Rubaiya Ahmad

Rubaiya Ahmad

“Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing.”

Rubaiya Ahmad. Photo by Julie O'Neill.

Rubaiya Ahmad. Photo by Julie O’Neill.

Ask Rubaiya Ahmad about her proudest achievement on behalf of animals, and her answer is immediate.

“Stopping dog culling in Bangladesh,” she says.

Seven years ago, Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital and largest city, was a different world for free-roaming dogs. They were almost constantly hunted by government cullers as part of an ineffective bid to control the country’s rabies problem.

Friendly dogs, including beloved pets, were the easiest targets, sauntering over to anyone who stretched out a hand. Savvier victims were caught using badger tongs, devices on poles that clamped around dogs’ heads inside their mouths, causing excruciating pain. Cullers typically then injected dogs with poison and cut off their tails as proof of the kill. To inflate their numbers, cullers sometimes cut single tails into several pieces to turn in to their overseers.

One night, this happened to Kashtanka, a light brown, grinning dog who Ahmad had cared for since she was a puppy. Kashtanka was one of three street dogs Ahmad began looking after when she returned to her native Bangladesh in 2006 after a decade living in the United States. She was renting a tiny studio apartment at the time and felt it would be cruel to keep the dogs inside. But she’d had them vaccinated and sterilized, had bought them collars and fed them every day, and all of her neighbors knew they were Ahmad’s.

Two of the dogs, including Kashtanka’s mother, Rosha, were able to escape. But Kashtanka was young and trusting and likely greeted the cullers who grabbed and poisoned her. Ahmad remembers it like yesterday. She got a call from her building’s night guard saying that Kashtanka was being taken. She chased after the cullers and found Kashtanka in the back of their truck, lifeless, still wearing her collar, on top of a pile of other dogs.

“Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing. It’s more difficult to do nothing.”

It was an experience that changed her life’s focus. Ahmad founded Bangladesh’s first animal welfare organization, Obhoyaronno – which roughly translates to “Sanctuary” – in 2009. In 2012, after Obhoyaronno launched a program to sterilize and vaccinate free-roaming dogs in line with World Health Organization protocols for rabies control, Dhaka city agreed to end dog culling. In 2014, Obhoyaronno successfully petitioned Bangladesh’s high court for a national injunction against culling, as well as against animal sports such as bull and cock fighting. There are still occasional incidents of dog culling outside of Dhaka, but today, for the most part, the practice has ended across Bangladesh.

Campaign literature“Whenever people tell me that what I do is really difficult and that they could never do it, I just tell them the same thing I tell myself when things get difficult: that it’s more difficult to do nothing,” says Ahmad, formerly an IT consultant. “On the days when I feel like I don’t want to do this anymore because it’s too hard, I remind myself that there was a time when I didn’t do anything, and I wasn’t happy. Even the worst day of doing something is better than the best day of doing nothing.”

“Any platform that allows me to talk about veganism, I take that opportunity.”

With Obhoyaronno’s clinic and spay-neuter program going strong, Ahmad has turned her focus to promoting veganism. Because of her work, local schools have adopted Meatless Monday, popular hotels and restaurants have added veg choices, and Bangladesh’s top-ranking grocery store chain has installed vegan sections. Ahmad gives talks on animal welfare and vegan eating almost anywhere she is asked, shares information and recipes on social media, and writes a regular column, A Vegan’s Diary, in Bangladesh’s largest English-language newspaper. She holds vegan brunches and recently launched a new online vegan food delivery platform, The Bangu Vegan. The venture delivers vegan meals every Monday, hosts supper club events and supplies vegan food items to local retailers. Ahmad also uses The Bangu Vegan to do advocacy and offer cooking courses.

“Any platform that allows me to talk about veganism, I take that opportunity,” Ahmad says.

In Bangladesh, even things as simple as vegan menu options are a breakthrough, she notes. She says figuring out the right messages and how to present them has been difficult, but it’s also been a big key to her success.

“We got our way by speaking in a language they understood.”

“We’ve focused very much on the scientific approach to things, as opposed to being emotionally driven,” Ahmad explains. “When we started talking about our dog population management program, we didn’t talk about animal welfare. We talked about rabies control and how many kids were dying of rabies in Bangladesh. We showed the government that how they’ve been killing dogs for 50 years has not changed the rabies situation – it escalated it, if anything. And in the end, they stopped killing dogs. We got our way by speaking in a language they understood.”

Obhoyaronno’s spay-neuter program has now sterilized more than 16,000 free-roaming dogs, and the organization recently entered into a partnership with Dogs Trust International that has allowed Obhoyaronno to expand its clinic and gain critical surgical training.

Ahmad has also taken a science-based approach in her efforts to reduce animal-product consumption.

“The less you create the divide of us versus them, the better, because no one likes to be judged or told what to do.”

“We focus primarily on the health aspect. Eventually, at the right time and with the right platform, we’ll bring in animal welfare, like we do with our dog work now. We openly talk about how inhumane it is to kill dogs, and no one questions that now.”

She says it’s important, too, for activists to see themselves as part of the communities they work in.

“The less you create the divide of us versus them, the better, because no one likes to be judged or told what to do. It helps me to remember that I couldn’t care less about animals when I was young, and I ate meat until I was 30 years old.”

The progress she sees, even when it’s incremental, motivates her to keep going.

Rubaiya Ahmad portrait“It’s the changes in the community, the changes in mindset – every time an animal is saved or someone chooses a vegetarian meal because of what I posted on Facebook,” Ahmad says. “It’s so funny, I’ll post something, and two or three people will comment, and I’ll think no one cares. And then the next week, five messages will show up with pictures of vegetarian food, saying, ‘Because of what you wrote last week, I cooked this.’”

