While many of us are self-confessed pet lovers, there’s one woman who takes it to a whole new level -- Anna Cabrera, mom of two and executive director of the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS). If her name sounds familiar, it's because she led the protests against the award-winning film, Oro, at the 2016 Metro Manila Film Festival. The film had depicted a true-to-life dog slaughter scene, which the filmmakers initially denied but later admitted they documented locals who were putting down dogs for food.
On behalf of PAWS, Anna pursued a case against the filmmakers, and while many lauded her, there were also those who accused her of making a big deal out of it and questioned her motives: was it all to gain fame and recognition -- for herself?
Anna takes all the controversy in stride. After all, pursuing animal cruelty cases isn't new to Anna and PAWS. The animals especially the dogs in PAWS' care are not from the street; they are animals rescued from abuse. PAWS' job is to make sure the animals' abusers are brought to justice under the Animal Welfare Act, which PAWS lobbied and championed. In fact, Anna was there in Malacañang when the Animal Welfare Act of the Philippines was signed. At the time, she was working for a bank, and in her spare time, Anna was one of the volunteers of the lobbying team who would hand-carry letters to the Senate. In 1998, the Animal Welfare Act became law; Anna was just 25 years old.
Anna gave up her job to work full-time for the cause of treating animals humanely. It is a labor of love that has certainly competed with her time for family. We sat down with this lover of cats to discover inspiring truths about what it’s like to fight for a cause that you believe in while running a household and raising two daughters (a teenager and a toddler—plus cats!).
Truth #1: The people around you influence your passion. Anna's love for animals began with her dad. She recalled that whenever her dad would drive past the market on their way to school. He would get angry about the chickens who were being held upside down to slaughtered. He told her, “If they’re going to be slaughtered, [the chickens] have to be unconscious and slaughtered humanely. While they’re alive, you have a responsibility not to cause them any pain.” Anna’s dad also ingrained in her to stay away from people who hurt animals, and she grew up rescuing stray kittens with her sister.
The second person who influenced her was PAWS founder Nita Hontiveros-Lichauco, whom Anna first met in 1997. Nita's influence has been so strong that Anna decided to name her second daughter after her. “I named my daughter Julianna Josephine Nita Cabrera. I would like her to be as brave and courageous as Nita.”
Truth #2: Sacrifices are inevitable. An Economics graduate, Anna began her career in banking, but in 2006, she got offered to run PAWS; she had been a volunteer for nine years at that point. The pay was nothing compared to her current job (her eldest, Joanna, was just 5 years old then), yet Anna sat down with her husband to discuss whether to take the leap or not. But the couple knew it was a no-brainer. “I wanted it,” she says. “It was a big leap of faith, but we would survive.”
Truth #3: Motherhood is still the number 1 priority. Anna had her first child way back in 2001, and she and her husband planned to have just one kid, “kasi that was all that we could afford.” But, in 2015, life surprised her with another daughter. Anna quickly realized that “having a baby at 28 is different from having a baby at 42. I was not a spring chicken anymore!”
It was a difficult pregnancy, and in her fourth month, she was ordered bed rest; the fetus was stressed and was experiencing a threatened abortion. “I was hospitalized, and I was shocked because we incurred a lot of expenses,” Anna recalls. “And I found out that it was not covered by my health insurance.”
Anna’s work at PAWS took a backseat, well sort of. In bed, Anna was still orchestrating the operations behind the scenes, and her employees would come to the house to bring her papers to sign. During and after her maternityleave, Anna never entertained thoughts of giving up her work at PAWS. “There was no question kung babalik ba ako o hindi. Babalik talaga ako.”
Truth #4: The beginning will always be a struggle. Anna knew when she accepted the post of executive director that it wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. “We were a small team of rescuers, and we were practically begging people to adopt an animal."
The organization also struggled with getting its true message across. “In the early days of PAWS, we had difficulty in raising funds so we would have all these pet events,” Anna says. “The people who have the money mostly have purebred dogs. It mixed up our messaging -- ‘Ay, yung PAWS puro naman mga purebred lang.’ It was a problem because we were lobbying for the law in Senate that even AsPins (stands for 'asong pinoy') needed protection.”
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Truth #5: Let your purpose guide you. It was Oscar Lei, former PAWS shelter director, who helped PAWS rethink how to get its message across after he finished his scholarship grant from the Humane Society of the United States. "He told me, ‘You know, Anna, we’re doing it all wrong. We shouldn’t be begging. We should show that PAWS rehabilitate the animals we rescue. They are not merely 'damaged goods.' They have a beauty of their own.”
In fact, PAWS has Dr. Dog, an animal-assisted therapy program that brings therapy dogs to visit hospitals and sick patients, especially kids. They are also raising awareness for AsPins through their ‘See Beauty Beyond Breed Campaign,’ which came up with the PAWS-AsPin Club so people would not be ashamed to bring out their AsPins.
Truth #6: Being a mom who fights for a cause means it is your responsibility to educate everyone, not only your kids. Anna hopes that parents will reconsider buying from pet shops. Adopting from a shelter like PAWS teaches the family especially the kids the seriousness of pet ownership. And at PAWS, you can't just drop in and go home with a pet. The adoption process requires a background check (on humans, of course) and three visits to see how well you will get along with your prospective pet.
“Most people think that when they get a cat or dog, they only need to give it the rabies vaccine. But that’s more about protecting you rather than the dog,” Anna points out.
A PAWS adoption requires commitment and dedication. "We want families to sleep on it, we encourage them to think about it, and if they change your mind, it’s okay,” Anna says. And, just to add, animals get a choice as well.
Truth #7: You can only hope that the seeds you’ve sown today will reap the rewards for your children. Anna can’t help but laugh when she recalls people confusing their organization as overly sentimental people who just love animals. “It’s not. We believe that we are working towards a more peaceful society by starting at the root—teaching respect and compassion for all living beings,” she says.
If there’s anything that the Oro incident has taught her, it’s that PAWS has become a catalyst for animals to be treated better. And people, especially the younger generation, are starting to take notice.
“Siguro the young people now are more discerning, more sensitive to these causes. It’s a good sign,” Anna says. “People think animal welfare work is about animals. It’s not. It’s about the people. You have to empower and educate them because they are the ones who are in charge of the fate of the animals. So you build your little army, and then you hope that even when we’re gone, the world will be kinder to animals and human beings because of the seeds we’ve planted today.”
Shot on location at the PAWS Animal Rehabilitation Center. Anna's makeup by Verna Marin.