Shilpa Samaratunge

33-year-old Shilpa Samaratunge is the founder of Tails of Freedom, a passion project she co-founded two years ago as a response to the growing number of purebreed companion animals abandoned in Sri Lanka.

By Thushanthi Ponweera

“I would rescue animals even as a child. I remember being about 5 years old and rescuing some kittens. We weren’t an overtly pet-loving family, this was a difficult thing to be in a small home in the heart of the city. In fact, we had just the one dog throughout my childhood. But more often than not, I would smuggle helpless puppies or kittens into the house, and look after them till I could find friends and family willing to adopt them. It wasn’t as noticeable a problem as it is now though”, says Shilpa, stating that the current scenario is vastly different from what it used to be a decade or two ago.

“There would be many street dogs that needed help. But what we’ve been seeing as a pervasive problem since about five years ago is that many owners are now getting rid of their pure-bred pets too.” She elaborates that this is tragic for a few reasons. “Firstly, these are highly domesticated dogs who have been with and are attached to their owners and homes. Secondly, while the Lankan street dogs are generally resistant to health issues, purebreds are not. They need extensive care. And most often, the abandoned dogs are riddled with health issues, which was probably why they were let go of to begin with. Caring for them can be extremely costly, as much as Rs.100,000-200,000 per dog in some cases. Tails of Freedom was created predominantly to raise funds for these costs, as well as to find them a loving home once they were better, homes where they wouldn’t be used for profit or as just a status symbol anymore”

Shilpa now runs TOF on her own with a group of 8 team members who all work on a voluntary basis. “I was also involved in rescuing and rehoming dogs during the floods in 2016. I was working for Embark as the Operations Manager at the time. There is always a demand for animal rescue work during crises, and I’d like TOF to broaden its scope to include that in the future.” Shilpa and her team rescue abandoned and mistreated purebred dogs from all over Sri Lanka, after which they are admitted to a Veterinary hospital. “Most of the time, they need long term care, which is what we need the funds for. Fortunately, we have built trust with the clinics who know that we do our best to pay the bills, and therefore allow us time to pay.” She is currently working on registering her project as a charity which will enable her to access more funding, particularly international grants and corporate sponsorships.

Shilpa is also an entrepreneur, running a small business that sells environmentally sustainable alternatives to everyday goods. “Bhumi and TOF were launched the same year. I had studied journalism, and my areas of interests were social and environmental sustainability. After a few years of working in corporate communications for a large corporate entity, I decided to go my own way, because I wanted to be more hands-on with my work”

As is common with those who love to work with animals, I inquire if she ever wanted to be a Vet herself. “It was an avenue I explored, and I volunteered at a Vet clinic in my teen years, and even did Science for my A/Ls. It was then I realized that I preferred the act of rescuing and rehoming. It gave me an incomparable sense of fulfillment, and my skills were more suitable to rescue than veterinary medicine” This was further cemented when she met her now-husband, Rajitha, who is an animal lover himself. He is an integral part of Shilpa’s support system, and together they raise a menagerie of pets, 10 dogs and 15 cats, all of them rescues. “Whenever I have a hard day of seeing innocent animals treated badly, he is one of the first people to be there for me.” Shilpa also has a close-knit group of family and friends including her team, as well as those doing similar rescue work, who are there to provide advice and perspective when needed, and she credits them for helping her maintain her sanity through what can sometimes be an emotionally grueling undertaking.

Still she perseveres, and has no plans of slowing down. Between rescuing animals and encouraging others to be conscious of their carbon footprint, Shilpa is doing all she can to leave the world a kinder place than she found it.

Originally appeared in Pulse magazine, June 2020 issue.