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Claudette Vaughan, Editor of Abolitionist Online, interviews Nita Hontoveros, May 2007
Nita Hontoveros – Lichauco is a formidable and gracious woman. She is President of the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). We first met her in Hong Kong at the 2003 Asia for Animals Conference. She told the conference then that, “the sight of agonising dogs ranging from 54 up to 300 can make you so angry that you lose all fear of facing the dogmeat traders and yelling at slow-moving police”. For years she agonised over what was the quickest and most economical way to teach the greatest number of Philippino people humaneness especially towards dogs. Then it dawned on her. In a predominant Catholic country why not try the blessing of animals in churches on the Feast of St Francis of Assisi? Here is her story.
Abolitionist: Please speak about the Blessings of the Animals. Why did you get this off the ground Nita?
Nita: In the Philippines, a 90% Catholic country, the Church wields a tremendous influence on society. The most powerful politicians woo the Church’s endorsement come elections time. As the years went on, there was increased cruelty to animals, specially to dogs, cats and horses. We searched for the fastest and most economical way of getting humane messages to our people, who were mostly ignorant that animals suffer like we humans do. Then, I hit upon the idea: Why not church Blessings? The Philippines is predominantly Roman Catholic, and almost anything linked to religion catches attention. It took me seven full years to get the parish priests of my parish to listen. But the moment my parish started the animal blessings, to honour St. Francis of Assisi, the idea took hold and many churches followed suit.
Today the PAWS animal blessings have a different theme every year, to keep the excitement high: a procession with a child holding up a statue of St Francis; dogs and cats with appealing “Please Take Me Home” tags because they had lost their families and homes in disastrous landslides; a baby orangutan ambling up the aisle; Dr Dogs carrying fruit and flowers to the alter during the Offertory; a stage actor in St Francis of Assisi garb appearing at the alter to give a brief message of love and care of the animals; a parade of 20 military service dogs with their handlers in full uniform, to honour the brave dogs who rescued the distressed during September 11 tragedy in New York. Every year there’s a different theme.
PAWS is a small group that dared, and continues to dare.
We have an obligation also to our volunteers. If the animal blessings were the spark that lit the flame, the next problem was how to keep the flame burning, and what other way than to have dedicated volunteers stroking it? Over the years, volunteers would come and go, mostly go. We found that those who stayed were the ones who were tapped for planning and preparations of our major activities. They were given the opportunity to use their talents at something that served the cause for animals. Those who knew how to draw did the humane education materials, those who could write did letters to government, or articles for newspapers, the entrepreneurs conceptualized fund-raising projects, even acting and singing were used to spice up our humane education and Dr Dog sessions for kids in schools and institutions.
Abolitionist: What is the Catholic Philippines like for animal advocacy?
Nita: Getting there, but more through animal lovers yet all the time there are more and more animal advocacy groups forming in this country. Sadly, though, many religious groups - priests and nuns- in the Catholic Church are still lacking in elevated consciousness about the rights of animals.
Abolitionist: Will you tell us the story about Cardinal Jaime Sin as he sounds like a character.
Nita: Indeed he is! Jaime Cardinal Sin (that's his official name) was loved and hated at the same time because he was a meddler in politics. He was a leading figure in the Edsa Revolution movement that unseated the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Since he was so prominent in the public eye, I decided to write him a letter, asking for his endorsement of church blessings of animals every October. He addressed the endorsement to all parish priests, it was so beautifully worded that suddenly, so many parishes incorporated church blessings of the animals as an integral part of October that PAWS was swamped with requests to organize their activities. Jaime Cardinal Sin, whose birth name was Jaime Sin (of Chinese ancestry) enjoyed playing around with his name, and called his house THE HOUSE OF SIN. Jovial, and always joking, it was no wonder people flocked to his palace for almost every reason. Sadly, he passed away a few years ago.
Abolitionist: Where are you at now with the blessings?
Nita: So many churches are now blessing the animals come October, that it is impossible for PAWS to attend all the affairs. But because the blessings had been going on for many years (if memory serves, it is 8 years now) they have learned how to organise the blessings themselves. Then, the malls started asking for the animal blessings to be celebrated there so that families could bring their pets to be blessed, and all could go shopping afterwards. Now many malls have the blessings. They too, ask for PAWS to participate. Last October the blessings at Eastwood was a big affair, an evening ceremony with a full choir, celebrities singing solo numbers, the Holy Mass, a candlelight procession, lights/music background: the works!
