"People can change. I was in my
forties when the idea of serious
animal help took shape."
"We have a dog who had to have both her eyes removed. From a great distance, me being entirely quiet, beautiful Moti starts wagging her tail. This is Paradise. If I could design what happens in the 'afterlife,' it would look exactly like the present life."
"I had talked about organized charity work for a long time—even decades—but with no clear purpose, only an abstract intellectual fascination with people who lead 'selfless' lives. "
"I know well how to tie a saree now, and I have many, and wear them comfortably. Probably some western tourists think it’s presumptuous, but after 20 years here, and ten of them full-on, saree-wearing years, I don’t care what they think."
"Don’t feel you need to start big or write an elaborate blue-print for what you want to do in the future. You probably will not know at the beginning how it’s going to morph and take shape. Relax and enjoy that mystery unfolding."
Seattle native Erika Abrams moved to India with her husband, Jim, and daughter, Claire, nearly 20 years ago, after traveling to the Subcontinent and falling in love with the land and its people. Opening a veterinary hospital, shelter, and sanctuary for abused, injured,and neglected animals wasn't a lifelong dream, but Animal Aid Unlimited has has become Erika's life pursuit and passion. Here, she gives us a glimpse into her wonderful world in the Rajasthan desert, where she and her family are revered fixtures in the community and a godsend for animals in need.
What do you love most about your life in Udaipur?
Living with 400 animals in a caring, beautiful setting is beyond “a dream come true.” Every morning I wake up excited about the adventure waiting for me in the day to come. Many of the animals live here permanently, so truly, “my cup runneth over” with love in every direction I turn. I am bathed in a warm sea of their joy at seeing me or, in the case of blind dogs, just their memorized knowledge of my footsteps. We have a dog who had to have both her eyes removed. From a great distance, me being entirely quiet, beautiful Moti starts wagging her tail. This is Paradise. If I could design what happens in the “afterlife” it would look exactly like the presentlife.
Many people dream of starting an animal sanctuary. Was it a longtime dream of yours?
I think this is interesting—no it was not a lifetime dream. I was a fearful, unimaginative person all my life when it comes to animal protection. I actually can remember being in my 20s on a road trip with a friend who insisted on stopping when we found a stray dog with a broken leg, searching out a vet and taking the dog to it, and my resenting the “intrusion!” It makes me gasp to admit that now, but I tell it to illustrate: people can change. I was in my 40s when the idea of serious animal help took shape. I had previous been selective about the animals I loved. I lacked the courage to look into the lives of suffering animals. I thought I was too sensitive, too delicate. Something made me realize that these were excuses. In fact I was not sensitive enough, not delicate enough, not compassionate enough to look at suffering. When I began to have the courage—ignited in me by the insistence of my daughter Claire, at age 7, upon seeing a wounded puppy in the road—to physically help injured animals, I realized almost overnight that I had been blind. It was a dramatic revolution in my soul, not something which I nurtured over years and years. I had talked about organized charity work for a long time—even decades—but with no clear purpose, only an abstract intellectual fascination with people who lead “selfless” lives. When the inspiration hit me, it never felt in the slightest “selfless.” Rather it felt like the only fulfillment of self that made any sense, was suddenly service to animals. It struck like an enormous gong—and I almost immediately began taking the steps to realize the dream in an incremental way, starting by searching for other kindred spirits in this region who cared about animals. I thought I could piggyback on their work, but found that in Udaipur no work had taken place. There was only empty space and opportunity, and thankfully my husband was incredibly excited about it as soon as he realized we’d have no shortage of suffering animals and that the people who came to learn about our willingness to help them stepped right up and started contacting us.
Describe a day in your life.
I get up at about 6 am and have emergency coffee right away. I drink it outside under trees and try not to use the computer for 40 minutes or so. Sometimes I water the plants or just sit staring at them. Then I often hit the emails and start planning out the day with Claire and Jim and Neha. From 9 to 12 I go into the Animal Aid hospital and start my personal rounds. It starts with a debriefing from the manager about what staff are here, where they may be gaps. I tend not to survey the new patients but concentrate my focus on the animals who live in permanent sanctuary. Claire usually debriefs with the vet staff who assess new admissions and enters in where any tricky cases emerge. I too do this occasionally but use my time to make sure that the animals who live with us permanently are getting everything they need. We have staff assigned just for them too, mind you. I have a love relationship with 100 animals. I have to rotate my attention so that most of them get quality “me” every few days at least. If I don’t get to intermingle with them I feel lost.
How does stress affect you?
I am prone to stress. Writing helps me. I love to write and I actually love to write thank you letters to people who have reached out either with a donation or a good wish. Fortunately I write really fast; the connection between my brain and my typing fingers is so locked in, so integrated, that I literally do not have to stop and “think” about what I’m going to say, the hookup between the thoughts themselves and the movement of my fingers is automatic. This is not owing merely to good luck; I have been writing either longhand or typing for at least 4 hours a day for the past 45 years. As with anything, practice helps. I also love to clean the house and to make little things with my hands—I make glass bead bracelets and necklaces which I sell online. I find it for me a great de-stressor to make pretty things.
What is your approach to staying healthy?
