Samantha Green, Chief Executive Officer of Dogstar Foundation, was recently awarded a British Empire Medal for her services to animal welfare. The organization she founded, Dogstar Foundation works exclusively in Sri Lanka operating a mobile sterilisation clinic to offer a humane dog population management programme. Dogstar has currently sterilised 45,802 dogs and 3,632 cats and carried out 67,284 rabies vaccinations. Samantha spoke to The Island about the benefits of the programme, challenges and what’s in the pipeline.
July 7 started as any other work day. Little did she know, that by the time it was over, Sam’s life would have changed forever. Sam Green and her husband Mark worked for the engineering department on the London Underground, managing a busy 24/7 control room. Her senior management job was very corporate, involving regular office hours. “I thought that it would be my career for life. I wanted to be Managing Director and I thought I knew where I was going,” said Samantha.
July 7, 2005 London bombings, often referred to as 7/7, were a series of coordinated Islamist extremist suicide attacks in London, targetting commuters using the city’s public transport system during the morning rush hour. Just hours after the deadly terrorist attack, Sam and Mark led a small team of specialist engineers supporting the metropolitan police, who were tasked with processing the crime scene. Over the next week they spent up to 18 hours a day in the bombed train inside the tunnel, among the mangled bodies of the victims. What they saw had a profound impact on both of them.
“This was the first terrorist attack in London and it was a huge shock to everybody,” said Samantha. She struggled with post-traumatic stress, having flashbacks of the victims. “It changed the course of my life.” Months later, she was made suddenly redundant. Samantha decided to take some time off and Sri Lanka was her choice getaway. What was meant to last only eight weeks, turned out to be a lifelong commitment. While in Sri Lanka, Samantha was asked to teach conversational English to kids, at a local temple, after school.
Twist of fate
There she was confronted by an army of tiny flea-infested puppies with bloated stomachs. Luckily, she had flea treatment handy. While tending to the dogs the monks at the temple solicited her help for another dog. Believing it was a simple case that could be fixed with a bit of flea treatment, Samantha accompanied the monk. She was little prepared for the sight of the near furless dog with a broken leg and a maggot infested open wound, which looked at her with imploring doleful eyes. “You will make make her better no?” said the monk. Samantha wanted to state the obvious, that she couldn’t be fixed with a simple tube of flea treatment, but stopped in her tracks. He repeated, “You will make her better”, a statement now rather than a question, and Samantha just couldn’t refuse.
To cut a long story short, she left her career in railway operations, engineering and project management in 2006 to found Dogstar Foundation, an organization that helps street dogs. “The monk wasn’t in a position to care for them. He needed medicines and access to vets. A sterilization programme made a lot of sense,” said Samantha. “It would help the temple as well as the local community.” The foundation started small and Samantha took up work in the UK and Australia so she could fund the project.
In 2013, Mark and Samantha both quit their jobs, gave away everything they owned, sold their property in the UK and permanently moved to Sri Lanka to make the project a success. Samantha admitted it a was a huge financial risk. “Many believed that we were quite mad to give up such well paid jobs to start a programme that depends on money raised from the public. But it just fell right and was worth the risk.”
Having first come to Sri Lanka as a voluntourist, Samantha has long grown out of her naivete. When she volunteered in Sri Lanka in 2006, she had a romantic notion of ‘helping’. “At the time I was very naive. I didn’t understand the culture, issues, I didn’t have the skills the programme needed. Samantha admitted that some volunteer work actually makes situations worse because the volunteers are ignorant of the ground situation of the countries they offer to volunteer in.
Voluntourism, coining of the words volunteering and tourism, is a trending concept that involves people travelling to do some good in other communities. She pointed out that the concept has adverse impacts on visiting countries. She opined that voluntourism takes away a community’s ability to find home-grown solutions to local issues, explaining that volunteers are often oblivious to the lack of skills required by the particular programme they are volunteering for. She elaborated that responsible volunteering should involve a healthy exchange of information and skills and is to the benefit of both parties. However, more often than not, voluntourism is money oriented. “Well meaning people pay to volunteer for certain programmes and many voluntourism companies make a lot of profit from this. Particularly ones involving working with children and animals.”
Her naivety taught her to train and hire local staff for Dogstar, which she believed, has in turn made a strong and sustainable programme. “In fact our first recruit was a tuk tuk driver.” Fourteen years on Sampath Marasinghe is a tuk driver no more and is ‘Team Blue’ leader, a managerial level job. When asked whether the job is satisfying, Marasinghe said, “Why else would I be here for 14 years! I was the first-ever recruit of Dogstar and 14 years later I’m leading a team of 10.”
Marasinghe said that the program has made a significant difference in his personal life as well as the community in general. “My quality of life enhanced over the years working for Dogstar. I have grown personally as well as professionally. I am entrusted with responsibilities and I and my team are compensated well.” Speaking from 14 years of experience, Marasinghe pointed out that a significant contribution of the programme is cat and dog population control and rabies eradication. “The programme helps to uplift animal welfare standards in Sri Lanka and offers one of the best spay-neuter services free of charge to the community.”
- Sajitha Prematunge