I saved life today and it cost me nothing. I didn't donate an organ or a pint of blood. I didn't even break a sweat. How you ask? I carried a bag. A small bag- less than 10 pounds. I didn't have to carry it far. Mostly I just kept it nearby. And kept it safe. Inside my bag was one sweet little Cunucu puppy. I can think of nothing easier or more satisfying than carrying that little bag. I highly recommend it.
It's 4 pm. I am 30,000 feet somewhere above the Caribbean and as I peer down at the tiny little soul resting at my feet I am so full of gratitude for her survival and hope for her future. She is sleeping peacefully, utterly unaware of the new life that awaits her- and I am now all too aware of the fate that awaited her had she stayed on the island- a fate that will most certainly befall many of her fellow canine countrymen. In the grand scheme of things, my role in securing her future is small...minuscule even - all I did was carry a bag- but carrying that bag was critical. The literal difference between life and death.
The past 36 hours I spent in Aruba were simultaneously eye-opening, heart breaking and gut wrenching but also awe-inspiring, heart warming and humbling beyond measure. The plight of the dogs on the island and the people working tirelessly to save them is so much worse than anything I could have imagined. Tirelessly - you read that and think I mean working "hard" or "diligently" - I might have read that turn of phrase and thought them same thing...that is, until I met Natayla Yermak. No- when I say "tirelessly" I mean in the literal sense-working to the point of extreme exhaustion, not allowing herself to tire of the work necessary to save these little lives that are depending on her – sometimes going days without sleep, staying up all night to feed orphaned puppies or nurse dying dogs back to life.
Natalya is the rarest of breeds. As I contemplate how to convey her warmth and dedication, I am simply at a loss. I like to think I am a good person. And I know a lot of good people. Some even better than good....but none can compare to the goodness that is Natalya Yermak. She exudes a kindness and benevolence scarcely seen in the world today. She has a pure and undying love for every creature she encounters. She has a fierce tenacity and unflappable perseverance despite the seemingly insurmountable odds stacked against her and the dogs she is trying to save. She is the Mother Teresa of Cunucus. That too sounds like a clever turn of phrase, a witty comparison. But I mean it literally. I witnessed it myself. Natalya is to the poor, neglected dogs of Aruba what Mother Teresa was to the sick and the impoverished of Calcutta. I can make no other comparison because Natalya is incomparable. The rarest of breeds.
My morning began on Sunday when my mother and I drove to the vet to meet Natalya who was bringing a few of the many dogs in her care for check ups. She arrived with a puppy carrier under each arm and a mama dog on a leash. We helped her into the exam room where she proceeded to wipe down all the surfaces before allowing the dogs to be in contact with anything. I realize now that her concern for their well being is paramount every moment of every day - and she takes every precaution. One of the puppies, Sandy, was not doing so well. Sandy had been found covered in ticks and with a very low blood count. The vet said special food and pedialyte would be needed throughout the night if she had a chance of survival. After the exams and treatment, I inquired about the outstanding balance on the New Life For Paws account - and made, along with my mom, at least a small dent in the never ending black hole that is the vet bill. Saving lives isn't cheap.
We followed Natalya to her home where she was so happy and proud to show us the setup she has for some of the puppies in her care. Make no mistake- this is not the sort of swanky, uber trendy doggie daycare that live streams your pet’s antics while you are at work -this is as no frills as it gets. But the dogs are safe and loved and that's all they really need. We helped feed the 2 week old litter of 5 puppies and one kitten that must be bottle fed every 2-3 hours since their mother was poisoned and died. Two of her pups also died after the poison spread to them from her milk. Natalya cared for them until the very end and cried over their tiny lifeless bodies. She cried again telling me about it. And I cried too. For them and for her. Death is a big part of saving lives. This work is not for the faint of heart.
The kitten came from the kill cage where her mama ran off-and Natalya-in typical Natalya fashion- could not possibly leave her. She is thriving in the company of her adopted canine brothers and sisters. Feeding six tiny lives every few hours is no small task. It takes time and dedication. There is no shortage of dedication with Natalya but as I learned throughout the day – her time is a precious commodity. Once their bellies were full and they were properly cared for, we moved to the next litter- five more puppies- about five weeks old. These rascals had made quite a mess of their pen. We helped clean that up and clean them up- and showered them with lots of love and attention. Next we tried to get Sandy, the sick pup that had been at the vet to drink a little. We were going to need to get to the pet store for the special food she needed - and fast.
Before we could get to the store though, we first had to unload the supplies we brought from the states and get them put away at Natalya’s house- in the shed- in the kitchen- in the living room… Saving lives takes lots of supplies.
Supplies take up lots of room.
