Last Saturday, I got together with Deb Jarrett and her two adorable dogs, Jack and Ruby. Jack and Ruby may look like your typical mixed breed, and Deb may seem like your everyday proud rescue mama, but looks can be deceiving. Deb is actually the founder and executive director of a dog rescue in India called Dharamsala Animal Rescue, and Jack and Ruby are actually pure homebred Desi dogs—the type of Indian village dog that Deb and her team rescue on a daily basis. When I found out these fascinating truths beneath the surface, my first question was “How?”—“How in the world did she ever get involved with starting a dog rescue in India?” Deb laughed knowingly. To no surprise, she receives this question quite often.
To answer “How?”, Deb first had to answer “Why?” by taking me back to her roots. She has always loved dogs. Growing up in North Kingstown, Rhode Island in the late sixties and seventies, she was used to neighborhood dogs roaming around. Owners would open their doors and let their dogs wander during the day, free to explore and play with Deb and the other local kids. By the time Deb turned eight, two of the neighborhood dogs had gotten together and surprised everyone with a litter of puppies. With her parents’ permission, Deb took one home and named her Mandy, thus deepening her love of dogs and igniting her passion for rescuing animals.
As Deb grew older, she unlocked her competitive drive through sports. She has always been competitive with herself, wanting to accomplish goals and succeed, but sports taught her how to be competitive as a group. She enjoyed the rush of excelling as a team and working toward shared aims, but she also enjoyed the softer, compassionate side of the sports world. In high school, she became involved with a Special Olympics track and field event, and while there, she began to feel an overwhelming sense of love and pride. She remembers tearing up as she watched the runners compete, emotionally affected on a deep level. She also remembers gazing around the field to find that no one else at the event was crying. In that moment, she realized for the first time her uniquely empathetic nature.
After high school and college, Deb moved to Boulder, Colorado to put her team-driven skills to use in a sales job, prioritizing her competitive side over her compassionate nature. She continued on in the corporate world, feeling rather comfortable financially but deficient spiritually. She has never been a deeply spiritual person, but she has always loved Oprah and been intrigued by her infamous phrase "the aha moment.” Deb desperately wanted to experience this moment of sudden inspiration and insight firsthand, but had no idea how. By the time she turned forty in 2008, she started actively searching for a way to shake up her life. She began to tap back into her highly empathetic side by walking dogs at a local humane society and empowering girls through a women’s wilderness youth program, but neither were bringing about the major “aha moment” that she so desired. She considered adopting a child—even filled out some of the paperwork to do so—but at the last moment, she decided to visit a friend in Japan instead, which completely rattled her American-accustomed world. She had never experienced such culture shock before.
“If you think Japan is crazy,” her friend had said, “you should go visit India. That place will f*** with your head.”
Eager for more eye-opening experiences and still in search of her “aha moment”, Deb decided to take her friend’s advice and travel to India. She lived in Dharamsala in the foothills of the Himalayas for three weeks, working at a preschool with kids ages three to five. While there, she did catch a glimpse of the mystical beauty friends had talked about, but mostly what she saw was poverty, disease, overcrowding, and dogs. Everywhere she looked, there was at least one stray dog limping, starving, or suffering from some kind of injury or infection. As a deeply empathetic person, she felt the weight of their pain. She didn’t understand why no one else seemed to care.
On the tenth day of her trip, the neglect around her was so heart-breaking that she almost gave up. While watching over the preschoolers in a temple, she found several of the kids throwing rocks at a dog that was lying sick on the floor. She told them to stop and tried asking around for help, but all the locals just shrugged their shoulders and walked away. After much persistence, she did eventually find a man who offered street treatments for animals and agreed to help out, but even with his charitable offering, Deb still felt let down. She went home feeling dejected about the whole situation.
