• Day 87: Is compassion a muscle? If so are there any gyms nearby?

    Dec 9th

    Does exercising your compassion make it stronger?

    Can one train in compassion?

    I spend my time at the Ark helping out where I can: walking dogs, occasionally de-ticking others, helping to feed them, watching over the puppies and taking pictures (of the cats too – yes Avis looks after a few of them too. I want to help make a calendar to sell in the local shops to raise money.

    It’s small daily exercises for my heart – not much, little star jumps perhaps. Can one train in compassion? Can one practice opening our heart to suffering so that we become more and more…able to help?


    Sometimes it feels easier to sleep in during the mornings…


    Watching Avis, super-athlete

    If we are talking compassion then Avis is an olympic athlete – she has a toned and flexible heart- but in her physical body she is frail.  It worries me. She works so hard: brushing dogs, managing her staff (who don’t all speak English well), replying to emails, cleaning toilets, filing legal complaints against cruely cases, occasionally losing her temper.

    Avis with one of her rescue dogs…

    This morning, as we walked through the centre, she tripped on a dusty slope and ended face down on the floor unable to get up. It was a cruel sight. As I lifted her back up she brushed herself down with a laugh.

    ‘I’m fine,’ she said, ‘totally fine. But my feet are weary after all the chemo’

    Bloody hell.

    I get the feeling she’s had a life-time of falling down and getting back up.


    Avis’s legal trials

    Avis has an understanding with the local government that the dogs within a certain territory are hers to control. She collects them, treats them for sickness at the centre, neuters them and releases them back at the same spot.

    It is a proven method recommended by the World Health Organisation for managing both dog population and disease.

    This programme is called ‘ABC’ or Animal Birth Control and in theory it is as simple as a,b,c. Not, however, if government dog catchers come on your patch and take dogs from under your nose with the likely intention of destroying them (because it’s a quick, cheap ‘solution’)

    Avis says that the government have killed many of her dogs that she has treated and sterlised. It makes you aghast.

    A few years back, Avis saw some dog catchers doing just this and called the police. The police came and she took photographic evidence. But shortly after she found herself in court for apparently attacking the dog catchers.



    “BRITISH PENSIONER VS INDIAN DOG CATCHERS”… would draw a crowd at a cage fight, I’m sure, but this was no light entertainment and the legal battle lived on for years in the Kafka-esque court system until it finally died as mysteriously as it was born.

    In India it takes three years before a charity is allowed to accept foreign contributions. Avis did her three years from 2001-4. Then she had the court case and for another three years she wasn’t allowed to apply because she was on bail. Then she got cancer – and understandably other things were on her mind.


    She needs a break!!

    Now 11 years on she needs to retire, but it is vital to secure the right to foreign contributions to keep the charity going. In the meantime she has been using her own savings and been accepting limited payments through paypal (please please consider donating any amount – it is desperately needed). She has applied again and expects to hear back tomorrow.

    One gets the feeling that India doesn’t care much about the dogs or Avis.

    You might argue that what Avis is doing is pointless – she is swimming upstream against a raging current of cruelty and indifference. What impact can she make in such a vast country with so many dogs that has so much resistance?  Change must come from the politicians, from big organisation. I looked at her ‘control’ area on a map – it was only a fraction of the local state, which in itself was a tiny fraction of Kerala. Avis’ patch all but disappears in the totality of India.

    And yet what she does has SO much point.

    I have decided – in my quest to unearth more compassion in myself – that Avis’s response is the highest form of caring: it is helping DESPITE the impossibility of finding a total solution. When a nurse tends to a dying soldier and applies a bandage to the wound it’s something similar – and thank goodness we are capable of that sort of instinctive kindness.

    ‘I can’t keep on taking in dogs, I can’t afford it’ Avis says,  ‘I don’t have the answer. I just do my best, but what else can you do?’

    There is a lot else you can do. Like give up and watch TV.

    Avis is not a politician, an intellectual, or even a leader – her qualities are more simple but solid as if carved in rock: kindness and dogged determination. Pun intended. Thank goodness we have people like her.



    Puppy love

    This afternoon a puppy that had been rescued was found to have the deadly and contagious Parvovirus. If the ARK had more resources, more isolation rooms, more medical supplies it might have made sense to try and keep it alive in the slim hope it would survive. But it was decided the best option would be to put it out of its misery…in about thirty minutes time.

    What could I do to help? Obviously nothing.

    Then it seemed clear. I took the poor little beast out of its solitary cage along with its bedding (appropriately enough it was black cotton) held him in my arms and talked to it.

    I have no idea what I said – it was certainly not an Indian dialect and it was certainly not DOG – but there was some communication I think.  I held him as he was injected.

    I did not save an animal, but it counted for something. Somehow.

    Screw this ‘animals saved’ thing for just a minute. A little compassion will do for now.

