When Prince Rupert’s Shirene Ree-Hembling left for Cambodia in the summer of 2013, she was ready to help the marine environment and a local community.
What she didn’t know was her assistance would stretch beyond that to include saving a sick, famished dog from death.
Volunteering abroad had been something the 21-year-old, who was born and raised in Prince Rupert, wanted to do for many years.
“I’ve always wanted to help other people and do whatever I can,” Shirene said.
After researching various groups, Reach Out Volunteer’s Conservation Cambodia program stood out to Shirene who was an underwater diver attending post-secondary school for marine biology and coastal ecology.
She chose the three-week Conservation Cambodia program for marine habitat conservation and restoration, which included marine components like diving underwater to deploy coral reef pods and terrestrial components like cleaning beaches and building the foundation for a teacher’s home.
Shirene and fellow volunteers worked in the village of Sangkat on Kaoh Rung, an island off the coast of Cambodia.
On the second day of the trip, the group was doing a beach clean up in the impoverished portion of Sangkat when Shirene noticed an emaciated dog.
“It was disturbing to see … it clearly had fungus or some kind of infection on its skin. You could see all its ribs and bones,” she said.
There are a significant number of stray dogs freely roaming and scavenging for food in Cambodia, with Shirene feeling compassion for the animal while other volunteers in the group were less sympathetic.
When volunteers returned to their camp in the middle of the village following the cleanup, Shirene simply couldn’t get her mind off the ailing dog.
“I felt really sick to my stomach about this dog. It was eating at me,” she said.
Shirene decided to return to the spot she had sighted the dog with a spoon-full of peanut butter and some water for the animal. When she found the female dog laying near death, she mixed peanut butter and water together in a coconut shell and dripped it down the suffering animal’s throat. After more than an hour the dog was able to sit up, but Shirene noticed on top of its sickness it had a damaged knee.
Shirene brought the dog back to the camp in a bed she made out of a crate and some clothing and hid it in the common area while the group attended a nearby wedding. When the group returned the dog was gone; It had gained enough energy to walk over to the camp’s garbage where Shirene found it eating discarded food.
At first, Shirene was the lone person that wanted to help Stitch while many others believed the dog didn’t have a chance at survival. Even the leader of the group tried to enlighten Shirene about Cambodia’s perspective on animals: Death is part of the cycle of life for strays to die.
But Shirene refused to give up on the dog.
After days of feeding and bathing her, more and more of the group came around and began helping the dog they dubbed Stitch after the alien creature from Disney’s Lilo and Stitch she reminded them of.
“I think mostly people were scared that they were going to put time and effort just for her to die,” Shirene explained.
As the program went on, volunteers grew attached the Stitch, who Shirene described as friendly and affectionate.
“Stitch would follow us to all of our sites and hang out with us,” said Shirene.
“She was always super excited to see us when we got to camp.
By the end of the trip, Stitch’s ribs were no longer were protruding and her health had turned around greatly.
Shirene considered paying to bring Stitch home with her, but realized the move would be hard on Stitch because she had lived all her life free-range and would have to travel more than 12 hours in a confined space.
Six weeks after Shirene returned to Prince Rupert, a friend of hers in Cambodia sent a photo of Stitch looking healthier than ever and fattened up.
Stitch continues to hang around at the camp and Shirene’s compassion has even led to new life as Stitch has had puppies since Shirene flew home.
Shirene was hesitant to share the story about Stitch because it wasn’t something she did for recognition or to feel good about herself. As a dog owner, she wanted to do what she could to end the strays hardship.
“I had a feeling I could help her,” Shirene said.
“Something inside of me was moved. I could have just left her, but I saw her eyes and couldn’t. She had the same eyes as my dog.”
Shirene remains thankful to her family, friends and the many Rupertites who donated money to help cover the cost of the program, and the people who provided supplies and clothing for her to give to villagers. She said it was an experience of a lifetime that helped open her eyes, and hopes to inspire young people in Prince Rupert to do what they can to better the planet.
“I really encourage youth to get out there and be selfless and give something to the world because you’ll never regret it,” she said.
For Shirene Ree-Hembling, a trip that started out in hopes of helping others in some small way turned into a life saver for one Cambodian canine.