Dogs need this South African woman. People need her even more.

Cora Bailey is the founder of an animal shelter in Johannesburg, South Africa. Many of its neighbors are undocumented migrants who rely on the shelter for services they cannot – or are too afraid to – seek out from the government.

Ryan Leonora Brown
Cora Bailey’s mission includes help for those living near where she works in Johannesburg, South Africa.

It is 9:30 on a hot spring morning in Johannesburg, South Africa, and already a crisis is looming on Cora Bailey’s horizon. A crisis of chickens.

“We’ve got a situation,” Ms. Bailey says into her phone, shrugging off the knot of dogs at her feet. Forty chickens are sitting in the back of a trailer on the side of a nearby highway, she explains. Their owner has just been arrested after being pulled over, and now they risk suffocating in the boiling trailer.

“OK, thanks,” she says after a pause. “You can’t miss them. It’s the metal box that’s squawking.”

Disaster averted.

Bailey isn’t called upon to save a flock of chickens every morning, but it’s not a particularly out-of-the-ordinary task for her – and it’s hardly the most unusual animal rescue she’s ever made. That title might go to the chimpanzee she found chained in a suburban garage. Or maybe one of the owls she saved from being stoned to death by their superstitious human neighbors.

But sorting out some chickens is a fitting start to an ordinary Wednesday for Bailey, founder of Community Led Animal Welfare (CLAW), a Johannesburg animal shelter whose mission is as sprawling and chaotic as her days working there.

On any given day, the organization could be sterilizing neighborhood dogs or providing after-school tutoring to neighborhood kids. It could be running suburban adoption drives or delivering food parcels to shack settlements near its clinic, investigating a dog-fighting ring or collecting scared animals – and people – from the scene of a house fire or eviction.

The logic to that chaos is simple, Bailey says: If you don’t take care of suffering people, how can you expect them to turn around and take care of suffering animals?

“We have such a long way to go in this country – and the animals won’t get there until the people have,” she says. “At the same time, I see the most amazing things in my work – kids pushing their sick dogs four miles in a wheelbarrow to get to our clinic, waste pickers at the dump sharing everything they have with their dogs. This idea that poor people don’t care about their animals is so wrong, and it has got to go.”

I had met Bailey several months earlier, when my partner and I visited CLAW to adopt a dog. I was immediately struck by the unusual scope of her work. In a society rife with inequality and crime, many white people here have trained their dogs to be their protectors against the people they fear – who are very often black. Because of that, black South Africans often grow up fearing the animals and are often suspected of being intrinsically cold or neglectful owners by local shelters.

In South Africa, then, dogs straddle fault lines of history, race, class, and culture that aren’t easily crossed – but there is Bailey, pushing back against all that with a stunningly simple approach: Be kind to people, and they will be kind to animals, too.

How CLAW came to be

Bailey, whose face is etched with deep smile lines, grew up here, in Johannesburg’s West Rand, where giant mine dumps rise on the horizon like small, yellow-hued mountains. The main employer has historically been the city’s rich gold mines, but in recent decades, many of those mines have shuttered, and the area’s economy has slumped.

When South Africa jolted toward multiracial democracy in the early 1990s, political violence erupted, leaving thousands of families – and their pets – stranded and homeless. Bailey, then a mine industry saleswoman, decided to go to work collecting abandoned animals and turning them over to local animal shelters. But there was never enough space for all the animals she found – and almost without warning, she was running an informal shelter of her own. Soon, CLAW was born.

For the first few years of the organization’s life, it bounced between homes, but in 2000 the group was given the chance to relocate to a cheap and spacious property in the area – an abandoned mine.

Today, warped signs reading DURBAN DEEP still dot the rambling property. CLAW uses a cluster of old buildings to house its shelter and clinic, where it provides sterilization and free medical care to area animals.

CLAW shares its property with an unusual set of neighbors: a few hundred zama zamas – the informal miners who illegally trawl the city’s abandoned mines for gold that the big companies left behind – and their families. These people have taken over the former company town, partitioning off makeshift apartments in the crumbling old mansions that line the property. Clothes crusted with red dirt hang from lines strung between the buildings.

For Bailey, CLAW’s existence is bound up with that of these neighbors, many of whom are undocumented migrants from Zimbabwe and Malawi and rely on CLAW for services they cannot – or are too afraid to – seek out from the government.

Making the rounds in a pickup truck

Today, as she trundles through Durban Deep in a CLAW pickup truck, she slows to offer condolences to a woman whose sister died and to ask after a recently sterilized neighborhood dog. Then she pulls to a stop in front of the husk of an old house, where men are playing pool beneath the peeling wallpaper in the crumbling foyer. She’s come to find out about a recent mining accident. She explains that she heard a mine shaft collapsed – a common occurrence in the unregulated activity – killing two men. But their families have been afraid to go to police for help retrieving the bodies for fear they’ll be arrested.

“Should I call for you?” she asks one of them. He nods gratefully.

Bailey’s days often zigzag this way between animals and their humans, between the dogs who need her and the people who need her even more. She technically retired in December, but for her, that means now working five days a week instead of seven.

Tomorrow she will drive out to a nearby shack settlement with a team of volunteers for a mobile clinic, where she’ll examine a portly brown dog named Slender and give shots to a gentle-eyed Rottweiler named Computer.

“What these people are doing, it’s a good thing for us,” says Linah Zondi, Computer’s owner. “We can’t afford a vet, but we love this dog too much.”

‘When does this lady sleep?’

Eric Mimbi has worked at CLAW as a veterinarian since 2002, when he came to South Africa from Congo as a refugee. He credits his own success in the country in part to Bailey.

“Cora, from the start, she has seen me like a son,” he says, adding, “I’ve seen her up at 2 in the morning, at the police station, sometimes fighting for a dog, sometimes fighting for a human. You wonder, when does this lady sleep?”

But right now, in the CLAW pickup, Bailey’s mind is scrolling back to a moment a few months earlier – a moment she often replays in her head to remind herself why she does this work.

It was winter, and the clinic had received a call about an injured pit bull that had been left to die near a trash dump. When the staff arrived and saw the dog’s injuries, they knew immediately what had happened – dog fighting. Survival was deemed unlikely.

Bailey arrived at the clinic to find the dog near death, a thin blanket draped over its shivering black-and-white frame.

The vet was waiting with a tough question: Should they put the dog down and end its obvious misery?

Bailey stood over the animal, considering.

“We don’t want to keep a dog alive to suffer,” she says. “It’s one of the hardest decisions we ever make, but sometimes it’s what’s best.”

Then, from under the blanket she saw a flicker of movement. Bailey looked again.

Softly, almost imperceptibly, the dog had begun to wag its tail.

That, Bailey knew, was their answer.

“She was telling us something,” she says. “She wanted to live.”

How to take action

UniversalGiving helps people give to and volunteer for top-performing charitable organizations around the world. All the projects are vetted by UniversalGiving; 100 percent of each donation goes directly to the listed cause. Below are links to three groups helping animals or vulnerable members of society:

Greenheart Travel is an international exchange organization that provides cultural immersion programs to change lives and advance careers. Take action: Volunteer at an animal rescue center in Costa Rica.

Mayan Families gives opportunities and assistance to indigenous and impoverished people in Guatemala. Take action: Support families there.

Nepal Orphans Home attends to the welfare of children in Nepal who are orphaned, abandoned, or not supported by their parents. Take action: Help a remote school in Nepal get vital resources.

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