For a long time in Liberia, when a dog bit someone, the consequences for all dog-kind were devastating. Mass killings — and not with euthanasia.
No, you might not expect animal welfare to be a high priority in a nation ravaged by a decades-long civil war. Even today, the West African country is one of the poorest in the world. Why should cats and dogs or even goats get any kind of protection when violence is everywhere?
But Morris Darbo grew up under a different mantra. His parents taught him to love animals and care for them as you would any living being.
Even as the region where he grew up, Lofa County, saw heavy fighting during the second civil war, Darbo saw a link between people who were violent with animals and people who were violent with other people.
He vowed to break that cycle.
Which is why when Darbo started advocating for better conditions for animals in Liberia, he looked first to the children.
"In my country, it is a generational issue," he tells MNN. "Children grow up seeing their parents, their fathers, their mothers abuse animals. They imitate what the adults do."
For Darbo, that meant planting seeds of change in the country's youth — and hoping it would take root in generations to come.
And so, in 2000, he founded the Liberia Animal Welfare & Conservation Society (LAWCS) and, with just a handful of like-hearted volunteers, began offering animal education programs to local schools.
Change starts at home
Children were taught to taught "about respect, about responsibility, about compassion," Darbo explains. "So these kids become ambassadors in their families and in their schools and in their communities."
"They re-educate their parents about animals and about respect to animals. We talk to teachers in schools as well. We empower them with resources. We want to see this program live on and on and on."
Darbo's message would ring out on community radio. Children, too, joined him on the airwaves. The organization began offering free health care for animals.
Students also flocked to join Animal Kindness Clubs, where they learned not only how to take care of dogs, cats, goats and all manner of animals, but also to take care around them.
"Because of that we were able to, first of all reduce the number of dog bite incidents in the community — and that brought the end of the mass killings of dogs over a dog bite."
Eventually, 35 schools would embrace the humane education programs designed by LAWCS, inspiring more than 27,000 children.
Along the way, some 7,380 farm and companion animals would get much-needed medical care.
Getting the word out
Because funding is so lean, the organization has devised innovative ways to get the word out, like a sticker campaign.
"We put stickers on bikes and cars so the message can go far off," Darbo says.
And, little by little, a new understanding of the human-animal relationship has trickled upward to older generations.
Today, Darbo can see it in the little things: like bowls for dogs outside of people's homes. Not so long ago, people typically threw leftover, even spoiled, food on the dirty ground for dogs to scavenge. Dogs would get sick, and eventually humans would, too.
"Now, today, a lot of homes have a bowl for the animals — a bowl for water and a bowl for food," Darbo says, his voice brimming with pride.
"We got people to look at the health of the animals," Darbo adds. "Because the health of the animals is directly connected to their own health. If we don't care for them and they get sick, there's a possibility that we'll encounter the same problems, like worms and rabies."
The army of protectors grows
Today, LAWCS is the only organization in the country dedicated to animal welfare. And while not much has changed for the group — it's still scant on staff, with just eight volunteers, and it depends on threadbare donations to survive — the landscape for animals has changed dramatically.
"We are implementing a program that is a new concept in the country," Darbo explains. "It's the first time people are hearing that animals should be cared for. They should be protected. They should be provided with a balanced diet."
But, from time to time, the organization still runs into cold-hard tradition, especially outside of Liberia's urban centers.
"In some of the rural communities that we work in, people are used to eating dog meat and cat meat," Darbo says. "It's a challenge for us. And for people who have been doing this for a long period of time, you are challenging their belief system."
But if anyone knows how to break an age-old cycle of violence, it's Darbo.
"There are people who will listen to us. We are not ging to confront them and say, 'Hey this is no good.' We'll bring in stories that help them reflect on their attitudes toward the animal. And gradually many of them have changed over a period of time."
And Darbo knows how to use that time.
He's hoping to establish an education center that can draw people from across the country. And he dreams of inviting volunteers from abroad.
"The dream is to one day cover the entire country. That's what we are hoping to do."
Think you might want to support that dream? Visit the LAWCS website to learn how you can help.