Every bit of free space Natalya has is overrun by supplies that to her are prized possessions. Next we went with Natalya to another shelter area to return the mama doggie who had gone to the vet that morning and feed the other dogs there. That job done we were on to our next task-feeding the dogs at yet another shelter- but not before we tracked down the recovery food needed for baby Sandy. Sunday on a desert island is not the place to be when you're in need of special food that is a matter of life and death. There's no 24 hour Walmart or Target with aisles of endless options. We finally found one closed pet store with a light on and a car in the lot. With Sandy's life hanging in the balance, we begged and pleaded to be allowed in. Sensing our desperation they let us purchase the very expensive but very necessary food. Cash only since it was after hours. Thank goodness my mom is an old-fashioned cash carrier who could pull out a few hundreds from her wallet. After all, saving lives isn't cheap.
We still needed pedialyte for Sandy but in Aruba only the pharmacy sells it. Sunday on a desert island is not the place you want to be when you're in need of life saving pedialyte. But we could not go out in search of what Sandy needed desperately because it was already time for the tiny puppies and kitten to be bottle fed again. We were faced with Sophie’s choice- feed the puppies or let them go hungry while we tracked the pedialyte for Sandy. We decided to get Natalya back to the house to feed the puppies and my mom and I set out in our rental car in search of an open pharmacy. As we wandered around the island, my visions of floating around the lazy river that afternoon faded into the distance overshadowed by the tiny life whose survival depended on my ability to traverse the unknown roads in search of a bottle of vitamin juice.
With the help of a few locals who were able to direct me in a way only a spoiled and gluttonous American could understand- with food landmarks (up the road toward wacky wahoos, beyond the turn for Papiamentos and just passed Linda's Pancake house) we made it to the pharmacy. We bought every available bottle and $45 later we were headed back to Natalya. After all, saving lives isn't cheap. I have to say I was quite impressed and proud of my mom, who somehow was able to direct me back to Natalya's house far better than mapquest ever could have. To our delight, Sandy perked up and seemed to enthusiastically indulge in the nourishment we had so painstakingly tracked down for her.
We finished up feeding the tiny babies and then went to see the 5 week old rascals. It was time for their dinner. But first- another poopy mess to clean up. We gave them love and cuddles and cleaned them up- and tried to pose them for some photos. We even got to give them names which was a real treat for us.
By now it was nearly 7 pm. We were sweaty. We were dirty. We were stinky. We were wrecked. Natalya? She was getting ready to head to another shelter with more dogs to feed for the evening. And when she was done there- she would be back to feed the tiny puppies - and then spend the wee hours of the night alternating between puppy feeding and Sandy care. And by morning she would be back at the vet doing it all over again. Tire-LESS work. We got back to our hotel late in the evening- both mentally and physically exhausted from the day. We enjoyed hot showers and then a warm dinner – two luxuries you can be certain Natalya did not get that night. Taking time for herself is very low on her list of priorities. With every bite of my dinner, my mind wandered back to what I had seen – I wondered how Sandy was doing, if the tiny puppies were hungry…how many others were somewhere on the island, barely clinging to life, desperate for help to survive? And what more could I do to help? And why had this country that I had come to love so much failed its animals so miserably? The physical, emotional and mental toll this work must take day in and day out is unfathomable to me. I barely survived one day.
This morning Natalya met me at the airport with the puppy who is still resting at my feet. She bid farewell to my little flight companion with the sincerest devotion and she wiped away a few tears as we waved goodbye. We are now somewhere over Virginia and reflecting back on yesterday I am awestruck at what I witnessed. Natalya is by no means the only one doing this sort of great work. And she does it with help that comes in many forms - through fosters, donations, transporters, support of many kinds. But she is the one who is deep in the trenches-With no time for anything but the lives that are depending on her. I can't help but wonder how she would have made it through yesterday without us tagging along...how could she have gotten to the tiny puppies to feed them and still tracked down the pedialyte? Where would she get the cash for the special food at the pet store? Heck, how would she feed and clean all the other puppies? Or even carry all 3 dogs into the vet at the same time? And then I realize, she faces those challenges and somehow overcomes them every day... She saves lives against the worst odds all the time..she performs unexpected miracles on a daily basis. Just like Mother Teresa.
As of this morning Sandy was doing better, and the puppies we named - Big Sherry, Michael, Brandon, Margaret, Grace, Dakota and Maggey were all thriving. I may have even found the perfect family for my little companion right on our flight- a couple fell absolutely in love with her and completed the application before we even boarded the plane. I am headed back to reality - back to unlimited wifi, 24 hour convenience stores on every corner and $6 lattes - lattes that just won't taste the same knowing they are the equivalent of 2 cans of that special food for Sandy.
From now on, I vow to load up my luggage with desperately needed pet supplies rather than a new outfit for every night of my vacation. I vow to never travel home from Aruba without a canine companion. I vow to try to be more like Natalya. As we begin our descent, I am full of optimism for the little life, still asleep at my feet, that I helped save today. I am full of gratitude to Natalya for the passion and compassion she endlessly and generously gives to everyone and everything around her.
And I am full of hope that with enough help together we can make a difference in this one tiny little corner of the world.
- Sherry Grace
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