Elizabeth Sundstrom, Freelance Writer and Editor, Animal Advocate

While business acumen is crucial to the success of any non-profit organization, it’s compassion for animals rather than a passion for business that drives most animal activists. Nancy Janes, president and CEO of Romania Animal Rescue/Animal Spay Neuter International (RAR/ASNI) is no different. In September I interviewed Nancy about the work of RAR and she offered eight tips for succeeding in the non-profit world.  In this interview we focus on how RAR’s mission translates to a better life for the animals and people of Romania as well as a special milestone the organization reached in October.

ES: RAR has grown considerably in recent years. It now has a mobile spay clinic, aka the spaymobile, and a hospital/training center.

NJ: Yes. The biggest news this year is the preview opening of the Center of Hope that was built near Bucharest and opened in October. Once we obtain the funds to finish equipping it, this will be our headquarters for all our work in Romania - Homeless Animals Hospital Bucharest region, Veterinary Training Camp, and the Education/Seminar Center. It will also be the launching point for HOPE, the mobile spay clinic. Sir Paul McCartney has allowed us to use his song “Hope of Deliverance” as our HOPE spaymobile's theme song. 

ES: You mentioned the spaymobile. What is a spayathon? On average, how many pets are altered at these events?

NJ: Spayathon is a word I made up! It’s an event where at least 30 animals (dogs and cats) are spayed or neutered. Most spayathons now average 100-200 animals and occur continually throughout the year in various locations that request our help. Funding is our biggest challenge. In Craiova, Moreni, Bucharest, and Iasi we hold ongoing or monthly spay campaigns and the reduction of pet overpopulation results in positive changes for both the community and the animals who live there.

ES: How many animals were altered in October?

NJ: We just completed our most recent spayathon in the city of Craiova and outlying villages. Our veterinarians, technicians, and international volunteers worked tirelessly over a one week period, resulting in 475 animals, mostly dogs, being altered. For the entire month of October, including all the locations we serviced, 1,183 animals were spayed or neutered. 

ES: RAR recently celebrated a milestone goal of sterilizing 50,000 dogs and cats. How does spay/neuter make life better for the animals of Romania.

NJ: Funding allowed, each month we’re able to spay and neuter about 1,000 pets, mostly dogs. Every altered animal represents a reduction in puppies or kittens that would otherwise suffer from abandonment, killing, diseases, starvation, or life in substandard shelters. It’s a win/win for the animals in numerous ways. For females, spaying prevents transmissible venereal tumors and pyometra (a life-threatening infection of the uterus). Early age spaying helps prevent mammary tumors. In males, it prevents prostate cancer and severely reduces the males’ desire to roam, resulting in fewer aggressive dog packs roaming the streets. These packs rape females in heat and show aggression towards humans.  

ES: How many times a year do you go to Romania? What is a typical trip like?

NJ: Usually twice a year. Years ago these trips involved taking American veterinarians to various shelters, clinics and universities to perform the surgeries and train Romanian vets. But now I go as a volunteer to assist in the recovery room. We have a marvelous Romanian vet team and Romanian/UK vet tech team, in addition to numerous international volunteers. We’ve named ourselves the "Romaniacs" and we provide hands-on help. This year we met in October for the spayathon in Craiova and some villages. We used both the Homeless Animals Hospital clinic, as well as HOPE, our new mobile ambulance that will travel to remote villages providing spay/neuter services. Seventeen volunteers helped out, as well as the many locals who coordinated the campaign, and the wonderful vets and techs who worked incredibly hard to make all the work possible. 

ES: How does RAR's work impact the community?

NJ: On a human scale, fewer dogs mean less corruption. Authorities and others make money off the animals with kickbacks and sad photos. It reduces the financial burden on society in tax revenue for "care and control" and eases the social conscience of the community. Our vet team has been thanked so often by citizens who are grateful they “no longer have to drown the puppies.” Without excellent spay and neuter surgeries provided, individuals are faced with either abandoning animals in the streets or forests or killing them. We provide a humane alternative.

ES: What does life look like for homeless pets in Romania?

NJ: Sad - with little hope of adoption. There are just too many dogs and not enough homes. They scrounge for food on the streets and are vulnerable to cruelty from people who consider them a danger or nuisance. Dogs living on the streets are constantly getting hit by cars. Those in public shelters suffer disease, starvation, overcrowding and lack of empathy.

ES: How do Romania’s shelters differ from those in the U.S.?

NJ: Well, in public shelters the funding is often kicked back into the pockets of the authorities. Citizens are taxed for animal care and control, which is to cover the cost of food, vaccines, and spaying. Shelters are a big business in Romania and generate millions of dollars. In many cases the money never reaches the animals. Both public and private shelters are overcrowded with little if any stimulation for their occupants. They are nothing more than prisons with concrete or dirt floors. The old-school system of building "shelters" hasn’t changed much in Romania despite the efforts of international animal welfare organizations sharing best practices for creating sanctuaries versus cramped shelters. Rescuers move animals from one bad shelter to another in attempts to stop the killing shelters from destroying the dogs. And the dogs continue to live in misery.

ES: You talk a lot about shelter dogs. In what ways does their plight differ from that of cats? 

NJ: There are no public shelters for cats, only a few private shelters.  Our feline clients come to us via their cat guardians, feral caregivers, and local rescuers. There are stray cats roaming and we have a free feral cat spay/neuter program for 100 cats per month with humane trap lending for the community in Bucharest and Craiova. This is in cooperation with NetAp charity from Switzerland. People are kinder and more accepting of cats because they don’t form packs and pose a perceived threat to people. Also, the lack of public shelters for cats means people are not being taxed for a perceived nuisance and there’s less resentment of cats. The media focuses on targeting dogs, not cats, as public enemies.

ES: You initially wanted to work with Romania’s shelters to improve living conditions for dogs, most of whom would never be adopted. What convinced you to focus your efforts on spay/neuter instead?

NJ: There was no end in sight to the constant flow of puppies and dogs. Without moving to Romania and personally managing a shelter, I would have no control over funds, services, and humane treatment of the animals. We needed to stop the suffering at its source. This is especially important because there is a lack of small animal veterinarians who practice in rural areas. Animals do not deserve to be born into a world that doesn't want them and discards them in the cruelest of ways. 

ES: Where does your financial support come from? Does the Romanian government help with any of the costs since the country benefits greatly from this service?

NJ: Donations are our primary source of funding. We occasionally get grants. The Romanian government and the EU do not fund any of our work.

ES: Within the past 15 years, the number of homeless dogs has dropped from an estimated five million to half that number. Do you envision a time when RAR will sunset or are you thinking about succession planning?

NJ: I wish! No I do not see this happening. I wish there were no more animals to suffer...but as long as there are, we'll be there. We have to be there.