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The emotional roller-coaster of animal welfare – Shine a light

A book review by Jen Stern

By Jennifer Stern

, |

The emotional roller-coaster of animal welfare – Shine a light

A book review by Jen Stern

By Jennifer Stern

, |

4 min read

There are guns, she was told.

There are gangsters, she was told.

There is dog fighting, she was told.

And they were right. But what they didn’t tell her was that, on those streets, there was also an incredible humanity, a beauty and a sense of community she had never expected to find.

Corrine Wilson’s first book documents how, together with Ingrid de Storie – the Mother Theresa of animals – she navigated the mean streets of Ocean View in search of at-risk animals. Sadly, there is no dearth of those, but, she discovers, behind almost every broken animal is a broken person.

It may or may not have been MK Gandhi who said: ‘A nation’s greatness is measured by how it treats its most vulnerable members’, but – if it’s true, and I think it is – it’s a serious indictment on South African society. And one thing I learned from this book is that vulnerability is a continuum – and so is the mistreatment of the vulnerable.

It all started in 2015 when Corrine – a white, middle-class wife and mother living in opulent and leafy Noordhoek – decided to create Santa bags for the animals of nearby Ocean View. It was a sweet idea that was meant to be a one-off kind gesture to give some under-privileged pets a happy – or at least less miserable – Christmas. But, when she witnessed first-hand the depth of suffering to which these most vulnerable members of our society were subject, she couldn’t turn away. Her one-off gesture became a five-year campaign. ‘It was a shock for me to realise that some of the humans were just as vulnerable as the animals,’ she says. ‘When I left that very first day, the community had left such an impression in my mind. I felt a sense of connection that I never thought I would feel. I was stepping out of my comfort zone – stepping into a place that had always conjured up fear – and seeing that there is so much beauty there. I think what really surprised me is that I felt a sense of compassion for people, whereas I have always been concerned about animals, and considered people to be “the enemy” when it comes to animal welfare.’

But she was not working alone. ‘I couldn’t have done it without Ingrid,’ she says, as we chatted over coffee. ‘I was terrified the first time I went into Ocean View, but I felt safe with Ingrid. She commands the most incredible respect from everyone.

‘It was such an eye-opener. Along with the poverty and the crime – and I’m not naïve – there is a lot of violence and an element of danger, so I’m not minimising the fear and the tragedy. But there is also a community, and a sense of vibrancy that we’ve lost in the suburbs. It’s a weird dichotomy – there is this vibrance, but also fear. But people borrow sugar from their neighbours; they braai together on the stoep.’

Founded on a shared love of animals, Ingrid and Corrine’s partnership slowly grew into a deep friendship that transcends the gulf of experience and privilege between them – a gulf rooted in the apartheid of the past, but sustained to this day by corrupt and inefficient governance. But the book is not about politics. It’s not just about poverty, or crime, even though these are a very real part of life in Ocean View. It’s really not all doom and gloom.

Sure, there are descriptions of appalling neglect, but there are also vignettes of astonishing tenderness – the tattooed gangster who lovingly cares for his dog, the struggling families who can barely feed themselves, but who manage to find food for their beloved pets. And the ‘happy ending’ stories of abused or neglected animals that found renewed – not new – homes; stories in which, rather than removing animals from substandard homes (which was Corrine’s first instinct), they played a long game: slowly gaining the trust of humans by supporting, feeding and sheltering their animals, and – in some cases – by helping the people, too.

The story is far from over. Many Ocean View residents still live in abject poverty, and are subject to a virtual curfew of fear by the rampant crime and gangsterism, and some of the animals of Ocean View are still subject to serious neglect – and even some horrific active abuse – but the process of slowly chipping away at the injustice continues. The non-profit organisation that Ingrid and Corrine started in 2015 – 1 Kennel at a Time – is growing from strength to strength. To date, they have supplied close to a thousand kennels to underprivileged dogs who had previously had no shelter from rain or sun. And also medication, inoculations, countless meals, and some – but not enough – sterilisations. As well as accepting donations of kennels, Ingrid has started a small kennel-building operation in Ocean View, employing three youngsters who had been well on their way to becoming gangsters.

Some parts of the book make quite hard reading, as the reality is a grim one, but there is also humour, love and friendship. Ingrid and Corrine successfully paint a picture of a complex and conflicted community that is struggling to survive, and to deal with the fact that – more than two decades after the demise of apartheid – they are still living in conditions of unspeakable poverty and inequity.

This book should be read by every person of privilege.

Shine a Light is available at selected bookshops, or from www.shinealight-thebook.co.za. R50 from each sale will go to 1 Kennel at a Time.

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