Those who attended had tears in their eyes- and the pets behaved themselves splendidly. You can bet there will be more of this kind, which naturally will attract more families.
Abolitionist: What do they mean to you personally?
Nita: Small successes like these give us the energy to keep going, aware that PAWS although only being volunteer-based and lacking in funds, has somehow made a difference in the lives of the animals.
Abolitionist: How have attitudes towards animals changed over the years in the Philippines?
Nita: In the past, seeing cruelty towards animals, say in the streets, didn't bother a lot of people at all. Now, PAWS gets daily S.O.S. calls/visits for animals at the average rate of four here in my house, six to eight at the shelter, and that's not even including calls to the volunteers' homes and offices!!! Exhausting, but at the same time, exhilarating because at last, more people care. Even in the provinces we’re seeing more animal advocacy groups spring up these days.
Abolitionist: What campaigns are you currently working on?
Nita: Spay/Neuter, rescues, adoptions, maintaining our animal rehab center PARC ( PAWS Animal Rehabilitation Centre) humane education programs in schools & villages, fund-raising events, close links with government agencies ( to give them info re the importance of animal welfare and keep them on their toes), therapy dogs visits at hospitals & schools, advocacy and information via our website and e-mail site called "Whatsuppaws" which now has 500 members, last I heard.
By the way, just last March 31st, a military police unit, accompanied by 5 PAWS volunteers succeeded in making the first fully documented ARREST of dogfights aficionados, caught in the act, 14 of them, 2 are big guns and we confiscated the two pit bull fighters. The dogs are in a safe house now. I was part of the operation, doing the telephone/cellphone/fax networking that’s required when it takes several days and nights of working on these dog fight raids to eventually bring them to justice. At one point, I was left alone for a few minutes face to face with the 14 offenders who were detained at the military camp... whew! The media stayed in contact with us. Our lucky break getting media's interest was due to the fact that this happening was close to Holy Week and therefore there were very few newsworthy goings-on. Naturally, this raid took the country by storm.
Abolitionist: Can you provide us with the latest update on the dog meat markets in the Philippines?
Nita: The dog meat markets have expanded throughout this country. The low-income groups claim eating their pet is the only way they can get the benefits of meat. The unthinking engage in the dog meat trade because it is the easiest way of making a buck. Believe it or not, some uppity restaurants in Metro cities serve dogmeat for foreigners, notably from the Near/Far East who reportedly come to partake of puppy flesh.
But, animal advocacy groups are fighting back. What PAWS has been doing has been making sure that Administrative Orders (which have the effect of Law) regarding the dog meat trade are passed as soon as possible. .Administrative Order # 10 for instance," governs the apprehension and prosecution of persons transporting and/or trading dogs and cats". This is a great A.O. Administrative Order # 2, while emphasis is placed on slaughter animals, will deter the sea transport of dogs for meat. Admin Order # 43 will also deter air transport of dogs meant for the dinner table. Aside from PAWS, one of the most active organisations versus the dog meat trade is Animal Kingdom, which has the facilities to go after the dog meat traders.
Now, for the government agencies responsible for the implementation of these Admin Orders to do their duty.
Abolitionist: Should religion play more of a role in the life of animals?
Nita: Definitely!!! All religions have the obligation to teach that animals, created and loved by God, deserve respect and protection. We should all learn that praying while ignoring the plight of suffering animals is an insult to God's creation.
Abolitionist: Any last thoughts?
Nita: I wish and pray that in this new age, more humans would be humane. I can't understand the "religious" ceremonies in some countries which incorporate unspeakable cruelties to animals in the guise of tradition, to the point of blessing these horrible practices. As far as I know, at least here in the Philippines, we don’t bless cruelties. Wake up Religions! Set an example of honouring all of God’s Creation!!!
Abolitionist: Who are your favourite Saints and why?
Nita: Francis of Assisi, who regarded all animals as his brothers and sisters. And Francis is honoured by the religious, the atheists, writers, artists, etc. - he is a man for all reasons. And there's San Martin de Porres, who, commanded to get rid of the pests in his convent, instead gathered the rats and insects and brought them far away to a field where they could find sustenance. It hurts to see mice/rats/cockroaches scurrying towards a hiding place- always only at the defensive: It's tough being a "pest."
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