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Issue Date: June 1-15, 2007, Posted On: 6/8/2007


Mass. animal lover crafts way to combine interests

Secondo sells Indian wares to help country's creatures

By MEERA RAJAGOPALAN

   
 

DOG DAY AFTERNOON: A Massachusetts resident has adopted a novel way to help animals in India, while selling unique Indian products. Photo by JOELLEN SECONDO

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — It was during her third trip to India in 2005 that Joellen Secondo met Indian animal activist Maneka Gandhi, and explained her idea — to buy crafts from India and sell them in the United States, and donating the profits to animal welfare organizations in India.

At the meeting, Gandhi gave Secondo a chance to make her work help animals twice over. She told Secondo about People For Animals' peace silk — silk made without killing silkworm cocoons — which Secondo immediately added to her product line. Secondo, a Web editor with Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, sells crafts from various Indian fair trade organizations, and donates the profits to groups working for animals in India.

"So, in buying the silk, I'm helping animals and then with the profits, the money will go back to animals," says Secondo, a Cambridge, Mass. resident. "It was kind of fortuitous that I met her."

Her Web site, www.joyatri.com, carries bags, shawls, scarves, jewelry, paintings, toys and other gift items, all made by local artisans and bought using fair trade practices. Secondo's Bastar necklaces cost between $27 and $35, and photographs by Michelle Lohutko of Portland, Maine, depicting stray dogs in India are sold for $40 to $50.

   

Cambridge, Mass. resident Joellen Secondo sells handmade Indian products, above, through her Web site, and uses the profits to help animal welfare groups in India. Secondo, below right, with dog Ronaldo, has made several trips to India, to make contact with vendors, and to visit shelters there. Photos courtesy of JOEELLEN SECONDO

 
Secondo's fascination with India began in 1999, when she was laid off from her position as a museum curator specializing in European decorative arts. "I had a lot of time, and no money, and started going to a lot of free events around [Cambridge]," says Secondo. "And I discovered Indian dance and Indian music."

While the bright costumes and performances attracted Secondo, she also started researching more about India. "And then, I just had to go to India," she says.

Secondo became increasingly interested in India after her visits — she first went as a tourist, and then, to meet artisans to get some of their products back to the United States.

Before her third trip, though, she says she wanted to somehow include her passion for animal welfare in her business.

   
"The one thing I was apprehensive about going to India again was having to see the animals in such dire conditions," says Secondo, "because I have always been a huge animal lover and that just got to me."

Seeing people in appalling conditions was difficult too, says Secondo, but says she knew to expect that.

Before her trip, Secondo says she researched a few groups that worked with animals in India, and decided to visit some of them during her business trip there. Her usual contact at a handicraft cooperative in Gujarat was unable to provide her with material on a regular basis, and Secondo's trip had a dual purpose — looking for possible outlets for indigenous Indian art, and a trip to observe firsthand the work done on behalf of animals in India. What she saw blew her away, she says.

In Kolkata, Secondo visited a nonprofit called Compassionate Crusaders Trust, and learned about their program to spay and neuter stray dogs. "Obviously, a lot more work needs to be done," says Secondo. "To me, it was some comfort traveling around, knowing that there were many groups in India working for animals."

   

Secondo says her work combines her passions for textiles and for animals.

 
Secondo also made contacts with Indian vendors of crafts during the trip, prime among them the West Bengal Crafts Council, an organization she says she loves working with. Secondo says she deliberately stays away from items from places like Rajasthan, and has recently stopped carrying items with any animal products in them, thus excluding wool from her product line.

Secondo, who also volunteers as an editor for the India community on the Web site for Best Friends Society, a U.S.-based animal welfare nonprofit organization, spends part of her time trying to raise awareness of animal rights problems in India.

Sharon St. Joan, one of the founders of the organization, and the editor of the international community on the Best Friends Network, describes Secondo as a "helping kind of person."

