Cats and dogs, her life

In this Vesak season when one is reminded of compassion to all beings, Udayanagani Jayawardena’s story of caring for more than 150 animals, against all odds, stands out
By Himal Kotelawala, Additional reporting by Amy Rose Thomas, Pix by Saman Kariyawasam

Dogs, they say, are a man’s best friend. In the case of Udayanagani Jayawardena, it goes far beyond that. This petite yet headstrong woman brings new meaning to the term ‘animal lover’. At her humble abode in Angoda, barely bigger than a motel room, Udayangani cares for and provides shelter to a staggering 159 homeless, ailing cats and dogs, all by herself with the enthusiastic yet fragile support of her aging father.

Against heavy odds, Udayangani is on a crusade to see her dream of equality for all living things come true during her lifetime. “All forms of life are precious,” she says.

And life was booming inside Udayangani’s house and it greeted us loudly as we entered. Practically every square inch was occupied by dog or cat, but mostly dog – big, small, black, brown, barking loudly and wagging their tails as their mistress distributed Marie biscuits – apparently their favourite snack.
Linda, Buffy, Logo (yes, that is an actual name), Sally, Jungle (that too) and Sheba stood on their hind legs and reached up to her in a shrewd display of affection. All we could do was stare in amazement as Udayangani braved what looked like a cyclone of canine.

Udayangani surrounded by her four legged family members.

“They aren’t always barking like this. They just get a little excited whenever a stranger drops in. In the night they sleep and don’t make much noise,” Udayangani told us, as she led the way to her bedroom.
It was a small room, with a single bed and no furniture.

In fact, there isn’t much furniture in the entire house, as most of the space is occupied by the animals. The rest of the bedroom is filled with cages.

“It’s usually around 2 in the morning when I get to bed, after all the animals retire for the day,” she said. Some of her four-legged housemates tuck in with her every night.

Lunchtime is the biggest challenge. “It takes three and a half hours to finish feeding all of them. I cook 22 kg of rice for them and five kilos of fish for the cats. In the morning the sick and the old get milk and bread. But for the healthier animals, it’s just one big meal per day – breakfast, lunch and dinner, all in one,” she says.

Then we meet the cats - 39 of them; Kabhi, Hassi, Pulli, and Kitty, to name a few, looking down on us from the kitchen rack where they were relaxing in a group, largely ignoring us.

The whole house smells of urine and excrement. The heat in the cramped ‘hall’ is unbearable. But for Udayangani, this is her life.

A stenographer by profession, Udayangani works at the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation. Mostly everything she earns is spent on the animals. It costs about Rs.3000 a day to keep her house running. Loans, medicine donated by kindhearted doctors, and the occasional gift of a few thousand rupees from animal lovers is all she receives in the form of financial assistance. She owes Rs.23, 000 to a nearby grocery store where she buys her rice and other essentials, her father informed us.

A majority of the animals in Udayangani's care are strays she has picked up from the streets over the years, usually injured in a motor accident and left on the road to die. Others have been dumped on her doorstep by people who wanted to get rid of theirsick pets. And people continue to do it. This has become such a problem that Udayangani asked us not to publish her address, fearing that that will make matters worse.

Still her compassion for animals is such she’s committed to do whatever she can to keep them alive and happy. So passionate is she about her cause that she has stayed single. Aged 41 now, she has no regrets, she says, adding that this is what she really wants to do. Her cats and dogs live in peace under her roof as part of her family. She has one brother and two sisters but her passion is shared by her father, Mervyn Jayawardena, a deeply religious man, who is proud of the role she plays.

“What my daughter is doing is something good and extremely noble. According to Buddhism, by doing good deeds, we can shorten our stay in the cycle of Sansara,” he says.

In addition to the animals she’s looking after at her home, she also cares for the stray dogs near her workplace, carrying food and medicine for them. Udayangani wakes up at 5 in the morning, and by the time she’s done cooking for over 159 animals she’s almost late for work. This endeavour, while worthy and commendable, obviously taxes a lot on her and takes a heavy toll on her personal life.

“There are so many things I’m lacking at the moment. This house is not big enough for all of us. I would greatly appreciate it if someone could come forward and help me expand it a little bit. Also, the medicine and injections required for these animals cost money. All I have is my salary to pay for all of this,” she says.

Why does she do what she does?

“I started bringing dogs and cats home 15 years ago. It all started when I saw a dog that had met with an accident. It was suffering and I just had to help it. Gradually, I saw more of these needy animals and brought them home. Animals are just like us humans.

They feel pain and emotion. For instance, when a female dog loses her puppies she cries her heart out, just like any human mother would. I can’t bear to watch that. I don’t like to see animals suffer. And there are no authorities or government bodies that take responsibility for stray cats and dogs. Someone’s got to help them,” she says.

Udayangani can be contacted on 0724472378 or 0112568666.

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