Humane Education in Action: Se Habla Kindness

Connie Durkee started working with animals as a Veterinary Assistant in 1979 but she had a love for animals all her life. One of eight children, her parents taught them an appreciation for all living things. Among other jobs, Connie has worked as a Veterinary Technician, as president of a county humane society, as office manager of a vet hospital, and for the animal protection group In Defense of Animals.

After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Connie went to New Orleans and Mississippi to help with animal rescues. Over the course of two years she helped transport hundreds of animals from the devastated south to the east and west coasts. This experience got her interested in disaster relief, and she began taking every disaster relief training course she could.

In 2009, Connie, her husband and their four cats and dog moved to the Dominican Republic (DR). Since moving to the DR she has participated in spay/neuter campaigns and has started a Humane Education program in the local schools. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, Connie went to Haiti with one of the first animal welfare groups on the ground.

Connie shared with us her experiences starting a humane education program and helping rescue animals in the Dominican Republic.

Quick Facts:

Current hometown: Cabrera, Dominican Republic
IHE fan since: 2008
Current Job: Part-time with Animal Balance
Current Passion: Organizing a Humane Education program in the schools of Cabrera
Your hero: Jane Goodall
Book/movie that changed your life: Book: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn. TV show: the network news in Portland, Oregon, in August 2000, when they showed footage of "the first cloned monkey" from The Oregon Regional Primate Research Center. A technician entered the room where the baby monkey was playing, and she darted to a corner of the room and huddled in utter fear of the technician coming for her. The fear I saw in that baby monkey’s eyes changed my life. I knew I had to do something.
Guilty pleasure: Wine
Inspired by: Peggy Kirk and Matt Rossell for their animal welfare work; for their humane education work, I'm inspired by Marsha Rakestraw of IHE and two women from the island of Dominica who run a Humane Education program there.
One of your strengths: determination

IHE: What led you to the path of humane education?

CD: I attended the Caribbean Animal Welfare Conference in the Dominican Republic in April 2008, searching for a new direction in my life. My husband and I had always wanted to live overseas, so this felt like a good opportunity to tap into the animal welfare community of the Caribbean. The last day of the conference was focused mainly on Humane Education, and a presentation was given by Yola Toussaint, Assistant Director and Humane Values Educator at The Humane Society of Dominica, and her assistant, on their Humane Education program. I was so inspired by them and what they were doing I knew right away I had found my new direction.

IHE : You’ve transitioned from doing outreach for an animal protection non-profit (primarily working with adults) to offering humane education programs to school kids and working with rescue groups in the Dominican Republic. How did that transition occur, and what made you choose that as the next step in your journey?

CD: I had been working for In Defense of Animals for six years and was wanting to get back to the more hands-on part of working with animals, as well as to start a Humane Education program. I was also encouraged by my friend, Emma Clifford, the Founder and Director of Animal Balance. She lives in Cabrera, DR, and suggested we move there and help out with AB’s efforts. Animal Balance is an amazing group, and since moving here 15 months ago, I have participated in two spay/neuter campaigns with them, through which almost 800 dogs and cats have been altered and many injured and sick animals helped.

Working with kids is definitely a different experience than working with adults. I’ve learned a lot from the kids, and it has shaped me into a different person. I’ve learned how willing they are to learn and how energetic and thrilled they are to talk about the animals and our earth. So far it’s been a totally rewarding experience.

IHE : Tell us more about your humane education work with kids.

Children in the DR feeding beach dogs and picking up trashCD: I have been working mainly with The Esperanza Project this past year. The two founders have graciously invited me to join their project and to incorporate Humane Education into their curriculum. Some of the presentations I’ve given with their students include:

  • Pets and their needs
  • Dangers for animals
  • Animals in our community
  • What do you feel? – We discuss how they might feel when they see people treating animals kindly, and animals being treated cruelly.
  • Making humane choices: The Golden Rule
  • Sea life and oceans
  • Cloth bag project
  • Dog safety
  • Feeding beach dogs and garbage pick up – I take the kids to the beach and we feed the beach dogs. I explain to them how the dogs got there, why they are almost always female and where I get the food to feed them (leftovers from a local school where the kids put it in a container for me so they know it’s for the beach dogs). I also talk about getting the dogs spayed and neutered and why that is so important. We then used recycled bags to pick up garbage on the beach. We take before and after pictures of the area we cleaned up and ask questions like "Which beach would you rather go to?" We talk about how harmful all the garbage is to our oceans and our earth.

IHE : You’re also working to directly help animals in need in the DR. Tell us about that.

Tommy the dog back with his family (and Connie)CD: There are ALWAYS animals in need here, especially because many of the people here can barely afford to feed their families, let alone feed a dog or cat. Sarna (mange) is rampant here, and I am always finding animals that need medication for their skin problems.

