At 23 years of age, Hannah Russell is a published author and the founder of Russell Rhino, an online clothing and accessory store, dedicated to raising awareness for rhinos. So far, Hannah estimates she has raised well over £100,000 for charities, including those who help save rhinos. Incredible!
Hannah was born in 1997 in Scarborough—a northern coastal town in England. For as long as she can remember, animals have been a part of her life, including many she has rescued and rehabilitated. She credits her mom, Sharron for inspiring her love of animals.
Hannah now lives in Yorkshire Dales, which she describes as ‘a very scenic part of the UK’. She shares her home with sixteen animals—horses, guinea pigs, chickens, rabbits and dogs!
One of her animals has become rather famous. Little Alf, a miniature Shetland pony, is the subject of eight books for children Hannah has published. At 28 inches tall, Little Alf is the size of a large dog.
When Hannah was sixteen, she wasn’t certain what career path to pursue, but thought teaching sports might be a good match for her. As such, she studied sports education at college. Unfortunately, she developed severe back pain and had to drop out of school.
As is often the case, when one door closes, another opens. For Hannah, this new path led her to writing the first of eight books about Little Alf. Her first book, The Magical Adventures of Little Alf—The Discovery of The Wild Pony, was published in 2014, when Hannah was seventeen years old!
In addition to being a successful author, Hannah knew she wanted to do something to help animals. With her knowledge of business (Hannah has had businesses since she was 16 years old) she founded Russell Rhino in January of 2018.
Russell Rhino donates 100% of all the profits to Helping Rhinos, an organization dedicated to rhino conservation.
Hannah creates all the designs for her clothing line. Though she doesn’t have a background in art, she most likely inherited her natural talent from her mom, an artist.
I personally own one of Hannah’s gorgeous creations—a T-shirt of a mother rhino and her calf.
Rhinos aren’t the only animals Hannah is dedicated to help.
Like many of us, Hannah was heartbroken to hear about the devastating forest fires in Australia. As an animal lover, she was determined to help the wildlife. Using her business savvy and creative side, she designed a line of clothing featuring koalas. And just like she does with her rhino designs, Hannah donates 100% of the profits from the sales of the Australian clothing line to charities helping animals injured by the wild fires.
When I asked Hannah what inspired her to help the animals in Australia, she said,
‘I’m an animal lover and knew a way to help so I did. There isn’t anything special about what I did. I kept seeing the ongoing emerging images in the news of the horrendous wild fires and couldn’t stop thinking about the animals getting injured and killed but also the long-term effects of them losing their homes and habitats, it’s awful. I thought of a way to help through my creative side so set about it and worked on some Koala designs.’
To date, Hannah has raised over £65,000 for this cause.
Hannah has already done so much to make the world a kinder place for animals. I look forward to cheering her on as she continues to find ways to improve the lives of so many animals in need.
If there is one thing in the world Hannah could change, she would want ‘everyone to be nice to animals and one another. We have one shot on this earth and it takes nothing to be nice to someone. Just smiling at someone can make there day. Equally for animals, I have always said they were here before us. We are the ones who have come along and disturbed them. We need to leave them alone in their habitats. We have no need to hunt, to poach and to distress them.
It’s a sad world and unfortunately there is more and more sad news emerging each day about what someone has done to another person or an animal, and it’s awful.’
Hannah is right—there is much sadness in the world. But I also believe there are people like Hannah, who do everything they can to make a positive difference in the lives of animals and other people. Hopefully, these caring people will inspire others to do whatever they can to help those in need—both human and non-human animals alike.
Elaine Philpott grew up in the United Kingdom. For as long as she can remember, animals have always been a huge part of her life. As a child, she shared her home with dogs, cats, rabbits and hamsters.
Given her love of animals, it makes perfect sense that she trained to become a veterinary nurse. She worked at a practice in Coventry for 17 years, becoming head nurse, and then at a practice in Scotland for another 13 years.
Next to animals, Elaine’s other love is travelling. She has visited places like Morocco, Kenya, Sri Lanka, Australia, but her favourite destination has always been India.
It was on one of her many visits to India that she met Rachel Wright, an English Veterinary nurse who founded Tree Of Life For Animals (TOLFA). TOLFA is an animal hospital and rescue centre in Rajasthan (a state in northern India). The two women had a long chat, and Elaine offered to help the animals in any way she could.
Several months later, when Elaine had returned to the UK, she received a postcard from Rachel telling her about a shelter in Udaipur called Animal Aid Unlimited. The shelter was looking for a nurse to train their staff and Rachel wondered if Elaine would be interested.
Elaine took six weeks unpaid leave from her job in Scotland. Her boss said she could go, “as long as she promised to come back.”
Elaine looks back fondly on her time volunteering at Animal Aid Unlimited. She describes it as “the happiest she had ever been.” After the six weeks, she returned to Scotland and resumed working as a veterinary nurse. But her experience in India had profoundly changed her and what she wanted from life. “After much soul searching, I gave in my notice, sold my small flat, and returned to Animal Aid Unlimited.” She spent two years volunteering at what she calls, “The best shelter in India.”
After about two years, Elaine took a short holiday to a small fishing village in the southern India called Mamallapuram. There is no veterinary doctor in Mamallapuram, so Elaine, armed with a small medical kit that she always carries with her, spent her holiday treating the many sick dogs in the village.
One of the dogs she treated was a female who gave birth to her puppies under a table where Elaine was sitting. One of the pups wasn’t breathing and Elaine resuscitated him, much to the shock of those sitting beside her. Once she explained she was a veterinary nurse, they were happy and even paid for her meal.
