can provide support because we’re nearer to the site.”
No need to die
Monzones admits he was “shocked” to learn that a facility of this scale existed right under their noses. “Obviously, they have people backing them up,” he notes.
The businessman has been visiting the site daily to help with regular head counts and coordinate with the local police guards. He’s sketching designs for more durable shelters, based on Cu-unjieng’s specifications, in Lipa City in Batangas.
“None of these dogs have to die,” Monzones says.
In the meantime, the animals are confined in the steel drums they were found in, but tarpaulins and nets are being pitched to shield them from the sun, as some dogs have succumbed to heatstroke.
Cu-unjieng herself grabbed a hose and gave several dogs an impromptu shower in the sweltering April heat.
The large tarpaulin pieces came courtesy of Jay Lim, a businessman and dog trainer with the Philippine Mondioring Association, and his friend and fellow aficionado, Frenchman Julien Bourraux. Lim has worked with pit bulls for the last 10 years.
“These are typical pit bulls—they’re nippy, have a strong drive, and have to be given something to do. People always think of pit bulls as dogs that fight and kill people; it’s tiring to keep hearing that story. Many of these dogs are only aggressive because they’ve been traumatized and are on the defensive,” Lim says.
“I posted about this on Facebook, and told pit bull people everywhere that this was our chance to help, to prove ourselves despite the discrimination that pit bulls get from other dog clubs and dog owners. And the response has been great.”
Although many people want to adopt dogs, Lim emphasizes, “only those who know the breed well can adopt them.”
Lim brought his wife and four children, as a way to “train my kids,” he says with a laugh. “I look at this as a kind of values formation.”
Soon enough, eldest daughter Sarah, 19, was helping bathe some of the wounded dogs.
Bourraux was with his wife Sheila and 2-year-old daughter Isabella. “I wouldn’t be afraid to bring a pit bull home to meet Isabella, because they can be good family pets,” says Bourraux, who has lived in the Philippines for the last five years and has three adult pit bulls and five pups at home.
“What I love about pit bulls is, no matter what they’ve been through, if you show them love and respect, they’re willing to forgive anything.”
Both he and his wife wept at their first sight of the dogs, but Bourraux has since been burning the phone and Internet lines to solicit support.
“There’s definitely hope for these guys—we just have to convince people they’re not killers.” As if to prove a point, Isabella walks up to Daddy while he’s bathing a dog, and shyly scratches the animal’s back.
“She’s going to be an animal rights activist when she grows up,” Bourraux says proudly.
‘We can do it’
Dropping by later in the day, Susan Garzon and Jun Pareña, volunteers with the Tulay Foundation, a Buddhist NGO, took pictures and asked questions for their friend, Tulay founder Manuel O. Chua.
“Buddhists talk about compassion and do not believe in killing living things,” Pareña says. “When Mr. Chua read about the dogs’ plight, he was really moved to help,” Garzon adds.
Chua, who owns Aloha Hotel, Sunshine Transport and other business interests, has offered all kinds of assistance, from donating wood from his Laguna bamboo farm to building dog shelters, to vowing to spread the word among the Chinese-Filipino community—an untapped sector the women hope will be willing to help.
As the sun sets, everyone talks excitedly about financial aid coming from a donor in the United States.
“It’s the love of animals that keeps us going,” says Cu-unjieng, who envisions a permanent sanctuary for these and any other dogs rescued from fighting facilities.
“We need to address this. We know it’s a big task, but with the support of knowledgeable people who understand the temperament and character of the breed, we can do it.”