Upon entering the hall, there was a yip, yap, barking, whimpering and sometimes deafening “oooooo”, added to by people asking for extra supplies or cages and volunteers calming frightened canines.
The seductive eyes of a caged dog with a label without her name called my attention. He sniffed my hand, before scratching the chin and thanking me for reassuring me by wagging his tail, but his eyes betrayed concern.
At his sight, faltering dogs were held, injected with anesthesia and then carried, feet and perhaps seemingly dead to him, to tables where vets with shiny instruments were cutting them. I didn’t have the heart to let him lose his testicles so soon.
One of the vets I spoke with, when she was having her ovaries extracted, spayed 12 dogs that morning. Her neighbor was doing testicles at a higher rate.
The bimonthly mass sterilization campaign was in De Doorns, a village in the Western Cape in the Hex River Valley. There will be more than 190 operations scheduled that day, with 13 vets working for free and effortlessly. It’s a region with poor communities of mainly seasonal workers for the surrounding wine estates…and lots of dogs.
With mobile phone, laptop and pen in hand, the sterilization process was anchored by the quiet, personable presence of Rachel Sylvester, who started and runs Sidewalk Specials, an NGO supported by vets and volunteers who offer their services for free up to three days every two months and work like… Um… dogs. One of the vets I spoke with, when she was having her ovaries extracted, spayed 12 dogs that morning. Her neighbor was doing testicles at a higher rate.
All animals were first examined and – if necessary – treated for any diseases. After surgery, they were rolled up and laid side by side, and warmed with about 100 constantly refilled hot water bottles, to sleep free from anesthesia. Volunteers would tease them, massage them to keep their circulation going and wake them up. Sleeping space was in short supply, so vigorous rubbing and the smell of some select cat food right under their noses was generally helpful.
The scene was cute and comical. The dogs were like a bunch of oversized dolls when they were asleep, but they stumbling around like the shepherds who once woke up. Gradually, they learned to stand up again, adapting to plastic cones around their necks to prevent licking.
At that point, the haulers took over, loading them onto trailers for the journey back to their owners. Along with each dog, a blue bag of food, antibiotics, and instructions for their care and, if necessary, kennel were placed. The whole operation was executed with military-style efficiency and an abundance of goodwill.
“When we started at De Doorns, people said it was dangerous to go into town and people didn’t care for their dogs,” one volunteer told me. “there We are Problems sometimes if someone is drunk and making demands, some places are shady, but overall people love and respect what we do and they mostly care about their dogs. They don’t have the money to sterilize them so the number of dogs grows.”
To underscore this, two young men—a boy of about 12 and his sister of about eight—arrived at the reception table outside the hall with their dogs in their arms. Can jy asseblief die operasie vir haar doen? Ons wil nie meer hondjies hê nie” asked the boy (Can you operate on her please? We don’t want any more puppies). “Ons sal wag” (We will wait). Three older boys with a Pitbull in peak condition (plus a new gadget and a new drive) come around for a “check-up” and then just wander around, fascinated by what’s going on.
Out in the food tent with a couple of volunteer chefs cooking free vegan lunches, I ran into Janelle Maestri taking a break. She said, “This is real veterinary work, and it’s the kind of thing I’m trained for, making a difference in the community and helping animals.” A colleague sat next to her, took off her shoes, and massaged her feet. She said, “I’ve been standing for surgeries for six hours, it’s hard on the feet.”
The birth of an idea
Rachel’s journey as a model and actress began in London, but she longed to return to South Africa. Her boyfriend put her off by giving her a French bulldog puppy, but she was miserable in London and unable to fly safely with a cerebral palsy dog, so eventually after many tears her parents ended up with the dog and she booked a flight to Cape Town.
But in a dog-friendly apartment in Cape Town that didn’t have a dog, she fostered one. “I fostered a dog named Buster. He was the first foster dog I found a home for. He was moved to another place with a guy named Gary who now, seven years later, heads up the outreach program at Sidewalk. He got me going. I started a page on Facebook called DARG Foster Mom. It was so much more fulfilling than acting or modeling.”
“I was pulling dogs off euthanasia lists in the Witzenberg area and immediately posted on social media that I was coming to Cape Town with maybe 24 dogs who needed foster homes. And people would come out to meet me. They would take care of them while the vets fixed them up. 14 dogs in my Camps Bay apartment.
“After a year of doing this, it got crazy. All over organizations like ours were stockpiling preserved dogs at great cost and at the same time the dogs were relentlessly breeding and nobody was stopping them.”
That day, there was a line around the farm – people lined up for 10 hours looking for their dogs to be looked after.
For Rachel, the concept of dog shelters and rehoming—taking dogs from poor areas and rehoming them in rich areas—sounded wrong. It was fine for the animal, but it didn’t solve the problem. “You were just reacting. Dogs being taken away from people for abuse, without educating their owners on what needs to change, means that this story will only be repeated to their next dog.”
