ASAN, South Chungcheong Province -- If you weren`t looking for it, you`d never know it was there. Nestled amongst dense trees on the side of a small mountain, you hear the Asan animal shelter before you see it: a chorus emanating from the hundreds of dogs and cats who call the shelter home.
Expats from Animal Rescue Korea volunteer at the shelter every Saturday. I meet with them at 10 a.m. at Seoul Station. From here we board a KTX train for the roughly half-an-hour journey to Asan.
As the snow-covered Korean countryside races past, American volunteer Natalie Crowe gives some background.
"Asan is a privately owned shelter," she explains. "It gets some funding from the city, but the expat group funds a lot of its endeavors."
She explains that while there are many government-funded shelters in Seoul, most lack the necessary resources to care for the huge numbers of stray and abandoned animals they take in. If they aren`t claimed, fostered, or adopted after ten days, most are put down.
The shelter we`re bound for, however, maintains a no-kill policy. The animals who live here are the lucky ones who have been rescued from city shelters. For them, Asan provides a second chance at life. Their medical needs are addressed and they are socialized; prepped for fostering and, if everything goes to plan, adopted.
Crowe explains that she has been volunteering since October last year after she found out about Animal Rescue Korea`s existence through their website.
"It`s easy to get bogged down in the petty details of a nine-to-five job," she says. "So it is good to leave the city, and exhilarating to be outside and know that you are making a difference to the welfare of these animals."
We disembark and head for some taxis. Twenty minutes later we emerge, halfway up the mountain, at the shelter.
Canadian volunteer Josh Rutz gives me a tour.
It is clear that the shelter has made the most of its limited resources. Enclosures have been constructed ingeniously from wood and wire. We walk past improvised cat-houses attached to the back of the main office. Beyond, up the steep incline, stretches an intricate web of connected pens.
As we climb, Rutz explains that he came to be involved after finding ARK`s Facebook group. He and his wife Aimee have been volunteering since April last year.
"I started doing it as a way to get out of my house and do something on a Saturday," he explains. "But these days I go because I realize how important the work is."
There is definitely a lot to do, and the volunteers always have a busy day. They walk and play with the dogs. They monitor the animals` health, feed them and, in winter, change their frozen water bowls.
But the overarching goal is socialization: to make the animals more comfortable around humans and thereby advance their candidacy for adoption.
Laura-Claire Corson has been volunteering for nine months. She explains how simple socialization is. "If you just go inside and sit with the cats for half-an-hour, they become friendlier each week," she says.
Most volunteers have either adopted animals or provide permanent foster homes.
"I`m a continual fosterer," explains Crowe. "I have two cats in the house at all times, and I just rotate them out when they get adopted."
Corson has adopted two cats, while Rutz and Aimee have adopted a dog and a cat, and are currently fostering a second dog in the hope that he will soon be adopted.
Another volunteer, Lee Mordell, explains that this is his second visit to the shelter. He is looking to leave in the afternoon with a foster cat of his own.
"I wanted to foster a cat because it makes the apartment a little less lonely," Lee says. "It`s a great opportunity for expats who want to help animals but don`t necessarily want to commit to an adoption."
Volunteering at Asan is doubly rewarding as it provides an opportunity to meet fellow Expats away from the cliched venue of the bar or club.
"I`ve developed strong friendships with many of the other volunteers because we are all working towards a common goal," explains Crowe.
Rutz agrees. "Coming to the shelter is a good chance to meet new people, get out of the city for a day, and help some animals that really need the attention all at the same time."
At around 4 p.m., it is time to leave the shelter.
"Whenever I leave, I always feel there is so much more to do," rues Corson.
And, of course, there always is.
But this Saturday has been a successful one for the group. A few new volunteers have turned up. More importantly, five dogs have been adopted.
Among the adopted are a brother and sister who the shelter`s owner, Park Hee-tae, says he found abandoned on a Seoul street 18 months prior.
"When you see an animal who has been at the shelter, or who was abused or in an unfortunate situation in the past get a home, it`s wonderful," says Corson.
In addition to the five adopted dogs, one cat has also been fostered: Lee found his match.
I talk to him a couple of days later to ask how everything is going. He tells me that she is nervous, but has started exploring the apartment.
"I`ve named her Mija," he says. "It comes from the Spanish `mi hija,` which means `my daughter.`"
For information on volunteering, fostering, or adopting, visit www.animalrescuekorea.org
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By Paddy Wood