Expats Shed Weight for Sheltered Dogs in China!

Source: China Daily, James Skinner

Charity fundraiser sees animal lovers working up a sweat to raise money for the forsaken pups of Suzhou and Wuxi, James Skinner reports.

While minds have understandably been focused on the recent COVID-19 outbreak, a kindhearted bunch of expats in Jiangsu province hasn't forgotten the plight of China's many homeless dogs.

The group are running a 60-day charity weight loss fundraiser for animals living in two shelters-the Suzhou Animal Protection Association and Wuxi's Second Chance Animal Rescue Society, with the challenge having started on April 20.

It's the second year in a row that the fundraiser has been held, with the organizers hoping to raise enough cash to continue the shelters' vital work.

Last year, the group raised over 45,000 yuan ($6,360) through a weight loss challenge and sponsored dog walk.

Participants in this year's event have to pay 100 yuan to take part and must send in their current weight once a week. They can also compete in regular exercise challenges, with a host of prizes on offer.

Canadian expat Heather Bijloos, 44, has lived in Wuxi for the past eight years and is helping to run this year's event.

"I first got into this after rescuing several homeless dogs from the streets," she says. "If they were injured or sick, I would get them healthy again before trying to re-home them, although some of them became permanent family members."

Later, she was approached by someone who asked if she could help run SCARS.

"The first time I visited the shelter, I ended up adopting a dog straight away," Bijloos says.

The mother-of-two has been involved with the shelter and rescue work ever since, becoming one of a handful of "go-to" locals who regularly get contacted to help rescue animals.

Both shelters are currently under immense financial pressure, with SAPA now home to a staggering 1,000 dogs. They are expensive to run, and rely entirely on donations to survive. And while volunteers do an enormous amount of work, full-time staff are still needed to feed and care for the animals.

The idea of raising money through a weight loss challenge was the brainchild of Marie Willman, a 34-year-old Canadian woman living in Suzhou.

"I never expected it to become this big," she says. "I thought maybe 20 or 30 people would sign up to the first one and that would be it."

But her expectations were quickly surpassed, with an incredible 136 people taking part in last year's event, raising 13,600 yuan.

"This year, I'd be thrilled if we could get 200 participants-it would really help raise public awareness."

With public fundraising activities difficult to organize this year due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the role of corporate sponsors in the challenge is especially important. So far, more than 65 businesses have signed up to donate cash and prizes, enabling the organizers to raise a significant amount of money.

William Shipton-Jiang, 40, is a partner in Shanghai-based Breakfast Champion, a popular supplier of Western breakfast meats. His firm is one of the corporate sponsors supporting this year's event.

"I have lived in Ningbo for the past eight years, and in that time I've personally rescued five dogs and 10 cats-at one time I even had nine cats and a dog in my flat," he says.

"Two of us here at the company have been doing our own weight loss challenge recently, so when we were approached to be sponsors for the challenge it seemed like a natural fit for us."

Tamura Noriko, 47, a Japanese expat living in Wuxi, is also assisting with this year's event. She spends her time helping to run SCARS and was particularly keen on the idea of a weight loss challenge, feeling that it would be an appropriate way to fundraise at a time when many are still practicing social distancing.

"I think losing weight is one of the few things people can do together without actually getting together, and with many like-minded people doing it for a cause they care about, it provides them with extra motivation," she says.

While the weight loss challenge might sound like a bit of fun to many, it has a serious purpose behind it, and the organizers are keen to stress that it isn't just about raising awareness today-it's about changing attitudes for tomorrow.

"This is a way to make the community more aware-to educate people, to let them know we're here and can help, and to encourage people to properly care for their pets," says Bijloos.