The owner of the café made a shelter at the back of the building for ‘Mama’ and her babies. As mid-wife, Elaine visited every day to check on them. One day, Mama wasn’t there. To her horror, Elaine heard that Mama had been killed by a fisherman because she had been sitting on one of his nets on the beach. To this day, bodies of dogs are found on the beach, killed for simply sitting on fishermen’s nets.
The death of Mama made Elaine realize how much the animals in this village needed her. For the next six months, she commuted between Udaipur and Mamallapuram, spending a month at each location. This was not a simple trek, each way involving a three-day journey by train.
Eventually, Elaine made the difficult decision and said goodbye to Animal Aid Unlimited to devote all her time helping the many animals in Mamallapuram. That was twelve years ago.
Elaine credits her mom, who is 87 years old, as being her most keen supporter of the work she does in India. “She is the one I turn to when I need to talk to someone. We have shed many tears over the phone.”
A big part of Elaine’s day is spent befriending the stray dogs. She walks into town every day and visits the dogs, feeding them biscuits, cuddling, and just being with them. Sometimes it takes months to gain their trust.
But once she has it, she’s able to vaccinate them against rabies, distemper and parvo viruses. As there is no local vet, she has to take the stray dogs to Chennai, about an hour away, to be spayed and neutered. She has teamed up with Blue Cross of India to help catch and transport the dogs to Chennai. To date, Elaine estimate she has spayed or neutered 700 dogs.
As there is no animal shelter in Mamallapuram, after the dogs are vaccinated, spayed and/or neutered, they are returned to the streets. However, there are occasions when an animal is too sick to leave unattended. In those cases, Elaine or someone else will take the animal home until they are well enough to be released.
Sometimes, Elaine has even been able to find homes for the dogs. She says she has “lost count of the number of pups I have taken home, treated, and then re-homed.”
One of the wonderful outcomes of Elaine taking care of the dogs, is that her compassion for animals has spread to others living in the community. “People have changed their attitude toward dogs We are always being told if there is a dog with problems in need of treatment.”
In fact, Elaine now has a team helping her take care of the animals. Christina Wong, a woman from Switzerland, has lived in Mamallapuram for many years. She not only takes in dogs, but also supplies dog food to the many people feeding the local street dogs.
A woman named Susheela, who lives in Mamallapuram part of the year, looks after the village dogs and played a huge part in raising funds to buy an ambulance. And a local man, named Murali, feeds and cares for the street dogs, and drives the ambulance.
Though Elaine’s main focus is helping the street dogs, she also cares for other animals, such as cats, monkeys, birds, and owls.
Charley was rescued when he was just a kitten. He and Elaine have been sharing a home for twelve years.
Gizzy was another kitten Elaine rescued. He was gravely hurt by dogs when he was just six weeks old. And though he recovered, he is paralyzed on one side of his face. But like Charley, there is a happy ending for Gizzy as well. He now lives with Elaine’s ex-landlord and is “thoroughly spoiled.”
Recently, Murali rescued a monkey who had been electrocuted. The poor monkey suffered very serious injuries. Murali took him to a shelter in Chennai, where he is recovering from major surgery.
For Elaine, the best part is taking in sick dogs, helping them heal, returning them to the streets, and watching them run off and join their friends. She loves seeing dogs she has known as puppies reach the age of ten or twelve years old, living happy contented lives on the streets. She is also delighted when she sees them being cared for and fed by local shop owners and food stalls.
Elaine has made strides in improving the lives of stray dogs but she knows there is still much to do. One of the hardest parts for Elaine is witnessing the dire condition of many of the stray dogs—mangy, emaciated, ill. It is also incredibly difficult to see people being deliberately cruel to dogs—hitting them, beating them, even killing them.
Elaine says there is no comparison between the way animals are treated in the west to the way they are treated in India. She believes part of the reason is because many people are struggling to survive themselves and can’t worry about the dogs. But she is hopeful things are improving.
She believes attitudes about animal welfare are slowly changing for the better in India—especially with the younger generation. Many shelters and NGO’s are now making themselves heard, as they give voice to the animals, who for far too long have been terribly mistreated.
When asked the one thing she would change in the world if she could, Elaine says, “I don’t expect everyone to like animals, but to go out of your way to be cruel and hurt them, for me, is very difficult to tolerate. I wish people would accept that a dog wants to sleep in the shade, or lie in front of a shop or house and just let them be.”
Animal advocate and award winning author Rob Laidlaw has devoted his life to helping animals. While not everyone can commit as much time and effort as he does to helping animals, Rob believes all of us can make a difference. “Anyone can help.”
I learned about Rob and his charitable organization Zoocheck many years ago. So, when author and friend Sylvia McNicoll shared her story about Rob and how kind he was to her, I took a chance and emailed him, asking if he would be willing to share his story for my blog. Not only did he agree, he offered to speak with me!
While he spoke, I scrambled to make notes. Everything he said hit a chord with me. I didn’t want to miss any of it. I hope you enjoy reading this story as much I did writing it.
Rob Laidlaw was born in Toronto, Ontario. As far back as he can remember, he was always interested in animals and the environment.
As a kid, Rob read every book about animals and the environment in both his school and public library. He laughs that, back then, there weren’t very many such books.
