Rescuing Street Dogs as a Passion and a Way of Being . . .

Ursula Araguude Kohl

Ursula Aragunde Kohl, PsyD, is a clinical psychologist who is committed to working with high-risk communities, creating spaces for social justice and more compassionate ways of living. In 2010, she founded the nonprofit Puerto Rico Alliance for Companion Animals, Inc. (also known as “PR Animals”). Its mission is to educate Puerto Rican communities about compassion, kindness, and responsible guardianship toward all animals. She is also a faculty member at the Universidad Ana G. Mendez, Gurabo Campus, where she developed the first graduate HAI related class.

Ever since I can remember, animals have been part of my life. My mother had a compassionate heart toward street dogs, the Puerto Rican mutts that nobody wanted, so we always rescued them, one dog at a time. For many years, these feelings of compassion, love, and deep respect toward animals have been a curse and a blessing: a curse because it gives me pain to live in a country where animals are poorly treated; a blessing because it drives everything I do today. It has opened many doors and connected me with like-minded people: animal lovers who envision a better and kinder world.

During my graduate courses, I discovered animal-assisted interventions, which led to the development of my doctoral thesis, “Program Design of Animal-Assisted Therapy for Elderly People in Nursing Homes.” I graduated with a doctoral degree in clinical psychology and subsequently worked with adolescents utilizing animal-assisted therapy. I proceeded to create a nonprofit organization, the Puerto Rico Alliance for Companion Animals (PR Animals). PR Animals’main mission is to educate Puerto Ricans about having compassion toward and engaging in the responsible guardianship of companion animals. In 2009, I became a faculty member of the graduate psychology program at the Universidad Ana G. Mendez, Gurabo Campus. I developed the first graduate course in Puerto Rico on animal-assisted interventions in health settings. As my main research interest is to investigate how the human-animal bond can optimize human and animal health and wellbeing, I conducted a survey in Puerto Rico to gain a better understanding of the general beliefs about and attitudes toward companion animals.

Rescuing Street Dogs 37

Results of this work identified peoples relationships with companion animals as a source of wellbeing and therapeutic tool in many peoples lives.

As a faculty member, my typical day involves teaching, learning, and writing. I teach around four classes per semester and my work schedule is very flexible. During an average week, I am usually at the university for three days from Sam to 3pm, I work from home for one day, and I do volunteer work for the rest of the week (e.g., rescuing, educating, and rehabilitating street dogs). I love to work directly with my companion animals and students. It permits me to collaborate with a diverse group of individuals to create programs that promote compassion and responsibility within Puerto Rico.

As of today, I am also the coordinator for a committee called “Integral Wellbeing through the Human-Animal Relationship” in the Puerto Rico Psychology Association. As the Principal Investigator and Dissertation Director on human-animal interaction research projects, I have helped lay the groundwork for human-animal studies in Puerto Rico. My research has focused primarily on the human-animal bond. Ever}' day in Puerto Rico, we can see and recognize the importance of the development of these relationships in positive and negative terms. The positive aspect is evident in how much we love our pets in our daily lives and interactions, while the negative aspect is evident in the number of stray animals (primarily dogs, cats, and horses) and the unimaginable abuse and negligence of animal companions in many parts of Puerto Rico. To study the relationship between people and their animals is critical for pursuing the path to everyone’s wellbeing and survival.

My biggest challenge has been figuring out how to enable people (mostly in academia) to understand, first, that the human-animal bond reaches far beyond personal choice and has a direct impact on our wellbeing and, second, that my work is important in spite of the anthropocentric view of most disciplines. The human-animal bond as a research focus and its importance in a social context (e.g., violence, criminality, and addictions) are sometimes trivialized, making it very challenging to use the research to help others understand the bond and the needs of each species so that we can become better guardians of our planet. Yet, as difficult as it sometimes is, promoting kindness and the inclusion of all animals has become part of my lifestyle. The long hours that I spend working are worth it when I consider that I am making a better world for all beings. Knowing that my two main values in life—kindness and courage—are reflected in all aspects of my work makes it very meaningful and less stressful in difficult times.

Being part of the effort to appreciate and cultivate the love that we have for companion animals has allowed me to affect thousands of people and rescue hundreds of animals. It has been an amazing journey. One of the most rewarding aspects of this journey is when people share how grateful they are to know that others also love these special beings as much as they do.

38 Ursula Aragunde Kohl

Without a doubt, being a psychologist will give you the opportunity to embark on an amazing journey to help vulnerable groups. However, getting involved in an experience that includes animals in need can broaden your vision and impact. If you love animals, working in the animal welfare community will give you insights into a new dimension of wellbeing, inclusion, and diversity. We are not only helping animals (we will always touch humans with our work too) but also cultivating a society that recognizes the needs of all species without creating a hierarchy of these needs.

It is a job that requires a lot of heart and compassion. Some of the work that must be done comes with the potential for pain and trauma. However, anything that gives you purpose and contributes to the greater good is as valuable as any other endeavor. For me, it has been helping the mutts on my streets in Puerto Rico. For you, it may be a different path, but if it includes animals, I hope we will meet one day.

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