Other dogs have been hit by cars and left to die on the road. Tommy is a good example of that. A friend of mine saw him get hit by a car, but he ran off into the bushes before she could catch him. It was three days before we found him, and his front leg was broken, and he had a wound the size of a baseball in his groin area. He was skinny and flea-ridden. Dr. Medina, the local veterinarian, is a wonderful man, and he agreed to help us do surgery on Tommy. We were going to have to amputate his front leg, and as we were prepping him for surgery, we noticed that one of his back legs had been broken before and had healed incorrectly. We weren’t sure Tommy would be able to walk if we amputated his front leg. But, we decided to go ahead with the surgery. It took some time but Tommy did great and lived at my house for two months. He learned to walk on two legs (right front and left rear). We were lucky enough to find his Dominican family, and they loved him so much they wanted him back. He is now happily back with his family and we visit him often. He runs to greet us with such enthusiasm; it’s heartwarming.

Animal Balance sometimes has visiting veterinarians come to Cabrera, and when they do we always do our best to get in as many spay/neuter surgeries as we can. I am currently working with Animal Balance to organize a free rabies vaccination clinic. We hope to vaccinate 1,000 dogs.

I could go on and on… Lulu, the little dog we rescued from a poor Haitian family, who now lives in Maryland; the puppies who are dropped on my doorstep because the locals know where I live and know that I will take care of them; the two orphaned two-week old kittens we recently took in, feeding of the beach dogs, etc.

IHE : What has it been like establishing yourself in a new culture. How have people responded to what you’re trying to do?

CD: Most people here have welcomed me into the community. Emma and Animal Balance were here before me, so that helped educate many of the locals on the advantages of spay/neuter. They have seen the results: fewer street dogs, fewer dog bites, less danger of rabies, etc. I’m actually flattered by how grateful most of them have been. When I’m feeding the beach dogs people will come up to me and thank me for what I’m doing and tell me Vaya con Dios. The people here really are special and most of them do care; it’s just not always easy here. The local ex-pats have been totally supportive of my idea of a Humane Education program in the schools.

IHE : What have been some of your successes and challenges?

Students showing off the cloth bag they createdCD: Well, I’m really proud of the cloth bag project and of all the animals I’ve been able to help since being here. For the cloth bag project, after discussing how all the plastic can harm our oceans and our sealife, one of the things we came up with to help stop the pollution is for people to take their own reusable bag with them while shopping. We decided this would be a great project and started making plans to make our own cloth bags for the community. We went to the local supermarket and counted how many plastic bags went out of the store in a single day. We spoke with the owner of the store and told him of our plans and asked if he would agree to giving people a small discount on their purchase if they brought in their own cloth bag. We sent an email out to friends and family asking for donations of material that they were no longer using, such as old jeans, hammocks, drop cloths, etc. We had a contest with the kids to design a logo and a slogan. We found a pattern for a bag on the Internet. We got a sewing machine donated, so we started making our bags. I do the sewing while the kids cut out the material and apply their own personal drawings, along with the logo and slogan. They are a huge success.

Challenges can be many: electricity only 50% of the time (for sewing); the way some people just don’t care at all; water and Internet are not always available; supplies for my projects are hard to come by; getting animals dropped off at my house at any time, etc.

IHE : You started a humane education program with little actual experience doing humane education. What was that like for you? How did you develop your program and connect with the schools and the community?

Students cleaning up a beach in the DRCD: It was overwhelming at first. I was so anxious to get here and get started. But then I learned that nothing here happens "fast." We’re on Dominican time. So, I learned to be patient. I looked for resources that were available: books, Internet resources, videos, etc. I did take IHE’s Sowing Seeds workshop before coming to the DR and bought Zoe’s book The Power and Promise of Humane Education, and that has been instrumental in the creation of my program. I also got Humane Education informational booklets, both in Spanish and English, from other groups and brought them with me when I came. I got into the schools by talking with locals and presenting my idea. I have had nothing but support so far.

IHE : What advice would you give to others who might want to start a humane education program in another country?

CD: Be patient. Be sensitive to the culture. Try not to feel overwhelmed and use your resources, especially from others who have started Humane Education programs in other countries. Listen to their experiences and their successes and failures. Feel your students out and understand that the curriculum you put together may not always work the way you think it should, so be flexible in your planning. Start small and enjoy yourself. You will make a difference.

IHE : Any future plans, dreams or projects?

CD: I plan to continue my work with Animal Balance, and I hope to work with The Esperanza Project again next school year. They are having a free summer camp for the local children this summer, and I’m hoping to be involved with that, possibly building a shelter for the two resident donkeys.

There are also plans being made for me to work with The Catalina DR Foundation next school year. We plan to go into four rural public schools and incorporate my Humane Education program into the curriculum.

~ Marsha

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