The more he read, the more he learned, and the more his appetite for knowledge grew. He wrote away to groups such as Compassion in World Farming, Beauty Without Cruelty and the Animal Protection Institute, hoping to learn more about animal protections issues. This was pre-internet, pre-email, but eventually a long-awaited reply would arrive in the mail. With his growing knowledge of animals and how they were treated, Rob decided he wanted to do something to help them.
In 1981, he attended an early incarnation of the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). He saw a film called The Animal’s Film, a disturbing documentary that provided a comprehensive look at the exploitation of animals in modern society. Rob described the film like this, “Imagine the worst things humans could do to animals, and what the film showed was 100, maybe 1000, times worse.” It detailed explicit and systemic animal cruelty and neglect, such as what animals endure on factory farms. Fortunately, it was not just an endless account of human cruelty. The film ended with a call to action. It featured groups trying to help animals in various ways.
Rob left the film with one thought, “I can’t know all of this and not try to help.”
Thus, began his search for groups to work with. But back then, there weren’t many animal advocacy groups in Canada. Groups like PETA didn’t exist.
With no animal advocacy groups operating in Toronto, he began his own investigations of animals in laboratories, factory farms and slaughterhouses.
In 1984, Rob was driving around the south shore of Georgian Bay in Ontario when he came upon the now defunct Wasaga Beach Game Farm. Rob was horrified by what he saw. Bears, primates, big cats and other animals trapped in grossly inadequate makeshift cages, some standing on deep beds of concrete-like excrement and being fed cheap, garbage food, including what looked like restaurant waste. There was also a bear cub, chained by the neck in a travel crate. She was crying. Rob asked about what was to happen to the cub, and was told she was going to another zoo, not too far away. Rob stopped at the other place. It was even worse.
Unable to simply walk away from what he witnessed, Rob followed up with complaints to the humane society and whatever government agencies provided oversight to places like this. He soon discovered there were no rules and that anyone could start a zoo. No license was required, no expertise or experience was needed, and there were no animal housing, management, care, welfare or safety standards— animal owners could do what they wanted. To make matters worse, there was no agency to receive complaints about the terrible conditions these animals were forced to live in, and no record of how many such zoos even existed.
Rob’s response to this blatant lack of accountability was to start the Zoocheck project in 1984. He traveled the province finding zoos, visiting them multiple times and documenting what he saw.
While the goal of Zoocheck was initially focused only on helping captive wild animals in Ontario’s zoos, it has expanded throughout the years to the goal of promoting and protecting the interests and well-being of wild animals, both in captivity and in the wild, across Canada and around the world. Today, Zoocheck uses investigative campaigns, legislative initiatives, legal actions, animal rescues and capacity building activities to achieve its goals.
Zoocheck’s efforts have played a significant role in ending the era of the roadside zoo to the east and west of Ontario. Unfortunately, Ontario has been particularly challenging and is still the only province that lacks dedicated laws, regulations or policies governing the keeping of exotic wildlife in captivity, but Rob is confident that will soon change.
Throughout the years, Zoocheck has also worked on hundreds of local bylaw campaigns aimed at stopping the use of wild animals in circuses, traveling zoos and the keeping of exotic pets. As well, at the provincial and federal level, Zoocheck has pushed for new or improved laws and regulations to protect wildlife in captivity and to end the keeping of whales and dolphins in captivity in Canada. The group also has international campaigns, conducted collaboratively with other organizations, to improve the lives of captive animals.
Rob and his colleagues also fight to end the systemic abuse and exploitation of wildlife in the wild particularly by government agencies. Zoocheck has successfully pushed to establish bear rehabilitation and release across the country, to challenge the outdated wildlife management practices that threaten the existence of wild horses in the Canadian west and to combat the systemic persecution of double-crested cormorants in the Great Lakes Basin. Wildlife elsewhere are on the agenda too, as Zoocheck has expended considerable funds on anti-poaching efforts to protect elephants and rhinos in Africa’s wilderness.
Here are some of Rob’s memorable campaigns that Zoocheck has been involved with.
Several years ago, Rob was contacted by a US organization trying to help an elderly sixty-nine year old elephant named Hanako. She had spent nearly all of her life alone at the Inokashira Zoo in Japan, living on a concrete slab. Elephants in the wild live in familial groups for their entire lives, and are extremely active and wide-ranging.
Unfortunately, Hanako died as the campaign was building speed, but the US group wanted to capitalize on it to help other elephants. Zoocheck arranged for a world-renowned elephant biologist to examine Japan’s other solitary elephants and to produce a technical report about their plight and then to cooperatively do the follow-up work in Japan. A comprehensive report was released and attracted a great deal of attention, leading to a new policy statement by Japan’s national zoo association and changes to the way elephants are kept. But changing the value system and perspectives of humans takes time, so in the case of Japan, Rob estimates it could take another five to ten years of effort to substantially change the paradigm for Japanese elephants.
Another memorable elephant campaign was waging a fierce multi-year political battle against the Toronto Zoo and then relocating their three surviving elephants to a massive, world-renowned elephant sanctuary in California. Their lives were vastly improved and videos of them roaming the hills populate YouTube.
Another meaningful animal rescue for Rob involved Eugene the macaque monkey who had spent 26 years living alone in a room in a Quebec pet store. “He never saw the light of day or another monkey until we got him out of there,” Rob said. Eugene spent his final years at the Fauna Foundation sanctuary near Montreal. (An amazing place—my daughter & I visited a couple of years ago). He had lots of room, stimulation and he enjoyed simple things, like rolling his blankets up into a bed and then lying in the sun. “I’m so glad Eugene got to do those things before he passed.”
