The Alberta Animal Rescue Crew Society (AARCS) is a not-for-profit, volunteer driven, animal-rescue organization and registered charity. Primarily focused on rural Alberta communities and other areas where animal services are limited, AARCS volunteers work towards the end of animal suffering by improving the lives of animals, educating the public, and promoting spaying and neutering.
In the wake of the extreme flooding in Southern Alberta, AARCS has expanded both in size, (the volunteer response has been overwhelming), and in mandate, (while the organization primarily focuses on dogs, cats and other small animals, in the last week they’ve re-homed or rescued horses, pigs, chickens, hares, a turtle and some cockatiels).
I spoke with AARCS president Clarissa von Stetten about how the organization began, why animal cruelty should be seen as a people problem, and her insights on how AARCS’s work might be helping people to re-examine their relationship with animals.
1. AARCS began with a Rescue, Rehabilitate & Re-home program. Can you share the impetus for the organizations founding, and what your vision was for helping animals in those early days?
AARCS started because there was a need to help communities without significant access to animal services. We noticed that there was, and is, a huge stray animal population in rural Alberta areas. We started on a very small and limited scale, to rescue and re-home these unwanted and often forgotten dogs. But, quickly we realized that there was a larger problem at play, resulting in an endless cycle of symptoms, which is thousands of animals suffering from homelessness and neglect that were still procreating. We were acting reactively by rescuing and re-homing some animals, but that was just a band-aid, so we started looking at more proactive approaches in addition to what we were already doing.
We knew that if we did not address the lack of spaying and neutering in these areas, we would only be managing the symptoms. According to an ASPCA study, one female and her offspring can create 67,000 animals in a period of 7 years and this is the ultimate problem. As such, the only humane solution was to institute spay/neuter programs in conjunction with rehabilitation and re-homing efforts.
In addition, we noticed that rural communities often do not have readily available access to veterinary services. However, animals do get sick, they get hit by cars, they get seriously injured, or they encounter other medical issues, and there was nobody able to assist these animals, especially if they were not readily allowing humans to approach. All of these needs lead to the creation of AARCS and the tremendous subsequent growth of its rescue program, its holistic spay/neuter approach, and the other programs we added over the years.
A rescued chicken is warmed on the lap of a volunteer.
A rescued chicken is warmed on the lap of a volunteer.
2. Part of your mission reads, “Assisting communities to achieve healthy and respectful relationships with animals”. What are the ways that AARCS works to achieve this goal?
We do not accept euthanasia as a means of population control; we do not believe that is a solution to the problem. Instead we encourage a whole and humane solution to animal overpopulation. This might break with past traditions, and that is where AARCS Education programs come into play. Education is a huge part of what we do and it is multi-faceted, combining the obvious issues surrounding proper and even basic animal care, teaching children how to interact with animals and how to care for them, and eliminating the myths around adopting dogs vs. buying from a breeder or pet stores, (we promote the ‘don’t shop, adopt’ mantra!). It doesn’t make any sense for people to buy dogs and cats when there are millions of animals dying in shelters annually for no good reason. You can find almost any breed, any age and temperament, there is honestly no good reason not to adopt a rescue a shelter animal. Animals in shelters are not bad, nor are they broken; they are just the unlucky ones. You are saving innocent lives simply by adopting and not shopping.
3. I loved this quote on the AARCS website: “Animal homelessness and cruelty against animals impacts not just the animals, but people too”. Can you talk about how this informs how AARCS interacts with the communities it serves, and how you feel care and compassion for animals contributes to a happy and healthy society?
I think it is well known and generally accepted that there is a direct correlation between violence and neglect of animals to violence against humans. I think this also works the other way, whereby the more we care for and respect animals, the more we care for and respect our fellow humans. The positive impact of teaching a child about empathy and kindness rather than violence and hate can hardly be disputed.
A horse, washed up on a deck, awaits assistance.