I am extremely healthy. I almost never get ill, hardly ever injured. I work hard all day every day and am pretty happy most of the time. But…I have systemic lupus, and I have no thyroid gland. I had cancer of the thyroid when I was 18. Lupus is largely in remission but I have problems with hair loss. This is an issue of vanity for sure, but it really does bother me sometimes. With auto-immune diseases and thyroid problems you can easily fall into a trap of blaming ordinary fatigue, or problems sleeping, or generally slowing down with age, on disease syndromes that may or may not be to “blame.” I tend to “manage” health care in ostrich-with-head-in-sand tactics. I just don’t let myself dwell on health issues because they often seem to be worse when I think about them. I am extremely late (years late) on mammography, pap smears, and general “checkups.” With animals and family and friends I love prevention measures. But those I apply to myself have to do with lifestyle. I eat well, I don’t drink much alcohol, I try to get at least 7 hours of sleep every day, I don’t like loud noises and I avoid the bustle of the city partly because it’s too loud. This probably helps me be a very healthy person.
Do you have any unhealthy habits you’d like to break?
I smoked cigarettes off and on for years. I have not smoked in very recent years but I always feel “at risk.” Whenever someone lights up, it looks good to me.
You have one free day and money is no object. How will you spend it?
If money were really no object, I would spend the day making donations to all the small groups throughout India who desperately need funding and don’t have the communication and fundraising skills to know how to present their stories and ask for help, but who need and deserve help. In the effort of protecting animals, we need more than big hearts, we need the communication skills that enable us to share the information about the disasters animals face with the people in a position to help them. We need to be conduits of information and inspiration. Our hands-on animal work itself will ultimately go a long way toward “publicizing” the animals’ needs, but most of us cannot render hand-on help to the millions of animals locked in factory farms, laboratories, zoos…. For them, we need to develop the means to share their stories by writing articles, blogs, contacting the media, distributing literature, sharing photographs and expose videos on social media. We need to spot the feel-good opportunities that help others see the individuality of animals so that the more anonymous idea of “herd” and “school of fish” and so on is replaced by awareness that each being is a unique individual like our children and ourselves. We need to show and tell the stories that are hidden.
When you really want to unwind, what do you do to achieve relaxation?
Being with large animals like donkeys can be a tremendous de-stressor. We have 40 donkeys, and each has a serious disability. They are so sweet, so calm, restful, contented, and most of them love to be brushed and cuddled. Their sweetness can just slow my heart rate. Works every time. I just go up to a donkey and pet him. Boom. Relaxed.
Do you have any specific beauty products you are faithful to?
Ahh, one of my favorite parts of this interview! I love cosmetics, creams, potions, and lotions. I love body oils made from almond oil or other nut or fruit oils. I love fragrances. I am not faithful to any particular brand but find that brands not tested on animals in India are very few, so I rely on Himalaya brand for creams. For makeup I am toting around makeup picked up from many places over the years. I have a lot; I’ve given away a lot! I have makeup bartering sessions with women friends in America who send what they don’t like, and I send them what I don’t use. It’s super fun for me to do this. I have been a makeup junkie since I was like 12 years old and haven’t missed a beat since. I wear it every day whether I’m going anywhere or not. It’s part of my routine; in fact, applying makeup is probably something I do that reduces stress. I don’t usually wear face-makeup, almost never “foundation,” but I love eye-makeup and lipstick. I still have a lot of makeup which I acquired before I embraced the full impact of what “dermatology tested” means for animals. So I don’t want to recommend what’s actually still in my makeup box.
How would you describe your personal style ?
I wear sarees every day! I am probably considered very eccentric by westerners, but Indian women and men are very reassuring that wearing sarees looks wonderful and I think so too. I know well how to tie a saree now, and I have many, and wear them comfortably. Probably some western tourists think it’s presumptuous but after 20 years here, and 10 of them full-on saree-wearing years, I don’t care what they think. Dolly Parton said in an interview I heard once something that has always stuck with me as wise and fun: She said, “I don’t care what’s in fashion. I just wanna look good!”
What words of wisdom would you offer another woman who dreams of a different kind of life, and wants to do something brave and bold like start an animal sanctuary?
I want to pass along the words of wisdom of another animal activist, a pioneer animal liberationist named Christine Townend, an Australian who worked with Peter Singer in the 1980s and for years in Help in Suffering in Jaipur. She said, when I approached her in 2000 for advice about starting a shelter in Rajasthan, “just don’t do nothing. Do something. Anything. Just don’t do nothing.”
You absolutely never know what’s around the corner. Don’t feel you need to start big or write an elaborate blue-print for what you want to do in the future. You probably will not know at the beginning how it’s going to morph and take shape. Relax and enjoy that mystery unfolding. You will learn so much by doing. Some people might recommend a lengthy planning process but I don’t. I believe in starting modular, getting your toes in the water and seeing how it feels. Don’t spend all your money in the first incarnation of your dream, if you can spare any of it. Your dream will change with changing circumstances and a growing knowledge of your own strengths and weaknesses. These are mysteries to you until you’re in the field, in the protest march, on the phone, in the kennel, holding the head of a calf in your lap. You’ll be learning what your special talents are. You might think you know yourself because you’re 40 or 50, but get ready to be surprised. Chances are, you’re even better, brighter and more needed than you ever dreamed.
photos courtesy of Erika Abrams/Animal Aid Unlimited