It was one of those rare rainy days that seldom grace the Algarve with their presence. Gloomy, grey clouds encapsulated the scenery as I drove past the urban landscape of Loulé and into more rural settings, as shown by medieval crumbling walls alongside narrow roads.

As I reached my destination and parked at the gates, an enthusiastically smiling face was ready to greet me. After a quick introduction, Sharon Henderson, who was ARA’s Executive Director, and my first point of contact with the Association, escorted me into the villa sitting atop the hill of the walled estate.

I stepped into a dining room where three other people were awaiting my arrival. Sid Richardson, President, Ian Henderson, Executive Director, and Márcia Carvalho, General Manager, were all sitting across a table filled with paperwork and freshly brewed coffee. There was a serious atmosphere filling the room, and had it not been for the two puppies running about, the meeting could have been mistaken for a business boardroom.

This was a group of highly passionate individuals, who were concerned with more than just providing shelter for disadvantaged animals. They want to lead by example, to be the change they want to see. This, I was about to discover, is not the easiest thing to in Portugal.

Currently, there is widespread inadequacy on behalf of most shelters to provide effective and dignified treatment to all animals, but the blame falls not on the shelters themselves. Sid thinks that most kennels are built with the best of intentions, but due to the fact that ‘Local Government and Council are very happy to dump animals on shelters, these people end up drowning in their own problems’.

Most hardship arise from the very little funding available to animal shelters, which have seen a considerate increase in the influx of animals in their care since September 2018, when a new animal-rights laws came into effect. A situation which has been condemned even before the law came to be, when the National Municipal Veterinary Doctor’s Association declared to TSF that, yearly about sixty thousand animals are taken from the streets. Of those animals only a third were adopted, and about twelve thousand were euthanized. Additionally, the National Association of Portuguese Municipalities had already told Expresso that the timeframe and funding available to ban the practice were insufficient, in part due to the need to accommodate for the increased number of animals.

At its core, the new legislation recognised animals’ status as ‘sentient living beings’, albeit still subjected to property legal guidelines. This means that animals can still be owned by someone, although that someone cannot mistreat, neglect, abandon or kill them.

In spite of it being ‘a kind law’, according to Sid, ‘it is a farce’ and created a problem for Local Governments nationwide, who are now prohibited from euthanizing stray animals for population-control purposes, ‘resulting in many more thousand dogs being around now when compared to last year’. This, in turn, led to an increase in the sheer volume of animals needing shelter - resulting in overcrowded, underfunded, and understaffed kennels.

In a dog shelter, I was told, the three main areas of running costs revolve around staff, veterinary bills, and dog feed. And when I enquired my hosts on how funding is distributed, I received a passionate reply in unison: ‘there is no funding!’.

Moreover, there is no institutionalised subsidisation that charities can rely on for their basic running costs. This means that shelters have to procure their own funding from either their Local Governments or civil society at large.

In a nutshell, Councils are obliged by law to shelter stray animals and prohibited from putting them down. Consequently, said animals must be put in kennels, but Councils have no obligation to fund said kennels.

The new law effectively pushed Councils into illegality simply because it did not create the necessary frameworks to deal with increased demands for animal care. Additionally, authorities have no incentives to inspect shelters because that would mean Councils would penalise themselves for not fulfilling the law.

At this point in the conversation my head was spinning. I was trying to grasp how could a law be passed with the intent of safeguarding animal safety, wellbeing, and dignity, while being so detrimental to those same exact things?

The ARA response

Sid Richardson is a visionary, who acts in the present with his gaze on the future. Consequently, he was able to lay the foundations of what he hopes one day to be a national model for animal welfare.

Having a background in business, Sid has now chosen to invest in his legacy. A legacy which he wants to see materialised in the dignified treatment of animals for generations to come.

And in spite of all his successes, Sid preserves a humble stance saying that ARA has become the experts in their field because they took the time to ‘learn a lot of what they do, and travel, and listen, until eventually evolving into experienced people’.

Among the things that make them unique, is their approach to volunteering, which works alongside the workaway platform, allowing national and international volunteers to exchange their labour for room and board. The volunteers work five hours a day, over two separate, two-and-a-half hour shifts; the work revolving around maintenance, dog-walking, dog-socialisation, and overall animal care.

Consequently, a large clubhouse and three mobile homes are an integral part of ARA’s facilities, which can accommodate up to twenty volunteers. According to Sid, this boosts available staff, which at the moment sits at a ratio of about eighteen people to ninety five dogs. This allows workers the time to really get to know the animals in order to pair them with counterparts of similar personalities and tempers.

ARA also has a very clear vision for what animal adoptions should be like. The association has a strict (but not restrictive) approach to whom, why, and in what conditions, gets to take a dog home. Animals are only adopted after being sterilised, and in the case of puppies, their registration is only passed onto the new owners once the procedure has been followed through – even after they have been taken home. Adopting a pet from the charity for breeding purposes is, therefore, not a possibility. Sid adds that ‘you could not get a working dog from us either. We only provide them as pets, as household pets’.

As I was ready to make my way back to the car, Márcia offered to take me on a grand tour of the facilities. Although, before stepping outside, she insisted on introducing me to one of their special guests, a dog that was in the next room. As I stepped through the door I see the animal lying sideways on a couch, with some patches of hair furnishing her body like disparate islands. The bandages, and the freshly healed pink flesh, painted a portrait of a dog who was only now recovering from unspeakable neglect and abuse done by its former owner. After Márcia showed me some ‘before’ photos, I was shocked into the reality that there are people capable of such barbarian actions - Actions which reinforce the necessity and urgency of ARA’s existence.

Outside, we walked through an iron gate, and as we descended the steps, I start to gradually see an immensity of small roofs, as if I was approaching a miniature city. Once close enough, the dogs start surfacing from their little homes, coming to greet us. In pairs, the four-pawed inhabitants stepped into the front yards of their living spaces, which consisted of a roofed and walled division in the back and a long patio in the front, which ended at the entry gate of every individual living space. (If I sound hesitant in using words like ‘doghouse’ or ‘kennel’, it is because I know such words to be unfit of what I witnessed. I have lived in smaller spaces during my university years.)

As we moved away from the first dog compound we passed another set of small buildings, of which are worth mentioning a fully-equipped quasi-industrial laundry, a purpose-built dog bathhouse, and a clinic which was currently under construction.

Closer to the exit, we approached the puppy residence, where its tiny tenants clumsily, and adorably, stepped over one another in a race for our attention. Lastly, we arrived at a small reception cottage, with some extra puppies running about. This space was filled with bright colours, playful furniture, paperwork, and lots of natural light. It is in this room that people first get acquainted with their prospective adoptees, while being assessed on their interactions with the animals by ARA’s staff.

As I was stepping away from the gates and into my car, with muddy shoes and dog drool on my shirt, I stopped to appreciate the magnitude of what I had witnessed. On such a rainy day, ARA was the ray of light that brightened my day and rekindled some of my hope in humanity, and pride of being an ‘Algarvian’. I can only hope that the powers that be, either Local of Central, can have the foresight, intelligence, and vision to support this work further. ARA might well be the answer to the animal welfare question presently posed to Portugal.