As for what’s next, Ahmad plans to focus on legislative reforms to help Bangladesh’s animals. She knows it’s a tall order, but so was ending dog culling, and she says that’s been the biggest lesson her work has taught her – that nothing is impossible.

“No matter how absurd an idea may seem, if you put your mind to it, you can.”


Learn more and support Obhoyaronno – Bangladesh Animal Welfare Foundation and The Bangu Vegan.

Photos and interview by Julie O’Neill. Story by Corinne Benedict.

Juliana Castañeda

Juliana Castañeda

“Once we fully understand that we are all equals, just with a different body, we will find the solution to all our problems.”

Castañeda and her son with sanctuary residents. All photos in this story taken by Julie O’Neill for the Unbound Project.

The first rescue Juliana Castañeda remembers was a little white dog she found on the streets of Colombia when she was seven. He was hungry and dirty, so Castañeda scooped him up and carried him home. She named him Copito, or Q-tip.

More rescues soon followed, including dogs, cats, birds and rodents. Castañeda even once brought home an abandoned little boy—street children are not uncommon in Colombia—whom she fed in her room for days before her mother discovered him.

To Castañeda, it was all the same: If someone needed help, you helped, regardless of species.

Hundreds of rescues later, her feelings haven’t changed.

Once we fully understand that we are all equals, just with a different body, we will find the solution to all our problems.

Warm, sincere and endlessly nurturing, Castañeda is founding director of Juliana’s Animal Sanctuary, which she officially opened in 2008, although most of her life had been dedicated to the idea. Within a few years of finding Copito, she was selling chocolates and veggie burgers at school, saving all of her profits for her “dream.”

“I told my mother, ‘When I grow up, I want to buy a big house, and I am going to help all the animals in the world,’” she recalls.

As much as Castañeda is a dreamer, she is even more of a doer. It is perhaps the best way to describe her: always doing.

Her recent pregnancy was no exception. She says the hardest part was the last week, when her belly got so big that she finally had to leave her animals’ care to volunteers. But after 20-plus hours of labor and the 10 p.m. home birth of her son, Bhimal, her belly was no longer in her way, so she was up feeding animals the next morning.

“I can’t remember the last time I sat down and relaxed,” Castañeda, who has dark reddish-brown hair and a bright smile, says laughing. “My body does get tired, but I love my work so much.”

Castañeda with her son Bhimal and rabbits at the sanctuary

That work includes far more than taking care of the sanctuary’s 80 or so animals, among them cows, pigs, horses, dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, roosters and more—all of whom Castañeda considers her children. She also hosts sanctuary visitors, gives talks at local schools, fundraises, and promotes veganism through education, a meat-free Monday campaign and cooking workshops in Colombia and beyond.

And that is just one of her jobs. With only about a fifth of the sanctuary’s costs covered by donations, Castañeda helps make up the rest through online work as a Spanish language translator. She brings in additional money selling handmade jewelry.

On top of all that, she runs a robust local project as part of Food for Life, a global relief organization that provides vegan meals for the poor. Her husband, Australian Paul Turner, whom she met through Food for Life in 2013, helped start the nonprofit decades ago.

Turner’s experience and help have been instrumental in boosting support for the sanctuary from overseas; nearly all of its volunteers and donations come from outside Colombia.

“Colombia is not a rich country and is still very ignorant when it comes to animal protection,” she says, describing the country as an extremely challenging place to help animals.

We have a huge responsibility. We are literally the only hope and haven for animals in this country.

She says she can’t imagine doing anything else with her life, and it is the animals who keep her going.

“They give me all the energy to never stop.”

She offers the story of one in particular, a cow named Gita, who Castañeda rescued from a slaughterhouse 10 years ago. When Castañeda first saw her, workers were trying force Gita into submission by electrocuting her.

“They were trying everything to break her spirit, but she was determined to maintain her dignity,” Castañeda remembers. “I named her Gita, which means ‘song.’ Gita is an example for everyone. The animals are my inspiration. Even after so much pain has been inflicted on them, they still come to you with love. They know everything about forgiveness.”

It is by rediscovering our connection with animals, by meeting and spending time with them, that Castañeda believes we will learn to stop harming them.

Sanctuary resident Balarama

She offers another example, a 1,300-pound bull named Balarama who came to the sanctuary as a calf and whose face is tattooed on Castañeda’s left arm.

“He is a huge animal, but he is like a kitten. He purrs and everything,” she says. Castañeda has seen him change nearly everyone who has met him.

“They’ve told me, they write to me, ‘He is my friend. I cannot eat animals again.’ He is connecting people to all the bulls in the world.”

Castañeda sees mothers and children as another key. Kids are naturally inclined to be kind to animals, but many have told her they couldn’t go vegan because of their families. So Castañeda decided to begin targeting moms.

“The mother is the boss of the table,” in much of South America, she says, “so we have to teach the bosses.”

Castañeda always imagined that she would become a mom herself, but it was her efforts to reach others that made her want to have her son when she did.

“Before, many mothers were upset with me because their kids were turning vegan thanks to visiting the sanctuary or a vegan food workshop. They told me, ‘You don’t understand! You don’t have kids!’” Castañeda says.

“Now I can say to these mothers, ‘Yes, I really do understand.’”

In addition to moms, she hopes animal activists can learn from her example.

“I live in a poor, crazy country, and I am doing this,” she says.

“Anything is possible.”

Learn more and support Juliana’s Animal Sanctuary.
Photos and interview for this story by Julie O’Neill. Text by Corrine Benedict.