In a society where humans have to constantly fight tooth and nail for their rights and welfare, a woman who has literally devoted her life to the well-being of wounded and abandoned animals in Karachi sounds nothing less than angelic.
What’s more fascinating in a way is that Veronique Ahmed isn’t Pakistani. At least not by birth. But she does consider the place her “first home”, and during the 16 years she has lived in Karachi, this petite, seemingly reticent woman has done more for the community than most of us do in our entire lives.
Born and reared in Eastern France, Veronique admits to being a lonely, love-starved child that spent most of her youth in a boarding school. “I grew up alone and was always looking for some kind of love and company. I remember I used to hide crickets and snails. When I was in boarding school I had hidden white mice that escaped one day—that was a big drama!” she recalls with a hearty laugh.
Her first brush with Pakistan came about when her father’s company in France started importing from here and she started accompanying him to Karachi and Sialkot on his business trips. When her father retired, Veronique took over. “It was while doing business with a company here that I met my husband, who is originally a doctor but owned that company with his brother. We fell in love while signing contracts!”
Fast-forward 16 years and here she is, a happily married mother of two teenagers, part-time French teacher to kindergarten children and proud owner of an animal sanctuary that hems in her intriguing home (she’s also an antiques collector and has many objet d’art and souvenirs from her traveling days to titivate her rooms) in a quiet section of DHA, where I met up with her for a quick chat and ended up spending the entire afternoon loving every minute of this pleasantly elevating brush with nature…
Your love for animals is bordering on being downright passionate. Tell me how it all started.
I think probably because I was a very lonely child. My parents weren’t fond of animals so they didn’t allow me to keep any pets while growing up. I was the only child and also the only grandchild in the family; I had no brothers and sisters or cousins. When I was 21 I left home to backpack across the world, and while I was living in Japan to learn Japanese, I got my first dog. I used to travel everywhere with her and even brought her to Pakistan when I got married. I’ve met a lot of people like me and I’ve noticed that they’re all usually the only child…I also probably had it in my gene somewhere!
What inspired you to start the shelter for injured and abandoned animals in your home?
Seeing the condition of animals in Pakistan when I moved here 16 years ago was very depressing for me. In the beginning I used to pick up every animal I came across on the street and kept them with me in my home. I used to go to Empress Market and buy animals from there as well. Most of the animals that are sold there are sick because of the condition they’re kept in, and I just couldn’t see them like that. Now most of the men there know me and sell me their sick animals at cheap prices because they know if nobody buys them soon they’ll die. Sometimes they even call me up and just give me the ones that are sick and weak. Sadly I can’t bring any more animals home because I don’t have any space left. Now I mostly help people who have rescued animals by finding good homes for them.
Does your family support your cause? Do they enjoy having all these pets around as much as you?
Not really. My elder son was very involved with the animals when he was a child. He even wanted to become a vet, but now that he’s a teenager he has other interests! I hope his interest will return soon.
My husband is just tolerating everything because he knows this has helped me live here and settle in Pakistan and I appreciate that.
How helpful has the local community been? Have there been any volunteers or donations?
I don’t ask anyone for help anymore. I’ve started breeding the cats and dogs and sometimes sell kittens and puppies which helps cover some of the costs of maintaining the other animals and the money I pay to my workers. I tried to seek help in the beginning but soon realized that the ladies here were all talk…they would have endless meetings to discuss what all they wanted to do, but when it was time for action, they all disappeared! If I would call them up and tell them that I wanted a home for a cat for two days, they would start making excuses…So now I prefer to do little, but alone, because I never get any sincere help. People have criticized me and tried to cause problems in my work. And then they dump animals on me and don’t follow up. They use me. Now I don’t even go to these meetings because they are all useless—all talk talk talk! People don’t want to take in stray or less popular breeds of cats and dogs. I have a short haired black cat that is looking for a home but nobody is interested. People prefer paying thousands of Rupees for Persian cats instead. Once I pick up an animal it becomes my responsibility. If I can find it a home, good; if not, the animal stays with me. Most people here pick up animals from the street and think they’re rescuing it and then just dump it on me. I would prefer if people can help find good homes for the animals I have with me right now.
What animals do you have on the premises right now?
Right now I have four breeds of tortoises and four breeds of turtles—in total there are so many I haven’t counted them all! I have had a few pelicans, cranes and flamingos for a long time and I have a few rescued kites, eagles and a vulture also. When I get them they are usually sick or injured, so after treatment if they are strong enough to be on their own, I let them fly away, and only keep the ones that are amputated or weak and can’t take care of themselves anymore. I have two crows too, along with many rabbits, guinea pigs, parrots and poultry—we get a lot of free eggs! I also have three porcupines; three foxes; a few hedgehogs; a monitor lizard, and I also just bought a baby boa constrictor that my husband doesn’t know about yet!