After Hurricane Katrina hit, for example, St. Joan recalls Secondo volunteering to take care of the stranded dogs in Best Friends Society's shelters in Mississippi. "Every day, Joellen would work with the animals, and she would be up at three in the morning and start all over again," says St. Joan. "It was difficult, because it was like an emergency ward in a hospital."

St. Joan adds that she is very happy that Secondo is part of the organization's India community. St. Joan says she hopes Secondo will be able to get more people and organizations involved in the specific online community for India.

Secondo says that India is actually far ahead of the curve when it comes to animal rights because of Hinduism and Jainism, and St. Joan agrees. For example, she says, practically all the gaushalas, shelters for cows, are run by Jains.

The laws protect animals, says Secondo, although people might flout the laws. "India has built into much of its culture, the protection of animals," says Secondo, a vegetarian.

Most of the ill-treatment really stems from poverty, Secondo says, and not necessarily a lack of love or respect for the animal. "A mahout may respect and love his elephant, but he will also beat the elephant to get it to do what he wants, because he needs the money the elephant brings in," she adds.

This year, Secondo made her fourth trip to India, to attend the Asia for Animals Conference, held in Chennai in January. It was there that she met members from the Best Friends Animal Society, people she had spoken and corresponded with, but had never seen.

After the conference, which she describes as "eye opening," she traveled to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Vishakapatnam, Andhra Pradesh with St. Joan and others from the Best Friends Animal Society.

Secondo says the place was a "little paradise." The organization rescues and hosts dogs, cats, cows, bulls, and birds. It also rescues circus animals — primarily lions, tigers and elephants — which are housed in a government-run center.

St. Joan is not surprised at Secondo's excitement for a well-run animal shelter. "She was very much at ease with the people who worked there (at rescue centers), and was very, very loving toward animals," says St. Joan, adding that Secondo was always seen with a dog. "She was either sitting with a dog, or petting a dog," she says.

After the trip to Vishakapatnam, Secondo visited a Bangalore-based organization called the Compassion Unlimited Plus Action, and the Agra Bear Rescue Facility, where rescued dancing bears from all over Northern India are housed. The bears are mainly rescued from the Kalandar community, who are given some seed money to earn their own livelihood after they hand over their bears.

"Those who really love their bears work [at the center]," says Secondo. "Most of the staff at the sanctuary are former dancing bear masters."

After her return to the United States, Secondo had to contend with the situation of the Karnataka Government killing dogs in the state after an incident where two children were mauled by a stray dog. She covered the issue extensively on her India community on the Best Friends Network, coordinating with Indian nonprofit organizations and activists on the issue.

This doesn't surprise Debasis Chakrabarti, founder of the Kolkata-based Compassionate Crusaders Trust, one of the first animal advocates in India that Secondo got in touch with. "She looked very down to earth and very aware of the local animal situation," said Chakrabarti in an e-mail. "[I] was not surprised, but impressed, to see her interest."

Chakrabarti says ideas like Secondo's impact organizations two-fold: Financial support, and even more useful, her networking, and informing the world community about the ground reality in Indian animal welfare activities.

Secondo says her activities combine her three interests perfectly — textiles ("If it hadn't been decorative arts, my specialty would have been textiles"), animals and Indian culture. Secondo is also part of an informal Bhangra team called Shaan-E-Cambridge and, in fact, also had her Bhangra costumes made when she recently visited India.

Secondo says one of the key considerations for her is not just the way the product looks, but also the way it is made. "People often tell me, •This is from India, I can get it on the streets of New York for ten dollars,' but that was made by 8-year-olds, you know," she says.

People think that products from India are cheap and shoddy, says Secondo, adding that she wants to show the diversity in Indian craft and textiles to this part of the world.

And between her Hindi classes, Bhangra classes, marketing products for Joyatri and managing the Best Friends Animal Society's India community, she says it's a wonder she "gets anything done at all."

For more information, please visit www.joyatri.com.

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