Almost exactly four years ago, we made a terribly precarious decision.
Memorial Day weekend of 2011, we walked into a Houston Petsmart to visit, for the second time, with two adorable dogs that we just couldn’t get out of our minds. Their photos had stolen my heart through a computer screen, thanks to Red Collar Rescue, an organization that works tirelessly to care for and find forever homes for four-legged souls. By evening we found ourselves with both smiling canine faces in our living room. It was supposed to be temporary until we chose just one to keep.
You might guess how the story unfolds.
Our first family photo in 2011, thanks to Charlotte of Red Collar Rescue
[We owe additional thanks to Murray’s foster mom, Elisa, and Minnie’s foster family.]
Everyone called us crazy for taking on two new dogs at the same time. Well really, that’s what they all called me… somehow it’s forever my “fault.” Certainly, things have been far from easy, and anyone who has owned a dog can attest to the difficulties that come with opening your home to a pet. However, I’d bet those same people would agree that the extremely trying times are eventually outweighed by joy, love, and unimaginable growth of our hearts. We were just lucky enough to get twice the fun.
On that car ride home from Pestmart, not one of us knew that this brand new brother-sister duo would lead us to know some of the most amazing people we’ve ever met. Many of you have read or heard about the ups and downs of our experience providing a home for Minnie and Murray, both in the US and now in Korea. We are only able to continue to tell our expat story here because of two particular people and an organization that has become an important part of our experience in Korea.
Enter Leo and Jin.
By default, having a (large) dog as an expat in southeastern Korea leaves you in need of the services of Shindogs Kennel, a cage-free in-home kennel run by two of the world’s most lovely people, Leo Mendoza and Jin Young Shin. They continually go above and beyond to look after M&M while we travel, give loads of canine care advice and dole out seemingly inexhaustible emotional support through our difficulties.
While I could rave for days, there’s a much more important tale to tell. You can’t become acquainted with Leo and Jin without being amazed by the other pursuit that occupies all their time, the Busan Abandoned Pet Sanctuary, lovingly known as BAPS.
Much like Red Collar, BAPS is a no-kill rescue that takes in animals who would otherwise likely be euthanized by the Korean “pound.” BAPS is really the only organization of its kind in Korea (maybe I’m biased) fighting for humane treatment of animals and the right to life for every dog that they take in. They make a commitment to each animal, who remains with them no matter how long it takes to be adopted to the right family.
Despite the major strides BAPS has made as an organization and the support they have received from others in both time and funding, it remains an extreme challenge to run an animal rescue organization in Korea. Many Western pet owners know that animal rescues face challenges, but until moving here, I had no idea how much harder this work is in other cultures, which makes Leo and Jin’s story so important to hear and share.
Thus, I’ve asked Leo to share his perspective about the incredible work involved in providing these animals life in a country where an animal sanctuary faces so many legal and cultural obstacles to its mere existence.
1. Tell us a little bit about you, Leo, and your family.
I’m originally from Colombia, but grew up in Atlanta. I went to university in Kentucky, where I majored in communications and psychology. After university I moved back to Atlanta and worked in broadcasting while I was going to medical school in pursuit of an M.D. at Emory, but as many do, found it just wasn’t my thing after a couple years. I came to South Korea to teach university for one year, but that somehow has turned into 14 years to this point. Jin and I have been together since 2003, and together we now have 18 dogs, but our house usually has a lot more, with foster dogs and kennel guests.
Above: Leo at Shindogs, below: current BAPS dogs Bear, Needles and Frank
2. How did BAPS get its start?
In 2008 I rescued my first dog, Philip. Jin wasn’t a fan, because as most Koreans, she had never seen dogs as pets, and never had a chance to interact with one, much less live in the same house. That changed quickly thanks to Philip’s amazing personality.
Within a year we were active in local animal rights groups, and it was via one of these groups that we learned of an independent shelter that was about to shut down and euthanize all their dogs. Along with two other Koreans, we decided to take over that shelter, and turn it into a sanctuary. We had no idea how to do it, and if we had known how hard it would be, I’m sure we would not have done it! It took two years to just stabilize the population, have everyone vaccinated and screened, and make the place look barely presentable.