Have you ever had an animal that you couldn’t keep because of lack of space or any other issues?
One animal I couldn’t keep because I didn’t have any space was a donkey. I rescued him from his owner who used to beat him with a stick. His back was badly injured and infected and full of blood when I first saw him. I took the stick away from the man and came home, but I couldn’t stop thinking about the poor donkey for a long time. After a few days I saw the same donkey in a different area but this time he was with a lady so I bought him from her right away and brought him home. It took four months for him to heal because his wounds were full of maggots! But I had to give him away because we couldn’t keep it in the house as donkeys are very loud. He used to scream in the middle of the night and we couldn’t sleep. All my friends used to assure me that I would go to paradise because I’d rescued the donkey and my husband used to mock them by saying that he’s the one who has been unable to sleep for four months and I’m the one who gets to go to paradise! I gave the donkey to Dr Isma who has kept him in her father’s stables.
Caring for so many animals at the same time has got to be hard work. What kinds of problems do you face in looking after them?
I take care of all the animals myself and I have hired three boys who help. Each one of them has their favorites. One takes care of all the tortoises, one of all the dogs, one of all the birds…The dogs require daily grooming and attention because they can get ticks and I have trained the boys to do most of the stuff. The cats don’t require daily grooming but they do need constant attention like most of the other animals I have. I can’t go outside without getting all dirty, but I love it! I treat the injured ones myself, but when they need to go to a vet I take them to Dr Isma or Dr Peerzada, and there are two new vets at Karachi Animal Hospital in Defence that don’t have a lot of experience yet but are very good. They recently performed a C-Section on my Chihuahua that went very well. I was very scared but I had no choice because I didn’t want her to go through normal labour because every time it would take her around 48 hours! All my dogs go in labour on a Sunday or public holidays when nobody is there to help! The last one was on Muharram holiday. I have strong feeling they do it on purpose to stress me out!
Do any of them ever get aggressive towards you or each other?
Not really. The pelicans can sometimes be a bit dangerous because they can bite your hand while feeding. I had monkeys that can be aggressive when they get older. I had one who used to attack my boys so I had to give her away to the zoo. Generally all the animals are very friendly not only towards us but also towards each other.
Some of the animals have been stolen from your home too?
Yes, a few of my cats were stolen. One night guard was stealing my birds and selling them to someone.
Tell me about L’Arche (The Arch)—the pet shop—you’ve been planning to open for a while.
We will sell pets, their accessories, habitats, food and provide boarding and grooming services. I’ve wanted to open it for a long time but its being delayed because I can’t find proper help. I have three boys at home who look after the pets and for now, I’ve trained them well enough to take turns to sit at the shop. I’ve taught them grooming and everything, but I’m still looking for someone a bit mature because they are a little young and probably won’t be able to handle the business aspect even though they often deal with people who respond to my ads in Dawn. L’Arche will open very soon, hopefully.
You also mix your own medicine for the pets?
Yes, the mixture is very good for skin problems. Pets are very prone to fungus, allergies and scabies, so I’ve made a mixture and people have been using it and it works pretty fine!
Karachi Zoo has faced a lot of criticism over the years for its lack of proper animal care facilities. What’s your take on that? Do you think the management is going a good enough job?
Well, they can obviously do better but I don’t think the condition of the animals in Karachi Zoo is that bad, actually. I wouldn’t know about what they are fed but the animals have a lot of moving space. I have seen worse zoos. In China, I remember seeing a bear that was kept in such a small space that he couldn’t even turn around properly. I think living space is even more important than food! To have freedom to move around in a suitable habitat is extremely important for animals. I once saw a caged jackal in Empress Market but I couldn’t bring him home so I called the zoo and asked if they would take him. They said OK so I bought him from there and dropped him off at the zoo. I have given Karachi Zoo quite a few animals in the past.
Do you think people’s attitude towards their pets and animals in Pakistan is satisfactory enough?
I think the mentality is slowly changing and people’s attitude towards their pets is much better now. Of course there are some people who still need to be taught how to look after animals but generally pet-owners are now more aware. People have started buying dogs for company instead of just security and they take very good care of them.
Tell me about your involvement with PAWS.
PAWS are doing significant work for animal welfare in Pakistan. They have also put me on their board but I don’t go to their meetings. I only provide consultation and if there’s an animal that needs a home, I help look for it. Just recently I found homes for two donkeys. I try to help PAWS as much as possible because they’re doing good work and they don’t ask me to keep the animals with me!
Would you say you’re content?
Of course! Being surrounded by animals makes me very happy. They are my passion and I love them all very much.