Wild Horses in Alberta
An issue that has always been close to Rob’s heart involves Canada’s wild horses. He led a difficult campaign against the Department of National Defence in the mid-90s over the fate of 1,200 wild horses on a military base in Alberta, the largest herd of wild horses in the Canadian west. Unfortunately, those horses were rounded up and the majority were sent to slaughter.
Fast forward to today and the fight is on to save another wild horse population, the last remaining herds in the foothills of Alberta’s Rocky Mountains. Rob says these beautiful animals, that should be correctly considered as reintroduced native wildlife, are being ‘managed’ into extinction. The main issue is with the ranching industry as they perceive wild horses as competing with their cattle for forage on public lands, so they don’t want them there. And the ranching industry has a heavy influence on government. Despite this, efforts to stop the wild horse roundups have been successful for a number of years, but the risk to their survival is still ever-present.
There are all kinds of other memories, some negative, but many that are positive. Such as achieving legislation that reduced the number of zoos, stopping new zoos from opening and closing facilities like the outdated Storybook Gardens zoo, a 1950s children’s zoo in London, Ontario and the Springwater Provincial Park zoo that had existed for more than 80 years.
While Rob’s name is often associated with these campaigns, he wants to stress that campaigns are nearly always a collective effort with co-workers, colleagues, other organizations, law firms, bureaucrats and elected officials. No one can do it alone.
When asked what is the most difficult part of running an organization that campaigns for change, Rob’s answer is, “Losing a campaign.”
When asked what is the best part, his answer is “Winning a campaign.”
He expanded by saying he is focused on winning campaigns for the animals. For animals who are being exploited, winning is all that matters. Winning can mean that an animal’s life is improved or an abusive practice, business or institution changes or is closed. At the end of the day, Rob wants to know that his efforts have at least raised the bar in how animals are treated and that he has pushed the issues forward.
I think everyone would agree that animals are much better off with Rob Laidlaw being involved and working tirelessly to improve their lives.
In addition to being the founder of Zoocheck and an animal advocate, Rob is also an award-winning author of children’s books. He writes about topics he’s familiar with, so his books are about helping animals and the environment. He hopes children who read his books are inspired to get involved in making the world a better place for animals, the environment and for people too.
I asked Rob if he had a magic wand and could change one thing in the world, what would it be —his answer, “I wish every person would get engaged in the things that affect their own lives, for themselves, their children, and the animals and environment. Many people have no idea how laws and policies are made, they’ve never spoken to their elected officials and many people don’t even bother to vote. For the world to improve, people have to get active and engaged in the processes that govern their lives.”
Rob strongly believes there is truth in the famous Edmund Burke quote, (which I have rephrased to make gender neutral) ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.’
I love how one kind act can lead to another. A friend kindly shared a story on FaceBook about a woman who is helping the animals suffering from the devastating wild fires in Australia. I clicked on the link and was so touched by what I read.
Artist, Sandee Ewasiuk is selling prints of her gorgeous paintings to raise funds to help the Australian animals. So far she has created two lovely pieces of artwork. One of a mother kangaroo and her joey, and another of an adorable koala. The originals are painted on 3 x 5 foot canvas. She is selling prints in a variety of sizes, as well as the original pieces of art. Sandee donates all the proceeds (less the cost of shipping and printing) to charities such as WIRES, who are rescuing the unfathomable number of animals injured from the fires.
This initiative to help animals with her art, seems like it was inevitable from the start. As a child growing up in St. Catharines, Ontario, animals and art were always a part of her life. Sandee credits her father for inspiring her love of animals. She remembers him as a huge animal lover. He often raised waterfowl in order to help bring up their population. Once the birds were old enough, he would release them into the wild.
It was Sandee’s mom who knew she was destined to be an artist when she discovered Sandee had ‘decorated’ the kitchen cupboards with indelible marker.
Sandee pursued her passion for art at the Fine Arts program at Niagara College and then at the Ontario College of Art & Design. She now shares her love of art as an instructor at the Dundas Valley School of Art and The Art Gallery of Burlington.
Though Sandee has always loved animals, it was a recent trip to Australia that spurred her desire to do all she could to help the animals. She and her husband, who is originally from Australia, travelled throughout the country from September to November 2019. As they began their trip, there were fires, but nothing that seemed out of the ordinary. However, as they neared their departure date to leave Australia and return to Canada, it quickly became evident that there was nothing ordinary about these brush fires—these were catastrophic.
Sandee describes Australia as being so full of wildlife. In fact, while she and her husband were camping, she found herself within ten feet of a kangaroo and her joey (the inspiration for her painting). Being so close to these amazing animals, Sandee felt like she had entered a ‘magical world’.
When she came back and saw the devastation of the country she had just left, she knew she had to do something to help. She told a friend of wanting to help by selling her paintings, but didn’t know how to advertise her idea. Her friend told her just to start and the rest would happen. Sandee started and the rest did happen.
An online article was written about her in CBC Hamilton, which garnered a lot of positive responses from all over Canada and the United States.
To date, Sandee has raised over $6,000 to help the animals in Australia. She even has another painting planned—A Kookaburra!
When asked the one thing she would change in the world if she could, Sandee’s answer, “For people to be more thoughtful about the future. For people to think—what can I do now to change the future for the better.”
If you would like to support Sandee and her efforts to help the animals in Australia, please contact her either by FB or her email.
I am delighted to share this double-layered story of kindness. I call it double-layered because the author of the story, Sylvia McNicoll, is also extremely kind.
