Meet the Indonesian doctor who rescued over 1,000 stray, abandoned dogs

Nivell Rayda

JAKARTA (CNA) – As soon as Susana Somali arrived at the shelter and opened the gate, dozens of dogs rushed over, barking and wagging their tails.

The founder of the Pejaten Animal Shelter, one of Indonesia’s largest animal shelters, patiently acknowledged the canines surrounding her, petting them one by one as they sniffed and licked her hands and cheeks.

As she carried on to inspect the 5,000sqm compound, more dogs emerged. One even leaped onto her back to lick her.

The entire property, situated on a busy road on an upscale residential area of South Jakarta, was overrun with rescued dogs.

There were dogs playing in the yards, behind thick bushes and along the footpaths.

Susana Somali, 55, at the Pejaten Animal Shelter which she founded. PHOTO: CNA

Some lounged on the floors, while others dozed off in the kitchen and staffers’ room, occupying every sofa, bench and table.

Somali struggled to come up with an exact number of dogs currently seeking refuge at the shelter she has been running since 2009.

“More than a thousand,” she told CNA. “Perhaps between 1,200 and 1,400. But definitely more than a thousand.”

And the number kept increasing because since she started the shelter, she had never turned down people who said they can no longer afford to keep their pets or friends who said they have rescued distressed and abused dogs.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, the number of newcomers has been overwhelming.

“Many people are out of work and cannot afford to have pets. Many people can’t go home because of the lockdown. People with COVID-19 are being put in isolation. Meanwhile, their dogs are starving,” Somali said.

“Everyday, there would be up to 10 new dogs.”

With the economy declining, the pandemic also meant that less and less people were giving donations to the shelter.

At the same time, the 55-year-old mother of two also had to be on the frontline battling COVID-19 as a clinical pathologist. She works in a laboratory that tests samples for the coronavirus and other illnesses.

Somali has always been an animal lover growing up.

“My father and mother are animal lovers. I developed my love for animals thanks to my parents, but they didn’t own a shelter, nor were they activists like me,” she said.

It was her parents who taught her that it is better to adopt a rescued pet than to buy one from the pet store.

“My parents also taught me that domesticated animals are abandoned because of overpopulation. That’s why they never let our pets breed. If they die, we could always rescue more animals,” Somali said.

The teaching stuck with her. And ever since she was a child, she had been rescuing dogs and cats.

“Whenever I saw an animal in distress I always took them home with me. As a child, I would do that during my commute from school. As a young woman, I would do that during my way home from university and now on my way back from work,” she said.

When Somali was still living with her parents, her family had up to fifteen cats and dogs, all were rescued.

Starting her own shelter happened by chance. In 2009, she started a fundraiser for sick and abandoned animals along with a few friends.

“Instead of getting the donations that we needed, people reached out to us looking to give away their dogs and cats,” she recalled.

Not wanting to see the animals abandoned or ended up on the streets, she decided to
adopt them.

That year, her house eventually became home to 70 dogs and cats. “That created problems with the neighbours,” she said.

Somali then worked to build a proper shelter for her adopted animals at an empty plot of land belonging to her family just five minutes away from her home.

In August of that year, the Pejaten Animal Shelter was born.

Originally, the shelter only had two single-storey buildings, one for the animals and the other to house her two staffers along with a kitchen and a first-aid clinic.

Over the years, Somali found herself having to build more and more structures to accommodate the burgeoning number of rescued animals.

The number eventually became so big that she had to move rescued cats to another shelter called “Rumah Kucing Parung” (Parung House of Cats) which her friend operates.

She also had to recruit more and more staffers. The shelter now employs 30 people, with some workers tasked with preparing food while others are in-charge of taking sick dogs to the vet, rescuing abandoned animals and surveying adopters’ homes.

“Some animals do get adopted. But the ratio is very low. For every animal adopted, 10 new ones are rescued and taken here,” she said. “For the majority of the dogs here, this is their sanctuary. Their home from hereafter.”

The shelter also works with a network of veterinarians, animal rights groups, rescuers and informants.

Among the newcomers to her facility were four dogs rescued from a slaughterhouse which serves dog meat.

When rescuers found them, the four were put inside a bag to stop them from escaping and their mouths gagged with a rope. With their eyes reflecting a sense of confusion and fear, the four mixed-breed dogs stood quietly inside their kennels, and their food was barely touched.

It has been days since they were rescued and they still occasionally trembled when humans approached them. Somali said it would take days more until they become accustomed to their new home.

“It can take more than a week for newcomers to adjust to life at the shelter, particularly those which had such traumatic experiences of being abused,” she said.

“All rescued dogs have some kind of stress. Stray dogs are usually tougher but pets might need time to adjust because they used to live alone in an air-conditioned house and they sometimes get depressed.”

There are many reasons why domesticated dogs suddenly became unwanted.

“Maybe the owners moved to a new place which doesn’t allow pets. Some became unwanted after biting their owners. Some dogs got sick or injured and the owner can no longer provide the care their pets need,” she said.

Whatever the reason, the shelter is always open to newcomers, even though space is becoming more and more limited.

“It’s hard for me to say no. How could I? If I say no the dogs could end up on the streets and be in more hardship,” she said. “When an animal is domesticated that means that animal becomes dependant on humans to feed and care for them.”

The 5,000sqm property is now almost completely built up, with only around 30 per cent of open space left.

The structures, made from steel and concrete brick walls, are completely packed with rescued dogs which are allowed to freely roam the compound.

There are also kennels for traumatised newcomers and troublemakers who liked to bully smaller dogs. An enclosed section sits at the back of the compound for canines who have a history of escaping the shelter.

Somali dreams of moving the shelter one day, but space is not the shelter’s only problem.

Somali said each animal at her shelter requires around IDR250,000 (USD17.60) a month for food and medication. There are also electricity and water bills, as well as staff salary to pay.

“Even before the pandemic, I have been struggling for two years (to finance the shelter),” she said.

She used to rent out a residential property and the money would be spent on the shelter, but the house was entangled in a legal dispute since 2008.

Another source of income was a street food business, but the premises had to close down due to COVID-19.

Since the outbreak, the shelter became completely reliant on donations, which used to cover only 10 to 20 per cent of the shelter’s expenses.

“But the donors’ businesses were affected too because of the pandemic,” Somali said.

“But I will find a way somehow. I cannot quit. If I give up, other (people who own shelters) might too. I must have strength so I can provide strength to others,” she said.