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Difference Maker

Jack Reece helps a Noah's Ark of animals in India

From elephants to buffaloes, dogs to donkeys, Help in Suffering (HIS), a nonprofit animal welfare group in Jaipur, India, treats animals large and small at low or no cost.

By Amy YeeContributor / March 8, 2013

Veterinarian Jack Reece has worked at Help in Suffering, an animal hospital in Jaipur, India, since 1998 and has helped eliminate rabies in the city.

Amy Yee

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Jaipur, India

Treating sick animals in India often requires ingenuity. But Mustana the elephant was an especially memorable patient for Jack Reece, a veterinarian in the northern city of Jaipur.

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It was 1999, and he and his colleagues at Help in Suffering (HIS), a nonprofit animal welfare group, were treating the elephant's wounds. It had painful sores from an ill-fitting saddle.

Mr. Reece hails from England, where elephants live in zoos, not in the midst of chaotic cities. But even his Indian colleagues gingerly approached the massive animal, who stood 9 feet, 6 inches at the shoulder.

General anesthesia wasn't practical, so they brought in 45 pounds of carrots to distract the pachyderm. As a vet stitched its wound, the elephant bellowed so loudly Reece could feel the vibrations in his chest.

"No patient before or since has made such a big noise," he says in a voice filled with both awe and laughter.

HIS treats the animals of poor clients, work animals or pets, for free or for a nominal charge; better-off pet owners pay market rates. The nonprofit's most notable achievement has been sterilizing and vaccinating more than 50,000 dogs since 1994. As a result, it has virtually wiped out rabies in this city of 3 million, likely the only big Indian city to do so.

Reece has guided the sterilization program since 1998. Back then he had planned to take a six-month break from his work as a veterinarian in England to volunteer in India. Fifteen years later he is still in Jaipur.

"His contribution to the animal birth-control program has been amazing,'' says Christine Townend, a former chair and trustee of HIS. "Without him, I don't know if it would have been so successful."

At the leafy, two-acre HIS compound on the outskirts of Jaipur, street dogs in kennels howl and bark. Orphaned monkeys romp and shriek in a large enclosure. In cages, kittens meow loudly, a wounded peacock struts, and pigeons with damaged wings coo.

In an area for donkeys, horses, buffaloes, and cattle, Reece, a rangy man with gray hair, points out a cow that has had 90 pounds of plastic bags – not to mention 106 nails and a few batteries – removed from its gut. (In India, cows wander the streets and eat garbage, including plastic bags that clog their innards and cause them to starve.)

Animals and people live cheek by jowl in India's huge cities. Dogs, cows, and monkeys are ubiquitous; camels, horses, and donkeys plod along busy highways pulling loads. Elephants carry tourists or work at parties as enormous door props.

Urban animal owners are usually poor, having little money to spend on veterinary care for their charges. HIS sees a stream of charity patients day and night.

HIS was founded in 1980 by Crystal "Mishy" Rogers, an Englishwoman who was making a stopover in India on her way to New Zealand. While in India she saw a sick horse being eaten alive by crows. The sight prompted her to cancel her trip and stay in India to promote animal welfare.

Since then, HIS has done pioneering work to improve working conditions for Jaipur's elephants. That has included devising reflectors for the elephants to make them more visible to motorists. HIS also holds free clinics for camels at India's annual Pushkar Camel Fair, and provides daily treatment to a Noah's ark of other furry and feathered creatures. It is supported by foreign and Indian donors and has a staff of 39.

Improving the lives of animals in India has made a profound impact on humans, too. With as many as 25 million street dogs, India has the world's highest human death toll for rabies, about 20,000 Indians every year. When cities are overrun with strays, or a mauling occurs, dogs are often killed by poisoning or beating. In Pushkar, about three hours from Jaipur, population control until recently meant tying dogs down in the desert sun to die.