First, a bit about Sylvia.
Sylvia is the award-winning author of over 35 books for children. In addition to being a full-time author, Sylvia teaches writing at The Living Arts Centre in Mississauga, Ontario. She’s also a devoted grandmother to her nine grandchildren. One would think that between writing, teaching and helping with her grandchildren, Sylvia wouldn’t have time for much else, but somehow, she finds time to help other authors, including me.
Sylvia worked tirelessly, lobbying for the rights of Canadian authors to earn a fair living from their writing. She was among those who lead the charge to protect an author’s copyright by preventing educational institutions from photocopying a book without having to compensate the writer. Unfortunately, this battle continues.
This year, Sylvia is once again a champion for Canadian authors. She helped create an initiative called ‘I Read Canadian’ to promote and encourage everyone to read books by Canadian authors. With the help of her son, Sylvia arranged for numerous authors, myself included, to be videoed while reading from our books and talking about matters that are important to us.
As an introvert, this was completely out of my comfort zone. Sylvia knew this and she made a great effort to help me relax. Knowing I love animals, she brought her dog Mortie along to my session. Thanks to Sylvia and Mortie, I got through it and was able to read the first page of my young adult novel and talk about diversity in publishing. ‘I Read Canadian’ takes place during the month of February 2020.
Knowing how busy Sylvia is, I was incredibly happy when she agreed to share a story of kindness with me. And then I was over-the-top excited when I discovered it was about Rob Laidlaw.
Rob Laidlaw is an author, but I knew of him first as the founder of Zoocheck. Zoocheck is a Canadian-based international wildlife protection charity, established in 1984. Its mandate is to protect the interests and well-being of wild-animals.
As an animal lover and author, I am delighted to share this story about another animal lover and author—Rob Laidlaw.
Thank you, Sylvia for taking time out of your hectic schedule to write this story.
Without further ado, here it is . . .
Kindness in Colleagues
by Sylvia McNicoll
We often joke that it’s a bunny-eat-bunny world out in the world of kids’ lit, but as a children’s writer in Canada I’m lucky to experience great kindness every day.
I ask people for their expertise and assistance in sharing information about their lives and jobs as research for my novels, and they help without any question of compensation. I get support from agents, publishers, bookstore people, teachers, librarians and colleagues in sharing my finished work with the public. People share their happy comments about how my stories make a difference to their kids. Writing friends come out en masse to book award celebrations to support me.
Recently, however, I was on the other side of the bookshelf in terms of looking for that perfect book for a child. At Christmas I have two extra birthdays to buy for and a lot of people to feed. No one gifts a writer with more time.
So it was with intense anxiety that I approached a bookstore associate and asked for a book on bats. “Non-fiction, for kids, something Canadian.” The clerk led me to an American title for adults which he admitted was quite boring but did give out a lot of bat facts. Not exactly what I had in mind.
At home, I googled for a Canadian book for children and as I did, something jogged my memory about a bat book that won the Silver Birch (an award for children’s books written for ages 8-12). I tracked down Bat Citizens: Defending the Ninjas of the Night by Rob Laidlaw. I visited the Chapters website only to find it would be re-released in February, but my granddaughter’s 11th birthday fell on December 25th.
Normally I might beg the publisher to hunt through their bookshelves for a leftover copy of the earlier edition but it was that time of year where everyone was off on holidays. As a desperate measure I emailed Rob from his website. I’d met him back in 2012 at a book launch for his novel, No Shelter Here, Making the World a Kinder Place for Dogs. However, I didn’t think that one meeting would mean I’d get a quick response. It’s a busy time of year and Rob is executive director of Zoocheck Canada, a wildlife protection organization. I sighed heavily, not expecting a reply.
He answered almost immediately! Not only did he have copies of Bat Citizens but he said I could pick one up from him anytime from his home. I would have happily driven to North York but then I remembered the delight another child had when I sent a novel addressed to them special delivery.
I asked Rob if he could brave the pre-Christmas post office and send the book to my granddaughter Jadzia by overnight express.
He agreed. I can only imagine the lineup he endured when he mailed it that night. He also enclosed a book called Cat Champions. How could he have known that Jadzia’s been a cat since the moment she could purr? Both books arrived in plenty of time to delight the birthday girl. Thank you, Rob Laidlaw.
One of my favourite parts of social media is how it brings like-minded people together and allows one’s community to expand. Social media allowed me to ‘meet’ John Oberg.
John grew up in Detroit, Michigan with his mom, Karen Oberg. As a child, he loved soccer, throwing a baseball, watching the Detroit Red Wings, but it was his love for animals that was his biggest passion.
Growing up, John and his mom were fairly poor and often collected bottles from trash cans for which they received ten cents per bottle.
The search for bottles occurred early in the morning, when deer could be seen roaming. Unfortunately, not everyone was as happy about the deer as John and his mother. John discovered that a cull had been planned to kill off many of the animals. Unwilling to simply stand by and let this happen, John and his mom protested the cull for several months.
Despite their efforts to raise awareness and stop the cull, the deer were ultimately killed. Though John was devastated by the deaths, this was also a turning point for him. It was the first time he realized he could stand up against injustice and let his voice be heard. John calls it his ‘first foray into animal activism’, and will always be thankful to his mom for supporting him.
John credits his mom for instilling in him his love for animals. Though he grew up eating meat, at the age of 20 he became vegetarian. He did so in order to align his beliefs with his behaviour. He felt if cared about animals, then he shouldn’t eat them.
