Words by Abi Scaife
“Doing nothing at all would feel so much worse,” says Sam Evans. “I couldn't just completely ignore the fact, or pretend that the situation didn't exist. I'm not someone that can choose what I see, and what I don't see if I know that the situation exists.”
Sam is a 38-year-old English teacher from Burrow-on-Furness in Cumbria. Today, he works as a teacher and lives in China where he has opened his arms, and sometimes his home, to stray animals.
Stray cats and dogs are a common sight in China, which has a prolific, but not particularly humane, animal trading business. Cats and dogs are sold in markets, bred on farms in poor conditions, and often escape or are abandoned on the streets.
As of 2019, it was estimated that China had 40 million stray dogs, which is around 20% of the world’s total.
For Sam, who moved to Suzhou, China from a small port town in England, it wasn’t the language or the food or the culture that was the biggest adjustment, but the ambivalence of the locals towards stray animals.
Within a week of moving to his new home in Suzhou, China, Sam found a kitten who had become trapped behind one of the University buildings. When he realised that people were ignoring the kitten’s cries and walking by, he took it upon himself to rescue the creature - and so it all began.
It wasn’t long after that, that one of his American colleagues, who also has a soft heart when it comes to stray animals, told him about a puppy that she had rescued who was in need of a home - and Sam was unable to say no.
“So then I [had the dog] and I took the kitten home as well after she was all sorted out and healthy,” explains Sam. “I thought, 'I've made a real difference’. And then there's literally, like, thousands of animals that were in the same situation just in this one city.”
Though Sam wishes he could help all the animals individually, and bring them home, it simply isn’t feasible.
“That was within the first week,” says Sam, of the kitten and puppy that began his rescuing adventure. “And if I carried on at that rate, you know, I'd be living in a zoo now.”
Sam now tries to help the animals he rescues get adopted out into loving homes, like the kitten he found who now has a new family. Sam has taken home three dogs himself; Larry, the original puppy found by his colleague, Jackie and Charlie, who has sadly passed away.
“Every week or so there's going to be some other animal that you've come across, and you realise you just can't rescue all of them,” explains Sam. “So you kind of get used to making judgments like, alright, this animal is more needy than this one. All right, this animal really seems in pain, I definitely need to help it out.”
Sam now strives to take care of the animals who need it most - those who are injured or sick, or young females who should be spayed, he will take to see the vet. Though he runs fundraisers to help cover the costs of saving these animals, much comes out of his own pocket.
“I don't feel resentful of people who are honest with themselves, and try to understand what the situation is,” says Sam. “But then decide that they're not in a position to be able to help because they don't have the time or they don't have the money, or [it’s] too heavy emotionally.
“You kind of understand why people just can't do anything. Because if you're the one person who does something who takes an action, who picks the dog up, then you become responsible, financially responsible.”
Sam isn’t the only one working tirelessly to protect these animals and curb their numbers, there are others who help out including his neighbour who feeds 30 stray cats morning and night. Sam has also connected with a shelter nearby and he and some other volunteers take regular coach trips out to find and help strays.
“In terms of the overall numbers, it's like a drop in the ocean,” admits Sam. “But for the lives of those individual animals … it makes all the difference for those one or two or three animals that I can help. So yeah, it's exhausting. And it's expensive. But it would be a lot worse to do nothing.”