Reducing the street dog population through sterilization and vaccination against rabies curbs the need for such brutality, and has kept the disease from spreading to people. HIS now has the challenge of finding still unsterilized street dogs in Jaipur; 87 percent of female dogs have been spayed and 80 percent of all street dogs have been vaccinated against rabies.

In 1998 a man walked six miles to HIS, desperately seeking help for the camel he had just bought with onerous loans. Camel owners eke out a meager living hauling bricks or other loads here in the desert state of Rajasthan. The camel had collapsed and couldn't even stand.

Reece had never treated a camel before but took on the task; the animal recovered.

"The man was extraordinarily poor. If his camel had died, he would have been ruined and would have lived the rest of his life with enormous debt," Reece explains. "Almost no one in [Britain] relies on an individual animal to keep them from destitution, whereas this man clearly did. It sounds pompous but you can make a difference here in a way you can't at home."

In 1998 Reece was working in rural Devon in the south of England when he saw an advertisement from HIS seeking volunteers. "I never intended to come to India," he says over a simple lunch of rice, lentils, and vegetables. He thought he would "hate India," both the food and people. Instead, he fell in love with it.

Reece lives on HIS's cacophonous grounds in a simple room with no heat during the chilly winters and no air conditioning in searing summers. He is still a volunteer, though he receives a small stipend, as well as room and board.

Why hasn't Reece returned to Britain? His face lights up. It's "just such fun here," he says. "We [do] things as a team, whereas much vet work [in Britain] is done on your own."

Much of the sterilization program's success has come from better record-keeping and data tracking, which Reece spearheaded. After scrupulously collecting data – no easy feat in India – he and his colleagues have published scientific papers about animal population control, rabies, and public health in peer-reviewed journals.

"While Help in Suffering and countless animals have benefited from Jack's direct work with them over the years, the international animal welfare and veterinary community have substantially gained as well," writes Kelly O'Meara, director at the US-based Humane Society International, which helped fund the sterilization program at HIS.

Jaipur is a long way from Horsham, the small town in Sussex, England, where Reece grew up. He graduated from the University of York and trained as a veterinarian at the University of Liverpool. By 1994 he was working in Devon, mostly tending to dairy cattle, as well as sheep, horses, and house pets.

After settling in Jaipur, Reece was moved by the warmth of the HIS staff, especially the technicians, who mostly belong to the Dalit, or "untouchable" caste, and were uneducated.

"You come here, and there are people who have no education, no money, and almost no possessions," Reece says. "Yet they sweep you up and engulf you in friendship. They are extraordinarily generous with whatever they can be generous with. I think it's extraordinary."

Reece has trained the technicians so that they are able to assist with surgeries and give basic treatments. He has learned to read and write Hindi, and he has encouraged them to do the same; now many are literate in that language. Some also have learned English from him and other Western volunteers and speak, read, and write English.

Mukesh Kumar Sangat has worked at HIS since 1999 and today is a highly skilled dog catcher and veterinary assistant. While working at HIS he has become literate in Hindi and even passed his eighth-grade exams last year. Reece is "so nice man. Really good teacher," Mr. Sangat says. "Just ask, 'How do I do that thing?' And then he teach."

Timmie Kumar, managing trustee of HIS, points out that the organization is larger than any one individual, and that many people have made enormous contributions over the years.

Yet in the next breath she adds, "Jack is worth his weight in all the precious metals."

• For more on HIS, visit http://www.his-india.in.

Ways to help

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations worldwide. Projects are vetted by Universal Giving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause.

Here are groups selected by Universal Giving that help pets and wildlife; one offers an opportunity to volunteer in Jaipur, India:

The GVN Foundation supports the charitable and educational work of local community organizations in many countries. Project: Volunteer to help wild animals in Thailand.

The San Francisco SPCA provides veterinary care for homeless animals and places them in homes with loving adopters. Project: Provide urgent care for a homeless animal.

Greenheart Travel promotes cultural understanding, environmental consciousness, and world peace. Project: Volunteer in Jaipur, India.

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