Charities focused on improving animal welfare are just as diverse as animals themselves. Organisations operating locally focus on one species of animal, while internationally active organisations cover a broad range of topics.
In the beginning was…an encounter. A natural swarm of bees landed in Stéphanie Vuadens’s garden in 2013. The Geneva native was fascinated by the bee colony: it piqued her interest and her enthusiasm, and she began to learn more about these insects. ‘Bees are hugely important and we need to protect them: they are the beating heart of our ecosystem,’ she says. She started off with five swarms, and her passion then turned into a mission. While her work started as a private project, it grew into a professional commitment to these endangered insects, with Stéphanie Vuadens founding the charity Arche des Abeilles in Geneva in 2019.
A personal experience also marked the start of Katharina Heyer’s philanthropic journey. The cause that’s close to her heart? Much bigger animals. She has found her life’s calling in protecting dolphins and whales. When she visited Tarifa on the southern coast of Spain for the first time in late December 1997, she was following a friend’s recommendation. She couldn’t believe that whales lived in the Strait of Gibraltar! On New Year’s Eve, she encountered these marine mammals in this busy stretch of water – and it changed her life for good. Previously, the successful fashion designer had spent her days jetting around the world. ‘I hardly spent longer than a week in Switzerland at a time,’ she explains. But this encounter shifted her priorities. Since then, she has commuted between Tarifa and Switzerland, with her work now focused on protecting whales. She sold her company. And one year later, she founded ‘firmm’ (a foundation for information and research on marine mammals), which aims to protect whales and dolphins in the Strait of Gibraltar. She deliberately chose to set up her organisation as a foundation. She said: ‘I’d previously set up the Gärtnerhaus Meisterschwanden foundation with a friend so I knew what a foundation could achieve.’
A challenging start
For the first few years, Katharina Heyer mainly financed the foundation out of her own pocket. And it wasn’t just financially challenging. ‘I’d never want to do the first few years again,’ she explains, talking of the foundation’s beginnings in Tarifa. In the town, she faced resistance and mistrust: a woman from a landlocked country, what could she know? But she also met with support and was able to put together a skilled team. Now, the foundation primarily funds itself through respectful whale watching, but donations and, in particular, sponsorships, also generate additional funds. ‘I spend so much time at sea,’ says Katharina Heyer. ‘I know these animals.’ She immediately adds that sponsorships aren’t just about the money. ‘When someone sponsors an animal, we can give them a sense of closeness, make them more aware of the issues and improve their understanding, above all.’ Arche des Abeilles also lets people sponsor a swarm. A sponsorship means being responsible for the reintroduction of a beehive, or, in other words, around 40,000 bees that pollinate the flowers across our landscape. ‘It’s a hugely important ecological gesture,’ says Stéphanie Vuadens. Every sponsorship represents a small step towards the charity’s goal. ‘We want to have 1,000 bee colonies permanently established in the local area,’ says Stéphanie Vuadens. To date, the charity has managed to get 600 swarms.
A green wave
The charity Four Paws doesn’t focus on a single species or region. This internationally active animal welfare organisation works to protect animals that are directly impacted by people, whether pets, farm animals or wild animals. ‘The suffering experienced by wild animals ranges from a drastic lack of space in poor conditions, to being killed for their fur, through to cruel practices such as the extraction of bile from Himalayan black bears in Asia,’ lists Chantal Bieri. She is responsible for philanthropy and project partnerships at Four Paws Switzerland. Four Paws points out one challenge shared by every country in the world: the law regarding animal welfare needs to be improved. In some countries, legislation on this topic is rudimentary, at best. In turn, this makes the situation worse for the animals there. In fact, the charity’s supporters show that national boundaries make no difference when it comes to empathising with animals’ fates. ‘Animal suffering moves donors, regardless of whether it’s happening in Switzerland or elsewhere,’ she says.
Projects that win people over
Setting up a foundation was a logical step for Stéphanie Vuadens: ‘The form it takes is important to me. A foundation underpins my work’s charitable commitment,’ she says. She hopes to use her charity to give individuals and companies alike the opportunity to work together to create a good initiative for the planet. Environment-related topics are currently in the spotlight due to the climate movement – and animal welfare is also benefiting from this. That said, projects need to win people over if they are to attract donations. ‘It’s easier to generate donations for tangible projects or sponsorships,’ says Chantal Bieri. People in Switzerland are particularly moved by the suffering of animals they are emotionally attached to, such as dogs and cats. Stéphanie Vuadens also believes that creating this relationship is very important. Her charity works directly in Geneva, so people in the city can experience the impact of its efforts themselves. She considers this one of the major advantages of her small charity with local roots: new donors primarily come across the organisation through direct contact. Their network is growing, but they need to share their knowledge about animals if they want to have an effect in the long term. As a result, she sets store by making the younger generation aware of these issues, with the charity offering tours for school groups and educational obstacle courses. ‘Because they’re the future,’ says Stéphanie Vuadens, ‘they’re the people who’ll take over my job.’
Spreading the word
Katharina Heyer was also aware that knowledge was an integral part of persuading people to take an interest in animal welfare. That’s why she sought support from David Senn, a professor of marine biology, when she was setting up her foundation. firmm now works to protect animals with its respectful whale watching and its commitment to research. Four Paws operates its own science unit, with its findings disseminated to employees and external stakeholders. ‘This gives our campaigns and informational work scientific backing, creating transparency and increasing credibility,’ says Chantal Bieri.
A difficult year
firmm puts together worksheets for teachers and publishes information on their online blog to inform people about the issues at hand. Every whale watching tour starts with an introduction: the attendees aren’t just there to look at the whales – the hope is that they will learn to understand them. firmm also offers entire week-long whale watching tours. Meeting the animals in their environment and gaining knowledge about them leaves a lasting impression and makes the protection of animals tangible. ‘It has an immediate impact on the people we work with,’ says Katharina Heyer. ‘That’s to our benefit. If we make someone aware of this, they will actively tell people about these issues in schools and within society at large,’ she says. But even though firmm is essentially self-funded, it is facing an immediate challenge this summertime, with Heyer only managing to return to Tarifa from Switzerland in the summer. The charity has also been hit hard by the coronavirus crisis. ‘This year is all about minimising losses. Then we can hopefully return to our work as usual next year, if things are back to normal,’ says Katharina Heyer. In that case, she’d be able to share the plight of marine mammals with another 30,000 people in 2021. The crisis has also posed a challenge for Four Paws. The charity had to rethink how it collects donations, expanding its digital channels and spending more time contacting donors via telephone. The work carried out as part of its projects was affected and had to be adapted. Chantal Bieri gives an example of this: ‘We needed to re-organise projects that were affected by the situation, such as the feeding programme for hungry strays, whether dogs or cats, in Southeast Asia.’