Why you should care
When you bring the dogs to the people, the people take more dogs home.
On a sultry Sunday in December, in the shadow of Table Mountain, tourists from South Africa and abroad are enjoying everything Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront has to offer. Some carry cold-pressed juices and biodegradable poke bowls from the nearby food market, while others pore over the diamond and tanzanite jewelry in high-end boutiques. Among the humans are a motley band of mutts — young and old; chubby and scrawny; shaggy and shorn — and their red-shirted minders.
These dogs are the beneficiaries of the Woof Project, a funky mobile adoption pop-up housed in a converted shipping container that in the 81 weeks since its inception has helped more than 1,300 dogs from shelters all over the Western Cape find homes. Averaging 17 adoptions per weekend — compared to 0.8 per day at a regular shelter — Woof Project is the best thing to happen to South Africa’s stray dogs since beef knuckle bones. “Marketing and design can save lives,” says project founder Joanne Lefson.
The eight biggest kill shelters (shelters are divided on their attitude to euthanasia) in the Western Cape received 26,000 strays last year, of which only 2,600 were adopted. You do the math.
People don’t adopt from shelters, Lefson explains, because they are depressing places (I got both my dogs from shelters — she’s not wrong) and because rescue dogs are seen as “damaged goods.” (My mother still says this about my dogs, despite her pedigreed corgi being perhaps the most maladjusted mutt on the planet.) By bringing the adoption pop-up to places people go to enjoy themselves, the first of these issues is sidestepped. The second is addressed by creating “an inspired, positive environment” where people can get to know the hounds.
Even more important is the tummy-rubbing, ear-scratching attention of the youthful volunteers.
Holding adoption days in public places is nothing new, but the scale and the tenor of the operation set the Woof Project apart. The pop-up itself — all steel and glass, blacks and reds — and the regal logo gives it a coffee shop vibe, while the colorful, geometric doggy sculptures on the rooftop terrace give the whole endeavor an ad-agency feel.
The 25 dogs — 13 adorable puppies and a dozen all-shapes-and-sizes adults — here today face the same fate as the animals at other adoption days. But this is never mentioned by any of the volunteers I speak to. “The statistics are depressing,” says Lefson. “We’re about finding a solution.”
Part of the solution lies in renaming the animals according to a weekly theme (I could choose between Chubby Checker, Bananarama and Aerosmith) and taking funky headshots for the project’s social media channels. Even more important is the tummy-rubbing, ear-scratching attention of the youthful volunteers. The pleasure they clearly derive from spending with the animals can only be contagious.
Case in point: Sharon Lack, who stopped to see what the pop-up was all about while cycling along the popular Sea Point Promenade. “This beautiful little dog ran up and jumped into my arms,” she remembers. “That was it — Prince George was my dog, done and dusted.” After undergoing a home check on the same day, Lack welcomed Prince George to his forever home.
Public response has been so encouraging that Lefson is trying to work out how to expand the project nationally and internationally. Finding sponsorship and ironing out the logistics — Where will the dogs sleep? Who will transport them? What will they eat? — won’t be easy.
But the alternative doesn’t even bear thinking of.
More: the Woof Project
- Where? The pop-up is parked at beaches, shopping malls and places where people gather around Cape Town on most weekends. It will be visiting Johannesburg sometime in 2019. Schedule here.
- Adopt. After settling on a dog, you’ll sign some paperwork and name your own adoption fee. Once a volunteer has checked that your home is suitable, you’re good to go. Don’t be put off by international borders — when I was there, a Canadian couple was preparing to take their bundle of joy home.
- Volunteer. Lefson already has 500 volunteers on her books, but she’ll never turn anyone away. Help out at the pop-up, serve as a home checker in your area or foster an animal for a few weeks. Cash donations are also very welcome.
- Read. The Woof Project is a tribute to Oscar, the rescue dog who traveled the globe with Lefson. Their book is on sale at the pop-up and online.