The following day, however, everything changed. Upon returning to the temple, Deb was confronted by an excited boy as he ran up to greet her. Smiling, he said, “Miss! Miss! Tommy is good now!” Deb was confused. She had no idea who Tommy was. To her utter disbelief, Tommy was the dog in the temple she had been trying to save—the same dog at which only a day before the locals had been hurling rocks and couldn’t have cared less about. Deb went home that night to process the entire event. She realized her small act of care had completely shifted the way the locals viewed that dog. He not only received the medical attention he needed, but he now had a name. A light bulb went off. Deb’s eyes grew wide. This was her “aha moment.” This was her chance in the world to make a difference. She now understood the power behind changing a mindset to save a dog’s life, and she wanted to repeat the miracle again and again.
With her purpose solidified and her calling clear, Deb returned to America to immediately get to work on starting her dog rescue in India. As she began to research and spread news of her idea, she received little support from her friends. Most of them looked at her like she was crazy. They told her the idea was just a phase and her enthusiasm would soon fade as reality set in, but she ignored them, feeling compelled by her newly awakened sense of purpose. Money, fear, and other people’s opinions didn’t matter. The dog rescue was something she simply had to do. She forged ahead with her dream, registering her nonprofit as a 501c3 organization within just three short months and attracting an exciting amount of support with her first fundraiser. Her competitive side mixed with her newfound awakened side paid off. By the end of 2008, Dharamsala Animal Rescue was born.
Since the founding of her nonprofit, Deb and her team have helped save over 16,000 animals in Dharamsala. With approximately 35 million stray dogs, India has the highest number of strays in the world, and Deb is doing everything in her power to control the population in her area and make positive change. Just last year, her rescue team spayed and neutered 796 dogs and vaccinated over a thousand against rabies. They work hard every day to better the lives of the animals as well as the local people, but there is only so much Deb can do.
In the early stages of her rescue, Deb used to help save all animals, including cows and donkeys, but over the years she has learned to focus her aid to dogs and cats in order to avoid burn-out and stretching her resources too thin. She wishes she had the power to help all the animals, both inside and outside of her region, but the need is too great for any one rescue to handle. Along with vaccinating, spaying/neutering, adopting out, and saving, Deb also encourages the local Indians to stand up for their rights and demand better living conditions from their government. She does not accept the status quo for the local people or the animals in India. She does all she can through Dharamsala Animal Rescue to improve the lives of those around her, but she knows the change can’t be solely reliant on her shelter. People have to band together and ignite the passion inside—the same passion that drove Deb to take all of her savings, go against her friends’ advice, and start her dog rescue in the first place.
Although Deb admits that running Dharamsala Animal Rescue hasn’t always been easy, she has no regrets. Whenever she starts to feel overwhelmed or on the verge of throwing her hands up in the air and quitting, she turns to her amazingly supportive team and remembers their shared goal: the animals. If it weren’t for her and her team's care, compassion, dedication, and yes, competitive spirit, thousands of dogs each year wouldn’t be saved. If it hadn’t been for Deb’s crazy idea and persistent nature, she never would have rescued Ruby from distemper back in 2012 and saved Jack from traffic-caused injuries in 2013. She never would have adopted them both and fallen madly in love with her two amazing, hilariously quirky and irresistibly cute Desi dogs.
After an afternoon with Deb exploring the “How” and the “Why” behind her unique life path, my only question remaining was “How can I get involved?” Deb’s animal rescue adopts out dogs, of course, both locally and internationally, but for those who cannot adopt, they also accept donations, offer volunteer and sponsor opportunities, and seek out corporate partners and rescue ambassadors. Deb also writes regularly for her blog called The DARling to help people learn more about training, dog behaviors, and her animal rescue in general. She is passionate about her cause and driven in her work because she knows that every tear she sheds and every frustration she encounters is well worth the pain of setting another animal free. Much like her two dogs, Deb is a fighter, and Ruby and Jack thank her every day for her tough, resilient, and loving spirit.
For more information:
Facebook: Dharamsala Animal Rescue
Suraj (Rescue Ambassador) Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/suraj.says/