However, he soon discovered that a vegetarian diet wasn’t enough to prevent animals from suffering. Farm animals, including dairy cows and egg-laying hens are forced to exist under gruesome conditions.
In October of 2009, ten months after becoming a vegetarian, John made the leap to a complete plant-based diet. One particular show that persuaded him to make the switch was a documentary called Earthlings. It’s about humanity’s use and abuse of animals for food, clothing, entertainment, and scientific research.
Becoming a vegan changed John as a person. He became more empathetic and understood the suffering others endure. He found a way to live a life that is true to his heart, that is true to himself.
While many find the early stages of becoming vegan difficult, John says he made an effort to find a social group who supported his beliefs. He did so by attending various vegan and animal rights meetup through the site Meetup.com.
John believes it’s important to find a community of people with similar views to increase the chances of successfully maintaining a vegan diet.
But for John becoming vegan wasn’t enough. He realized he could help even more animals by encouraging others to change their diets to one that is plant-based. So, John became a vegan activist.
This doesn’t mean John forces his views on anyone who isn’t ready or interested in making the switch. He quickly learned that trying to tell someone the benefits of becoming a vegan would often make them feel judged if they weren’t open to this conversation. He usually only shares his opinions when asked.
After graduating from Arizona State University with a degree in Non-profit Leadership and Management, John worked for Vegan Outreach. The goal of this non-profit is to end violence against animals. While working at Vegan Outreach, John travelled around North America, handing out pamphlets about veganism to over a quarter of a million people!
Sadly, during this time, John’s mom was diagnosed with cancer. He took a two and half year hiatus from Vegan Outreach to help care for her. She passed away in November of 2015.
John then joined The Humane League, an organization whose mission is to end the abuse of animals raised for food. He worked with them for three years, running and overseeing their social media presence.
Though John loved working for The Humane League, in January 2019, he branched out on his own and harnessed the far-reaching power of social media to spread his message. He launched his own independent animal advocacy initiative.
John looks at social media as a science and believes it offers a huge opportunity to help animals. One such way is to post details of what happens behind the closed doors of farms and slaughterhouses.
When asked how he mentally gets through witnessing such horrors, John says,
“It’s difficult to face the cruelty that we inflict on animals behind the closed doors of slaughterhouses and factory farms, but I focus on the fact that by exposing this cruelty, it will make a difference for animals in the future. These animals’ lives and the cruelty they endured were not in vain.”
For John, the most difficult part of what he does is dealing with people who don’t understand the problems we face and how to best address them.
“People who fail to see the common ground that we all share are the ones who cause the most damage — no matter what side of the debate they’re on.”
But John is inspired to continue his mission to help animals by the many tweets and direct messages he receives from people telling him his posts have inspired them to stop eating animals. Just the other day, John received a message that said,
“I am compelled to tell you that your twitter account has been inspirational and has helped brace me against people snickering at me and saying things like, ‘the dairy industry isn’t cruel…who gave you this stupid idea?’ So, thank you for the tweets and for helping my awakening. Happy New Year.”
In 2019, the content John shared on social media accumulated over 200 million impressions. That is a tremendous reach.
When asked if could change one thing in the world what would it be, John’s answer is,
“To get people to understand the cruelty that animals — especially farm animals — face in today’s world and then to understand that they can make simple adjustments in how they eat and live that make a tremendous difference for these animals.”
If you would like to connect with John, you can follow him on Twitter at @JohnOberg. You can also support his efforts to make the world a kinder place for animals at patreon.com/JohnOberg
Six months ago, I started a Kindness Is Everything blog. I’m thrilled to say it’s still going! It means so much to me to be able to share amazing stories of people being kind to animals and each other. An added benefit has been staying in touch with these wonderfully, kind people who make such a positive impact on others, for animals and for our planet.
The news is often filled with terrible things people do to animals and each other. Of course it’s important to know these things are happening and try to help, but I think it’s also important to know that kindness exists . . . because it does!
I hope to continue this blog and connect with even more compassionate people. I would love to build a community of kindness to inspire others that it is possible to make a positive difference in the world. So, PLEASE contact me with a story you think will inspire someone. The more stories I receive, the longer I can keep sharing them.
For my last post of the year, I want to share a story of kindness I received.
I am part of a wonderful writing critique group called BAM. These writers, many of whom are award winning authors, welcomed me into their group almost two years ago, and I’m so grateful they did. I have learned a lot from them about the publishing world, and I think I’m a better writer because of their feedback.
But for me, we are more than a critique group. These lovely women have supported me in matters well outside of writing. They are my friends.
A perfect example of their kindness happened when I hosted our 2nd annual BAM holiday gathering. I am the only vegan in our group and I never asked anyone, or expected anyone to make something I could eat, but they did—they ALL did!
Each of these wonderful women, tweaked existing recipes or looked up vegan recipes, and filled my kitchen with the yummiest of dishes.
Their efforts mean so much to me. It was more than providing food I could eat. It made me feel included. It made me feel like I mattered. I can’t think of a nicer gift to give someone—the feeling that they belong and are accepted.
This holiday season and always, I hope everyone—humans and animals alike, are given the gift of love and friendship, and made to feel like they matter.
Please remember, there is no act of kindness too small for the person or animal receiving it.
I am thrilled to share this lovely story of kindness. I have been following Blankets For Baby Rhinos on Facebook for over a year, and I have been awed by the generosity of its talented members, who make gorgeous blankets for orphaned rhinos and other animals. I was delighted when founder Elisa Best agreed to share her story with me. I think you will be amazed at how one person’s kindness can inspire so many to do what they can to help these beautiful animals. I hope you enjoy reading this touching story and looking at the cutest photos of the animals in their knitted blankets.
