BY RACHEL ASCHENBRAND-ROBINSON for Lulus Blog

LIFESTYLE  |  05.13.19

soldier and dog reunion photo: SPCAI staff and dog rescue: pets and mental health - pets for depression and anxiety - how do dogs help with anxiety - dogs and emotional health

The team behind our featured Rescue Group of the Month plays a vital role not only in aiding animals but in improving the lives of some of our country’s most heroic humans. SPCA International is a small but mighty team that works to provide assistance to homeless pets around the globe–as well as military personnel and their families. There’s a known connection between pets and mental health, and with May being Mental Health Awareness Month, we could think of no better time to sit down with the SPCAI’s Meredith Ayan to chat. The Executive Director of this amazing organization filled us in on all things pup-related, her group’s mission, and how having a dog can literally save a life.

SPCAI staff and dog rescue: pets and mental health - pets for depression and anxiety - how do dogs help with anxiety - dogs and emotional health

Lulus: What exactly is SPCA International and what do you do?

Meredith Ayan: We’re a small staff of only seven people making a global impact: Every person on our staff is entirely committed to our cause and work! The mission of SPCA International is simple but vast: advancing the safety and well-being of animals. The organization was founded to help smaller shelters internationally, as well as domestically, that don’t have access to regular support. We provide direct funding via Shelter Support Grants which gives organizations financial stability to continue their operations. We also provide Veterinary Supply Aid in the form of surgical supplies, antibiotics, right down to everyday items like collars, leashes, and bowls. Things we take for granted in the US every day may not be available in other countries, or are so cost-prohibitive it can be a month’s salary to buy a collar for a dog! What we mostly try to focus on is education and access to spay and neuter. Only by addressing the root of the problem, overpopulation, will we ever make a real impact on the quality of life these animals deserve.

We are also very involved with the military through our Operation Baghdad Pups: Worldwide program, which was not a founding program but rather, an organic development. We were contacted by a soldier in 2008 who was deployed to Baghdad and couldn’t stand the thought of leaving the puppy he found behind. We found a way to get Charlie home for Sgt Watson and the rest, as they say, is history. We have now reunited over 950 animals befriended by active duty military personnel and contractors over the last 11 years! Having to tell these men and women we can’t save their animals is not an option.

We also have a program called Operation Military Pets that provides grants to military families on Permanent Change of Station orders. The military does not cover the cost of relocating pets for families–and the average family can change stations every two to three years. We subsidize the cost of moving their animals so no family member gets left behind.

soldier and dog reunion photo: SPCAI staff and dog rescue: pets and mental health - pets for depression and anxiety - how do dogs help with anxiety - dogs and emotional health

Lulus: This work can’t be simple: What are the biggest challenges you face as an organization?

MA: One of our biggest challenges is the urgency of our OBP: Worldwide program. Sometimes we only have a few hours notice to save an animal in imminent danger in a war zone. This means we have to jump on logistics very quickly, it’s literally a matter of life and death. Luckily we have a huge network of partners we can activate 24 hours a day to make that happen–but it’s not easy.  We also see so much widespread animal abuse across the world–animals challenged by the circumstances of individual countries’ needs. We frequently work with local governments and knowing how to approach them based on the culture, needs, and limitations of the region is very important. We have to be nimble and responsive to so many different factors. And the acronym SPCA is always confusing! A common misconception is that all SPCA’s operate under the same umbrella, which is not the case. We are all individually operated organizations with separate missions, staff, and boards.

Lulus: What’s your favorite thing about what you do?

MA: Seeing change happen when we have been working on an issue tirelessly. Recently I was in Iraq and we’re seeing a shift in perception toward spay and neuter as a means of humane population control. That is such an accomplishment after so many years of working toward that goal in that region. Of course, every time a dog and soldier are reunited in the US it reaffirms everything to us. Animal welfare can be such a tough job but the victories keep you going. I always say I’m working to put myself out of a job. Once we don’t need animal welfare protection societies I’ll consider our jobs to be done.

SPCAI staff and dog rescue: pets and mental health - pets for depression and anxiety - how do dogs help with anxiety - dogs and emotional health

Lulus: What’s the one misconception about rescue pets that you’d love to clear up?

MA: That they are broken or damaged or “less than” in some way. The stigma attached to rescue animals is really harmful. Unfortunately, it’s common that they have experienced some trauma in their lives but animals are so incredibly resilient—we should all be so lucky to have that ability to recover.

Lulus: One of your major initiatives is Operation Baghdad Pups–tell us about this program. Why is it so important?

MA: OBP: Worldwide program is so important because these soldiers and animals have experienced a bond we can’t imagine. I can’t tell you how many times we have heard that these cats and dogs are the only respite these men and women get during their deployments. Knowing they would go back to their base and have that animal waiting for them was the bright spot in a long deployment. There have been so many reports about the suicide rate among veterans increasing over the years and that breaks my heart (20 a day, according to Mental Health First Aid). If we can do one thing to make their lives easier and improve their emotional health we will do it, no matter what.

soldier and dog reunion photo: SPCAI staff and dog rescue: pets and mental health - pets for depression and anxiety - how do dogs help with anxiety - dogs and emotional health

Lulus: What’s the best resource you recommend for dog advice in general?

MA: Spcai.org! We’re in the process of launching a new website look with more information.

Lulus: Favorite Insta-dogs to follow?

MA: Our Ambassador, @syri_not_siri! And of course, our office dogs (my boxer, Lilah) @pocketboxerand our resident Shiba @kumabooma.

 

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