By Alin K. Gregorian
YEREVAN — Armenia has many problems that affect its citizens, and those include the four-legged variety.
Any visitor to Armenia — Yerevan or the provinces — can attest to the prevalence of stray dogs and cats on the streets. Many are diseased and feral, unused to human contact, especially as they are often the targets of casual and intentional violence.
Ovsanna Hovsepyan, the founder of Dingo Team, is now trying to change opinions in Armenia when it comes to these strays, instead advocating for their adoption as pets.
According to a detailed description on its website, Dingo Team is the first and largest organization that provides assistance to stray animals in Armenia. It is staffed exclusively by volunteers.
“Our main objective is the creation of the culture of pet adoption and the development of solutions to the overpopulation problem. With dogs currently dying from illness and starvation on the streets, our top priority is an effort to neuter — to prevent the birth of additional litters,” she said.
According to the group’s website, to date, its volunteers have helped place 3,000 homeless animals in loving homes.
In an interview conducted in Armenian last week, Hovsepyan said that the foundation came into being organically, springing from her concern for animals. “At the beginning I didn’t think of starting a foundation or opening a shelter. Simply, I was saving the animals on the streets, treating them when they were sick and then releasing them. Then, I started thinking that perhaps instead of releasing them, I should try to find them their own homes. I created an album on Facebook titled ‘Don’t Buy, Adopt,’ and different people started asking that I put pictures of animals they found in their yards or neighborhoods in that album,” she noted.
“That way, I created a group around which all those people gathered,” and named it for Dingo Team, after her dog, she said.
Hovsepyan and her team are focusing on changing attitudes in Armenia regarding animal rights. “In Armenia, the idea of treating animals kindly is still not very popular, especially when it comes to stray animals. But, I have to say that when I started this work, it was much worse. At that time, the idea of taking in stray animals did not make sense to anyone. Now, it has become a much more common idea. We were able to spread the message of the importance of adopting stray animals. It is now even possible for us to find homes for handicapped animals, something that could have been treated as a fairy tale before,” she added.
Such progress has not been easy. “It is the result of hard work and effort for many years. We have volunteers who for years have dedicated their lives to this cause. We don’t have employees. We are all volunteers. We are satisfied by our adoption stories, since that is the most important part of the effort,” she explained.
Education is another important element for Dingo Team. Hovsepyan noted that they want to start educating children at an early age about animals and animal rights. One program that they have created in conjunction with the Armenian-British charity Pro Paws is now taught at Yerevan high schools and is called “Care for your dog” (Hokah Ko Shan Masin).
“We try to get it included in high school and pre school level so that we can educate the young,” Hovsepyan said.
The group also has worked with the UK-based Dogs Trust. “We got to see how they work. They really helped me,” she noted.
Dingo Team has had success with a program called “Become its Owner,” on an Armenian television channel, where celebrities encourage the adoption of Dingo Team dogs and describe the animals and play with them. “This helped change the attitude of a lot of people,” Hovsepyan said.
Similarly, they have photographed their dogs with Armenian celebrities, again making the idea of adopting a stray much more desirable. And finally, on their website, the group explains that they hold fun kid and family-friendly events where they exhibit their dogs and cats in a festive atmosphere.
Perhaps the most famous former client of Dingo Team is Spitak the dog. Spitak gained fame during the protests in July and August in downtown Yerevan. A beautiful white dog, Spitak tagged along with the protestors, always in front, smiling his doggie smile.
Explained Hovsepyan, “Our volunteers had known Spitak for a long time. He always loved to be free and on the streets. We would make sure he was fine. He was truly happy. We weren’t trying to change him. When he became famous, it was clear someone was going to take him. Therefore, by necessity we took him in to save his life. At first he was very angry with us. There were many people who wanted him. One family from the US even offered us $2,000 to get him.”
However, Hovsepyan said that she wanted the best for the dog and gave to dog to one of her best volunteers and pet owners, Hasmik, one of whose dogs had only recently died, leaving her heartbroken. “We wanted to give her the dog, since we have known her for years. She always has helped us help animals and she took amazing care of her dog until its death. But now, Spitak is thrilled to be living with her,” Hovsepyan said.
Hovsepyan is passionate about the rights of animals. “A fundamental problem in Armenia is that there are no laws to protect animals. In general, the town and the municipality award a contract every year to Unigraph X,” a company she deems incompetent. She said that according to Unigraph, there are 46,000 dogs roaming the city every year, but she said she doubted the veracity of the numbers, saying, “even in Moscow with a population of 11 million people they don’t have that many dogs.”
Dingo Team has protested the efforts of Unigraph before, when they have been tasked with sterilizing stray dogs. Many of the dogs they had treated had undergone botched operations rather than proper sterilization, resulting only in injuries rather than sterilization, leaving them suffering as well as hostile toward humans.
She added, “Sterilization is the only way you can eliminate the problem.”
“The only solution is to create laws to protect animals, to make sterilization something that is done. We need to look at the problem from all sides,” she said.
Another way the city deals with the stray dogs is to shoot them or ignore the shooting by citizens of the animals, she said. “We have appealed to the police because shooting firearms on the street is illegal. However, the police are passive when it comes to this. They ignore such activities. They are not interested in crimes against animals. Sadly, that is our weakest point. We do not have a voice.”
Much of Hovsepyan’s work is fundraising. “Our budget is only from donations.”
The funds go not only to feed the stray dogs and cats they find, but also to treat their injuries or illnesses. “We always find animals that are seriously wounded and require a lot of funds to treat them. Therefore we always are seeking donations.”
She explained that there is a good flow of donors, as well as people who donate food every month, but that the cost is rising regularly.
“If our budget were a little bigger, we could help many more animals,” she explained. “Now, because of our small budget, we can only help or take in 20 percent of the animals that come our way.”
She and her husband, David Sarkissian, a filmmaker, have a son, William, 4. Her son, she said, is as much a fan of animals as she is.
In addition, she noted that both she and her husband have been vegan for 14 years and that they even made a documentary against hunting.
Dingo Team is named for their mutt, who is 14 now and was a stray when they took him in.
“There are always a few animals in my house that I foster until they are brought back to health,” she said. “At this moment, I have several cats with me. As a result of being hit by a car, one lost his leg, but has been adopted by a Dutch family and will leave soon. Then, there is Moorzik, who was taken from children who were torturing it. And the third one was thrown out of a moving car. There is one dog with an injured eye we are now treating. And finally a cat whose tail was cut off. For me, there is never a shortage of animals.”
“I want to change the attitude of the people and make it not just a wish but also a reality. Our organization does it every God’s day,” she explained.
One volunteer, Gohar, she said, sometimes has up to 20 animals living with her, including newborns left without mothers who need feeding every two hours.
“Our volunteers are truly amazing,” she said. “We have a lot of volunteers in different fields,” including as drivers, translators and emergency pick-ups.
“My biggest goal is to change attitudes. That is the focus of my work. Once attitudes change, everything will be better,” she said.
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