Elisa Best grew up in Johannesburg, South Africa and in 1993 qualified as a veterinary surgeon. She had a passion for wildlife, and although she became a small animal vet and subsequently a soft tissue surgeon for dog and cats, her interest in wildlife never waned. While practicing in the UK, she started to see posts from colleagues in South Africa about the number of rhinos being poached and the cruelty involved—she wanted to do something to help.
Rhinos are an endangered species, hunted for their horns. In the early 1900’s there were 500,000 rhinos living in Africa and Asia, now there are less than 30,000. In the last ten years, 7,000 African rhinos were killed. When a poacher kills a rhino, often two lives are destroyed—the mother and her calf. Baby rhinos live with their mothers until they are about two or three years old. Thus, losing their mother, can be devastating to a young rhino, and many don’t survive.
In November 2016, quite by accident Elisa founded Blankets For Baby Rhinos Facebook group.
The group’s initial purpose was to knit squares to make blankets for baby rhinos at an orphanage in Natal, South Africa. The young rhinos found warmth and comfort in these blankets.
In addition to providing blankets for rhinos, the group has raised more awareness of the crisis affecting rhinos.
In just three years, the group has grown to over 3500 members worldwide. The outpouring of support and knitted blankets means they can now sell some of the blankets to raise funds for other items desperately needed by rhino orphanages. The group has purchased equipment, medicine, other veterinary supplies and food for the rhinos, meerkats, elephants, and dogs who are part of the anti-poaching units.
They also donate hats and scarves to the anti-poaching rangers. These rangers are vital to wildlife protection and put their lives at risk to protect these animals. For them, receiving a handmade gift from overseas with a note offering support and appreciation, means so much, and really helps them to do their job.
Blankets For Baby Rhinos is entirely volunteer based. Thus, any funds raised go directly to helping rhinos, elephants and pangolins as well as smaller donations to meerkats, flamingos, penguins and primates. They also support those who help care for these beautiful animals.
The group is currently run by Elisa Best and Nita Smith. Nita manages the South African side of the operation. She works tirelessly to get the supplies to where they are most needed. Alongside Nita and Elisa they have several key volunteers in South Africa, the United Kingdom and the USA who generously help to raise funds, distribute goods and raise awareness.
In October of 2019, Elisa received the Vet of The Year award from the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). The award was in recognition of her work to help rhinos and other iconic African wildlife, such as elephants and pangolins.
James Sawyer, UK Director of IFAW, said: “Elisa’s pioneering approach to harnessing practical public support to help rhinos and other rescued African wildlife is really impressive and she is a great example of animal welfare in action. We hope her efforts will inspire the next generation of animal welfare and conservation campaigners. She is a very deserving winner of IFAW’s Vet of the Year Award.”
Elisa says she hopes that Blankets For Baby Rhinos shows that everyone can do a little to help animals and this can make a big difference.
When asked the one thing she would change in the world, her answer is, “To make people realize how valuable wildlife is to us all and that if we don’t look after it, it will be gone forever.”
You never know where a phone call will lead. A few weeks ago, I called SaveTheWhales.org a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the ocean and its inhabitants. I was interested in gathering information as part of my research for a picture book I’m working on. I was beyond thrilled to speak with the co-founder herself, Maris Sidenstecker II. Not only did Maris generously spend time answering my questions, she agreed to let me share her story. I think you’ll find her as inspiring as I do.
The first thing I noticed while speaking with Maris, was her passion for whales. It was this passion that drove her to start Save The Whales when she was 14, and it’s this same passion that years later, continues to drive her to do all she can to help these beautiful animals survive.
But Maris’ love for animals is not limited to these gentle giants. She has always defended and protected animals of all sizes. As a first grader, she led a team of friends to pick up earthworms in the schoolyard after it had rained, so boys couldn’t step on them. She rescued injured snails and fed them in a terrarium so their shells could mend and then she released them.
Ever since then, Maris has helped as many animals as possible. She grew up in a home with rescued cats, newts, lizards, a fish, turtle, and a dog. As a pre-teen she wrote letters to dog food companies asking them not to slaughter wild horses for dog food. It’s not surprising that Maris wanted to become a veterinarian. However, as often is the case, life happens and plans change.
When Maris was 14 she read an article on a flight from Los Angeles to Boston. It was about a pregnant blue whale who had suffered on a dock for several days before dying. The article, written by Joan McIntyre, the director of a nonprofit organization called Project Jonah, deeply upset Maris, but also ignited her call to action. Maris wanted people to know what was happening to whales, so she designed a T-shirt with a blue whale and three simple words: “Save The Whales.” Maris had no idea that this T-shirt would change her life.
With her own money, she had a dozen Save The Whales T-shirts printed and she gave them away to friends and family. Soon others started asking how they could get one. Maris and her mother (also named Maris) began selling T-shirts through Rolling Stones magazine and donated the proceeds to Project Jonah. She appeared on local TV programs in Los Angeles, attended animal rights fairs and other street fairs with her mother, where they spread the word about the plight of whales by selling “Save The Whales” T-shirts and handing out literature.
In 1977, when Maris was 16, Save The Whales became a non-profit organization. Maris gave presentations to Los Angeles school children about the life of orcas in the wild while she was in high school. Over 40 years later, Maris and her mom are still leading the cause to preserve and protect the ocean and its inhabitants.