    I once heard a Buddhist say that in the West we have a mistaken view of compassion. We treat it as a quality that we simply have – like eye colour or brown hair – and believe good people have more of it. And yet if we talk of other personal qualities like agility, strength, memory, wisdom or even, let’s say, jumping on a pogo stick, we all accept that these are things that can and must be practiced and developed.

    So can compassion be strengthened like a muscle?


    I’d like to think so…. but right now I have doubts. At this rate it feels as though my heart is buckling, not getting stronger. But maybe that is the process.

    Tomorrow I will go out on the street to help catch stray and sick dogs. More heart training I guess. But right now I want to watch mindless TV.

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    9 Responses to “Day 87: Is compassion a muscle? If so are there any gyms nearby?”

    1. Hi Martin, your blog is heart rending enough to read. I can only imagine what it’s like to be actually experiencing it.

    2. Hi Shane, tough stuff out here but always reassuring to know there are people out there like yourself who support dogs. Thanks for reading

    3. Along the lines of “is compassion a muscle”, I have worked with animals for 25 years, I remember the first parvo puppy I nursed and how it broke my heart. I have nursed so many more over the years some made it some didn’t, you find a way to cope so you can be of use to animals who are suffering. I think it takes practice and and making your practical side dominate your emotional side, but every now and then the emotional side wins and it can be really upsetting and sometimes disturbing to see the suffering. When I am abroad and see the state of local animal populations, I try not to get too upset about it, it annoys me but what I do is whatever I practically can to help without turning into an emotional wreck. You have really thrown yourself in at the deep end and will have to learn fast how to deal with your feelings, I think you are doing really well and you will probably surprise yourself at what you can cope with, I am loving your blog, go work that muscle.

    4. It’s a good point Jacqueline, thanks. But is there a risk that by being practical (as you clearly need to be and thank you for all your work) its possible to become a little harder or colder? Maybe that is the best thing to help deal with all the misery.

    5. Hi Martin, you do become harder, but you don’t lose your compassion, its like developing a way to protect yourself from your own emotional response to seeing these animals suffering. it doesn’t make you care less you just don’t let the emotions get to you so much that you can’t function or do what is necessary to help an injured animal. vet nurses don’t earn a lot of money and work long hours and its a stressful and emotional job, we have to care and be compassionate without becoming hard or cold or we would all leave and find a job that paid the bills that didn’t require so much emotional energy. I don’t cry every time a patient dies or is put to sleep but it doesn’t mean I don’t care or feel anything. I have got better at it over time, but must admit that when I have issues in my own life (my mum died last year) then I find controlling my feelings a lot harder at work, but colleagues help you through it and you find your way back to coping and caring again. does that make sense?

    6. yes that makes sense. thanks for that. I’m not anywhere near your level of emotional involvement but I get what you say.

      I suppose when I talk about compassion being a muscle I’m also thinking about whether one can become MORE compassionate by exposing your heart. I do not necessarily mean becoming more able to cope with it, but more able to feel. A lot of people just don’t care – I wonder if those people might be able to feel more care by becoming more exposed?

    7. ah I see what you mean, My mother was a “human” nurse, her speciality was care of the elderly, she used to say you can teach anyone how to be a nurse but you can’t teach anyone how to care. I do hope she was wrong. I worked for a large charity and used to see lots of animals that were suffering due to their owners actions or inaction. most of them didn’t realise they were causing suffering or doing anything wrong, we found it was mostly not deliberate cruelty but ignorance . so maybe education is the answer,after all ten years ago choke chains were common in the uk, they are frowned upon now because we have been educated. some of the people we saw had tragic and complicated lives, you couldn’t make some of it up, and in the middle of their devastation and poverty they decide what they need is a rottweiller!! they love it, but don’t walk, vaccinate or have it treated unless it stops being able to function, and its not deliberate or that they don’t care. the people you are seeing throwing stones at dogs maybe do it because of disease as there are so many zoonosis about that its just self preservation, after all they can’t just wander into a and e like we can to get help.20 odd years ago when i was in india and saw some badly deformed children I was told (and i don’t know if this is true of course) that their parents were very poor and by deforming the children gave them better returns when begging, therefore better chance of survival, a form of caring though unthinkable for most people. You are in a great position to ask the next person you see being cruel, why they are doing it, ask carefully, you really are on a very interesting journey.

    8. God this does not make for good reading just before a drink with friends. My face isn’t looking pretty. Reading every post and feeling increasingly moved as time goes on and as your learning and your understanding increases. What a journey – for you of course – but I’d like to think for each of your friends and ‘followers’ too. x

    9. The first picture of that little kitten is just too cute for words.
      So sad to hear that the puppy had to be put down. Your facial expression says it all 🙁 Glad that you were with him in his final hours.
      If compassion was a muscle I would send all humans to the gym to do some workout.
      Avis is a true angel!
      Best, Martina

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