Michele Augsburger and her team are dedicated to improving the lives of stray and neglected animals through TNR, adoption, and compassion in Agadir and beyond.
Like many animal shelters in Morocco, Le Coeur Sur La Patte (CSP) and Sunshine Animal Refuge Agadir (SARA) began with one person who wanted to make a change in the lives of the country’s strays.
Michele Augsburger Clairet Doucet has always been a dog person.
“As a small child, I learned to take my first steps and walk with one of my dogs,” she told Morocco World News.
Born in Morocco to Italian and French parents, Michele grew up living in harmony with the dogs who roamed the streets. As she recounted her long-running love for animals, Michele described how she wanted to fill the house with stray dogs but was not allowed to keep them.
“During the earthquake in Agadir, in February 1960, I lost my favorite dog,” she recalled. “I was 4 years old and the first thing that my parents did was give me a wonderful dog.”
Michele married a German-Swiss man and left Morocco for Switzerland. “The first time I came back to Morocco, I adopted two stray dogs and brought them back with me to Switzerland,” she said.
After a long career abroad, Michele returned to Agadir in 2007, clear-sighted and with one goal: To improve animal welfare in Agadir and in Morocco as a whole.
“When I returned to Morocco I noticed how many stray animals there were on the street. I started helping where I could,” she told MWN.
She began welcoming stray animals into her home, which quickly filled with around 100 dogs, dozens of cats, and the occasional donkey, rabbit, tortoise, and bird. Knowing this would be her reality for the foreseeable future, Michele decided to start a formal association.
And so was born in 2013 Le coeur sur la patte, which literally translates to “heart on the paw.” CSP says this name “conveys the love we have for our four-legged friends, and their big hearts that they give to us.”
Sunshine Animal Refuge Agadir
In 2016, Michele managed to persuade Agadir’s authorities to implement Morocco’s first-ever government-subsidized TNR program.
CSP firmly believes that TNR is the only sure way of eradicating rabies from the stray dog population and the most humane and effective way of population control.
By April 2018, Michele’s organization had vaccinated, tagged, and neutered over 1,300 stray dogs. The dogs returned to life on the streets, where they protected human and animal communities against rabies and kept new packs of unvaccinated dogs from moving in.
Intense pressure on Agadir’s authorities, however, forced them to declare that all dogs had to be removed from the streets.
Knowing that the strays now risked being taken to the pound or culled, Michele hurried to find somewhere to house them. She took around 750 of the tagged street dogs and found a place for them on some rented land.
Far from Agadir and in desperate need of better facilities, the refuge is far from ideal. But Michele said making the best out of a bad situation is how she has learned to make a change.
Along with the dogs, cats, and donkeys living at Michele’s farm, the 750 plus dogs became a huge responsibility to feed and care for. Michele decided to set up a new organization dedicated to caring for these animals and created Sunshine Animal Refuge Agadir (SARA).
Michele said the name is an important reflection of her hopes for a brighter future for neglected and abandoned animals in Agadir and Morocco as a whole.
Meanwhile, CSP Agadir is now a separate organization based in the city of Agadir focusing on sterilization and vaccination programs.
While Michele has set up and will manage SARA, she remains CSP’s founder and will continue to guide CSP while the new team starts to work with the city commune on TNR in Agadir.
To facilitate a new agreement with the Agadir commune and CSP to restart TNR activities in the city, SARA recently took on another 200 plus dogs that had been captive at the city’s dog pound. Michele again found a place to rent and set about creating a safe refuge for the dogs, as well as getting them all vaccinated and neutered.
Currently, SARA cares for around 1,100 animals, from dogs and cats to donkeys and birds, at three different locations outside of Agadir. They hope to one day be able to move most of the dogs to a fully-equipped refuge at one permanent location.
A push for TNR
Michele’s goal, however, is not to fill her refuges and others like hers with thousands of animals. This is not a sustainable solution to Morocco’s animal overpopulation problems.
She feels that a more efficient and durable way forward should entail more government involvement, mainly including active cooperation between authorities and local communities.
Morocco, Michele argues, “needs a large-scale TNR program and to work with rural communities to sterilize and vaccinate owned dogs.”
TNR or TNVR, which stands for “trap, neuter, vaccinate, and release,” is the only long-term solution to overpopulation, rabies, and unnecessary animal suffering. This is what CSP wants to see the government establish in Agadir and throughout the whole country.
To this end, CSP is making progress with Agadir’s authorities, who recently contacted the association to work on setting up a new TNR scheme.
Looking towards the future
Michele invested everything she had into CSP-SARA, hoping for nothing in return but to see a change in the state of animal welfare in Morocco. And she has—CSP has neutered and vaccinated over 1,400 dogs, saved countless lives, and changed local attitudes towards strays for the better.
“I want to have an amazing shelter for the dogs, where they can have a great quality of life and hopefully find homes for as many as possible,” she told MWN.
But with no income, endless veterinary emergencies, and still a massive stray community waiting to be vaccinated, sterilized, and ideally homed, Michele is, understandably, exhausted.
“There is no such thing as a typical day,” Michele said, describing the endless tasks that pile up with each passing second. “My work does not stop until I fall into bed at night.”
Adding to this exhaustion is one of the greatest challenges Michele faces: Financing the shelter. The monthly costs to maintain the current refuges runs on average at around €20,000 per month.
She also wants to “find some way of helping the smaller, rural communes fund a proper TNR program,” but funds again present a formidable obstacle.
Apart from funding, CSP-SARA also faces social hurdles. Michele explained that another poignant challenge is “making the public aware of the value of having dogs and respecting the street dogs.” She added that getting communities to work with the organization is another roadblock to achieving her goals.
“We seem to go two steps forward and then one back,” she said. “More Moroccans are interested in the welfare of animals….but we still have a long way to go.”
But she remains hopeful that Morocco will someday be able to ethically bring its stray population under control. That is, “once all the authorities understand how it needs to be done.” She stressed that the only solution to the problem is a long-term solution, which lies in a large-scale TNR program.
“One thing that COVID-19 has shown us is that when there is a will, there is a way,” Michele said hopefully.
“At the moment, they go for a quick fix, culling, that does not work. We hope that we are starting to see the change. But there is a need for leadership from the top as well as a groundswell of changing opinion among the general public,” she said.
“It will take a long time, but we are here to see it through.”