Maris went on to become a marine biologist instead of a veterinarian, a decision she made after spending time researching orcas in the wild. Her mother continued to run Save The Whales while Maris was in college. After college, Maris worked at the Catalina Island Marine Institute. She taught groups of school children from all over the western United States about marine life in a hands-on approach. She discovered what an impact this type of learning made on students and knew this method was the best way to inspire students.
In 1988, Save The Whales opened an office in the Los Angeles area. At that time many schools were no longer able to provide field trips for students due to budget constraints. Save The Whales developed an innovative hands-on program called “Whales On Wheels (WOWÔ). Maris and her mom collected permitted whale, otter, and dolphin bones, otter pelts and turtle shells from state and federal agencies. These artifacts had been confiscated from dealers and people attempting to bring whale vertebrae or other artifacts across the border from Mexico or other countries. The artifacts were brought to schools where students were allowed to touch the display items and ask questions about the marine animals
Since its inception in 1988, WOWÔ has traveled all over the country, visiting school children in Alaska, Oregon, Washington, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Virginia, and California.
Maris believes education is the key to saving the whales, the oceans, and ourselves. To date, Save The Whales has educated over 330,000 students through their hands-on school programs. Her proudest accomplishments are the number of students they have reached with innovative programs and saving marine life from the deadly underwater explosives.
The biggest effort of Save The Whales was their battle to stop the Navy from performing “ship shock” tests in the Channel Islands Marine Sanctuary, a biologically sensitive area off the coast of Southern California. These waters are home to blue, sperm, fin and humpback whales, as well as dolphins, seals and sea lions. If the U.S. Navy had been allowed to go ahead with its plans – which were to test the hull integrity of its new cruisers by detonating 270 underwater explosives over a five-year period – it was estimated that hundreds of thousands of these beautiful animals, as well as other marine life, would have been killed outright. Others would have faced a slow lingering death from damage to their internal organs and hearing.
It was a long battle of ups and downs, but in the end, Save The Whales was victorious. Instead of 270 underwater explosives, the Navy was allowed one detonation farther offshore under the watchful eyes of observers chosen by Save The Whales, to ensure that the area was free of any deep-diving marine mammals.
Maris survived cancer at the age of 28 and believes what we do on land has a direct impact on the environment. The land and sea are connected. Ironically, at this time beluga whales were dying of cancer and Maris used her own story to talk about what was happening to the whales and that we need to pay attention. Over the years, Maris has made many radio and TV appearances, been featured in print media stories, and been cited in books on behalf of Save The Whales, speaking on whale-related issues, such as the harmful effects of captivity on marine mammals.
Maris loves interacting with students and receiving thoughtful letters, artwork, and questions from students all over the world. She hopes future generations will protect the planet, the oceans and whales, and that her story will inspire other young people just as the Joan McIntyre article on Project Jonah inspired her.
Her advice for students is to never give up on their dream. She wasn’t an ace in math or chemistry, and struggled daily with these subjects in college. One advisor actually told her to switch her major. Instead, she switched her advisor. This advisor had no idea who Maris was or how much becoming a marine biologist meant to her. “Follow your convictions,” Maris says. She knew she could do it because she was motivated and focused.
When asked the one thing Maris would change in the world, her answer is, “A compassionate world where the environment and animals are respected. We must realize that our survival and that of the planet depends on our daily actions.”
I was trying to think of something fun my university-aged daughter and I could do together. Since we both love animals, I thought it would be nice to volunteer helping animals. I found the perfect place—Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary. We had both heard the story of Steve Jenkins, Derek Walter and their lovely pig Esther, who they had adopted as a tiny piglet. We were thrilled to discover the sanctuary was literally 15 minutes away from our house. We both applied and were accepted as regular volunteers.
Though Esther is the namesake of the sanctuary, there are many beautiful, rescued animals living here. Pigs, goats, sheep, bunnies (I was lucky to spend most of my time in Bunny Town with these adorable little ones) cows, a horse, a donkey, and many birds, including a turkey named Dolly.
You may have heard of Cornelius, the turkey who shares Derek and Steve’s house along with Esther and Phil, their energetic and full of love, dog. But Dolly was the other turkey. Sadly, Dolly has since passed, but I am so grateful I had the chance to know her. She was beautiful—soft white feathers and dark eyes. She was very gentle and most surprising, trusting of humans, despite being raised to be slaughtered as food.
Dolly would let me pat her silky feathers and she stayed close when I cleaned out her pen, sometimes softly cooing. One of the most heartwarming relationships at the sanctuary was the bond between Dolly and Nancy, a chicken. These two were always together. If one was milling about outside the barn, so was the other. It must have been such a devastating loss for Nancy when Dolly passed.
I am so grateful I had the opportunity to meet Dolly and get to know her, along with many of the other residents. This is one of the great things about Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary—it offers people the chance to really see these animals and learn about them. It is such a thrill to witness a mom pig feeding her babies, to see goats and sheep hanging out together, and to see a friendship between a chicken and a turkey.
With American Thanksgiving and Christmas around the corner, I give thanks to places like Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary, who not only rescue farm animals and give them a chance to heal, love and be loved, but gives humans a chance to see all of this, and hopefully appreciate the beauty of farm animals. Perhaps this holiday season, some of you will visit an animal sanctuary and this experience will translate to more kindness in the world for all, including farm animals.
To find out more about Happily Ever Esther Farm Sanctuary, including making a donation, volunteering, or visiting the farm, please check out their website—