She would rescue dogs from vets who had been brought in for euthanasia, provide them with veterinary care and spay, and then rehom them. In the end she wanted to see where the dogs come from. She visited towns in Ceres and Wellesley and found dogs with litter after litter, dogs dying because people could not feed them and sick dogs everywhere. In these areas, Rachel, along with Sidewalk Specials Chief Veterinarian, Dr. Rena Cotton, held the municipality’s first mass neutering – the first event to handle 90 animals in one day.
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Rachel hears of a woman at De Doorns selling sausages to pay for sterilization and calls her. The woman identified the problem but said the town of De Doorns was a no-go area. Very dangerous.
“I called a guy there who agreed to take us. It was bad. Dogs are in terrible shape everywhere. I decided this was where the Sidewalk Specials would focus our mass sterilization efforts. A local farmer provided a small hall for the event, and we invited volunteer vets and passed out flyers all over the place.” We weren’t sure how, or if the town would respond.”
That day, there was a line around the farm – people lined up for 10 hours looking for their dogs to be looked after. Her team learned the intricacies of the mass sterilization drive the hard way. At the end of the day, there were about 50 puppies that people didn’t want and no addresses where they came from.
“It wasn’t like people didn’t love their dogs,” Rachel told me. “It was just that they couldn’t afford to take care of them when they had litter after litter. Their kids would watch the puppies die, and when you were a kid, you couldn’t form a nurturing bond with a puppy you knew was going to die.”
Deprived pet owners have the same instincts that you do and the same love that you do.
Her team began networking, going to schools and families, and forming a relationship with the community. They were walking the streets, talking to people, asking them to sign up for sterilization. Then they collect their dogs and then bring them back, always with food and medicine and often also a kennel.
“We don’t scold, argue, or impose our opinions, we just present,” said Rachel. “People know who we are, we respect them, and they respect us, for us there is no risk of going in there.”
Learning by paying attention
Sidewalk Specials started a website with the slogan Spay, Educate, and Rescue — and the trolls started. “We had anonymous fliers saying black people don’t care about animals and we should euthanize the town dogs. But these high-minded people couldn’t walk a mile in their shoes, they couldn’t live their lives.
“Some might say we should help people, not their dogs. But we can’t do everything. Helping children take care of their dogs helps them grow and care about people. People, especially children, naturally love animals. You don’t have to teach them that. When we treat their animals And live a long and healthy life, the association evolves.
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“Deprived pet owners have the same instincts that you do and the same love that you do. There is nothing racist about poverty or care. It’s just that if you can’t keep something alive and you can’t protect it, you can’t prevent disease, and you won’t get close to it. Why You keep ripping your heart out?But if the animal is protected from disease and won’t breed to death and will live at least up to 10 years, you will love your dog.
“We had a guy who brought in his dog with advanced cancer and we had to put her down. He walked with her all those years and got her in until she died well and he wants to be with her until the end. That’s a success story. That’s caring.
Make everything work
Sidewalk Specials, the day I was there, had 13 vets from across the county, five vet nurses, about twice as many volunteer helpers, including pickup and delivery teams, and two women serving vegan lunches for everyone – all working flat Two days out for free. There was also a small media team documenting the operation and broadcasting it on YouTube. The space, a farmer-served auditorium, includes a fully equipped theater with an anesthesia department and operating tables with all the equipment needed for top-notch treatment.
“We are funded by international and local funders and a few trusts who know that almost everyone is working for free,” said Rachel. “There’s very little overhead and most of the money goes directly into equipment and animal care. We don’t burn money, we hoard capital. Money goes exactly where it’s supposed to go and you can watch us do it online as it happens. We know what we’re doing, We show what we do and the right people join us.”
Rachel tactfully refrained from commenting on organizations that only do resettlement. Many people get caught up in bailout politics. I’m not interested in staying in my own lane. As far as I’m concerned, I work in the town of De Doorns and this is what I see. I don’t criticize anyone. You don’t need to know what anyone else is doing.
“I look at it that way,” she said. “Instead of constantly trying to bring dogs home in poor conditions, it would be better if they weren’t born at all. Don’t let another 20 puppies come to life. Instead, take care of the animals that are actually still alive.”
“When we started at De Doorns, we would go around and round up dozens of animals in desperate need of care in an hour. Now, after seven years working there, it’s just a year or two in a full day. Things change. But it only takes a bitch. One non-sterilized one that makes 10 puppies twice a year, and they each live another 10 puppies, and you’ll see the problem. It’s exponential. We can’t stop what we’re doing.” DM
For more information, contact Sidewalk Specials on website.
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168, available nationwide for R29.