A horse, washed up on a deck from the flooding, awaits assistance.
4. While you focus mainly on dogs and cats, the situation with the flooding in Southern Alberta has seen AARCS rescue horses, pigs and chickens. Can you share the situations these farm animals were rescued from and how they came to their happy ending?
The floods were so widespread and so sudden that many animals, wild and domestic, just got swept away or stuck. Sadly many died, but there were a few lucky ones that were spotted and fished out of the water, or lead to higher ground. In some cases we found hares seeking refuge on window ledges and some animals were even floating on pieces of debris. So far, AARCS has taken in over 120 animals including dogs, cats, even a turtle and some cockatiels into our foster home network due to the floods, which means we currently have a record amount of over 400 animals in our care. Above and beyond the direct mandate of our organization, over 20 horses, 4 pigs, a dozen chickens, a turkey, baby hares, a fawn, and others were rescued and in some instances transported to sanctuaries and wildlife rehabilitation centres.
5. Siksika Nation, a First Nations community affected severely by the flooding, has been largely neglected in the media and in rescue efforts. Can you talk about AARCS’s efforts there this past week and why First Nation’s communities are a focus for the organization?
We have very good relationships with several First Nations communities around Alberta, Siksika being one of them, and we value these relationships and very much respect the communities we work with. Unlike the urban areas that have access to shelters and readily available medical services for animals, remote rural areas often do not; this is why we focus on these areas. These floods affected thousands of people on several First Nations communities, and while animals are our focus, our volunteers also gathered supplies and donations for the people that have lost so much. Some have lost everything. The damages are beyond description and it is heartbreaking to see these families and people who are now completely homeless. Some of our volunteers have convoyed out to the affected communities with blankets, clothing, gift certificates, food, water and other basic supplies for the people that have suffered from this disaster. Aside from this, AARCS is trying to match up the rescued animals from these floods with their respective owners and provide temporary shelter for the animals whose owners are now homeless and cannot take back their animals in the foreseeable future. Any animal left unclaimed will of course be re-homed through our adoptions program.
In addition to dogs and cats, wild animals like this hare have also been rescued by AARCS.
AARCS volunteers work hard to rescue wildlife affected by the flooding, including this baby hare.
6. Your humane education programs focus on creating compassionate communities who are responsible for the welfare of the animals that share their space. Can you share how you’ve seen this program cause shifts in people’s perception of animals, and what gives you hope to continue this work?
Our tangible education program is one where volunteers actually visit schools. In these instances, we have even attempted to involve children in the actual presentations to their peers as well as bringing dogs to the classrooms. The response has been overwhelmingly positive, most recently the children were asked to draw pictures of what they had learnt during these sessions. The drawings that came back were of happy animals living cohesively with their caregivers, the messages written on the drawings included mentions of love, care, hope and kindness. In addition, the children learn about basic animal communication and body language, and it is great to see children understand how to handle various situations such as encountering a large, free roaming dog. We want the children to learn how to conduct themselves and stay safe. Appropriate responses and acknowledgement of animal behavior is vital in order to reduce bite incidences and injuries to both humans and animals alike.
We have seen shifts in adults as well, people realizing not only the importance but also the benefits of spaying and neutering their dogs and cats. The areas we frequent have seen a marked reduction in stray animals and bite complaints, we see an increased level of care, we actually get phone calls from local residents about injured animals because they know us and have someone who can help quickly and humanely address the issue. In our target areas we have also been finding fewer and fewer malnourished or sick animals. All of this, along with the strong support from our volunteers and supporters and the increasing public awareness of the plight of rescue animals, gives me hope and leads me to believe that we are doing the right things even though we still have a long road ahead of us in eliminating animal homelessness.
Thank you Clarissa and AARCS for your tremendous work not only during the flooding, but for your ongoing efforts to improve the lives of animals, and change the hearts and minds of the people who will ultimately be responsible for their care.