3. Why is Korea in particular a difficult place to do animal rescue work?
The government of Korea does not recognize animal rescuing as a charity activity. For this reason, they refuse to give us charity status or support our work. As far as the government is concerned, animal rescuing is just a hobby. This permeatetes to every area, as it is impossible to get organizational support from domestic or foreign organizations, because all of them have the prerequisite that any charity they support be “officially registered”.
The Korean population themselves generally don’t see animal rescuing as a worthy effort, and the small number of people that do are not enough to generate significant support.
Top: Eleanor, Anne and Cal, Bottom: Betty and Sally
4. What are the major accomplishments of BAPS since it began?
In Korea there are many independent shelters, all run by well meaning people who lack the knowledge or resources to shelter in a professional manner. This means the number one accomplishment of BAPS is something that is taken for granted in any shelter in the west: We give medical screenings and required vaccinations to all of our dogs. This means that in the 7 years BAPS has been under our control, there has never been a viral outbreak or a pregnancy. (Most Korean shelters are over half-full of dogs born in the shelter.)
The second thing has to be that we’ve worked hard to share our vision with the expat community, and now BAPS generates almost 70% of the budget from donations and fundraisers. 2013 was about 40%, 2014 about 60%. Hoping that this trend continues, we can see a day when BAPS supports itself financially.
[Amanda adds: The amount not covered by donations comes from Leo and Jin’s personal funds.]
Third, is what is made possible by 1 and 2: Adoptions. We have sent over 400 dogs out to homes, and almost every dog has gone to expats, who end up taking their dogs all around the world. We love seeing all our alumni!
5. Talk about 2 or 3 of your biggest challenges in rescuing and/or running an organization like BAPS.
The biggest challenge is growth. As I mentioned before, BAPS can’t generate enough money to pay basic costs yet, meaning that actual growth is impossible to even imagine. Buying land and building a facility, hiring full time workers…. those things seem very unreachable.
Another challenge that is closely tied to the first is getting the Korea government to recognize what we do as a charity. Aside from the lack of support from external entities, one burden BAPS puts on us personally is that all money donated to BAPS is technically income for us, meaning we have to pay high taxes on all of it. Hopefully someday that can be alleviated, and our donors can receive tax benefits from supporting us. That would also allow companies to support us.
6. What are you most proud of when you think about BAPS?
The worldwide community of adopted dogs and their families, for sure. BAPS is more than a shelter where people get their dogs and never look back. We try to establish a support network, and while not every graduate keeps in touch, a lot of them do, so we get to see them have these wonderful adventures around the world!
7. What can people who live near Busan/Ulsan do to help support your cause?
Come to volunteer! We have volunteering every Sunday, and this is the key time for dogs to remember how nice human contact is, and it is also a great community time. And of course, the obvious… donate money.
Sunday volunteers needed rain or shine!
8. What can people outside of Korea do to help support your cause?
We’ve sent a lot of dogs to adoptions abroad, it is just a matter of finding the resources to get the dogs out. So we always encourage people to share our BAPS dog profiles with friends and families, so homes can be found. And once again, donate! We really hope that someday BAPS can support itself on monthly expenses, but we want to look beyond that, to expanding into what a “real” shelter would be like. Professional facilities, full time workers, and such amenities taken for granted in the west.
BAPS fundraising efforts include selling calendars; Santa (Leo)!
For more from Leo, check out his “Ted Talk” below:
Most of the dogs featured in this post are currently residents at BAPS and would love your consideration for adoption! Leo and Jin have a fabulous network of people who have facilitated international adoptions, and it is not uncommon for them to prepare a kiddo to be flown to a new home abroad. Please visit their website at http://shindogs.org/ or their Facebook page to contact them or follow their endeavors.
Remember, if you’re local to southern Korea, please consider donating your time on a Sunday afternoon to walk a dog, it would make their week! Or, if you’re a reader abroad and find it in your heart to make a financial contribution to BAPS, anything is much appreciated to help both current and future pups. Because BAPS is located in Korea, they cannot easily get funding through sites like GoFundMe or PetCaring. Furthermore, because BAPS cannot register as a charity, they can’t get a PayPal ‘Donate’ button – but not to fear! If you would like to donate, please visit the PayPal website and you can send your funds to firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information, visit BAPS support page here.
Thanks for reading!