/ 21 December 2022

Cora Bailey: A hero helping people and pets on the West Rand

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For more than 30 years, Cora Bailey has dedicated her life’s work to helping poverty-stricken people and their pets in the west of Joburg. (Photos: Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

When Tendai Mhuru became violent and aggressive, her sister, Irene, knew that there was only one person she could call on for help: Cora Bailey.

“The landlord told me to come get Tendai because she is being violent and breaking things in the house,” said Mhuru, who was in the garden at Bailey’s veterinary clinic in Durban Deep, a former mining town in Roodepoort. “I rushed here because it’s a place of help. I think Cora can help me get an ambulance and take her to the hospital.”

Bailey, who has spent the morning tending sick animals, told Mhuru that an ambulance wouldn’t collect her mentally unstable sister if she doesn’t choose to go voluntarily. “The only way this can be done is through the police, to say that she’s endangering you and herself.” Mhuru nodded, relieved, as Bailey placed a call for emergency assistance.

More than 30 years after Bailey founded the nonprofit, Community Led Animal Welfare (Claw), which provides veterinary health care in impoverished townships and informal settlements on the West Rand, she is often the first person residents call at any sign of trouble — day and night.  

Cora Bailey and claw

Claw’s mantra is, “at the end of every leash is a human being”. She said it was impossible to treat the animals and ignore the people living in areas of Johannesburg that are plagued by poverty, crime and violence, “who love their pets, like everyone else”.

“It doesn’t make any sense to educate people about the correct feeding of their animals without an understanding of the circumstances people live in. The lives of these animals are entirely dependent on their owners.”

Claw, which relies on donations, focuses on humane education, providing primary veterinary care support for township pets and humanitarian support for their owners. This includes distributing food parcels, clothes and blankets, running community gardens, helping child-headed households, teaching people how to care for the sick and dying and helping residents get health care. 

“We’re a go-to, where people can get help,” said Michelle Potts-Weedman, a full-time volunteer. “We’ve had rape, abuse, child abandonment, we’ve seen it all. You have your lows, but you do have so many high moments.” These include the “rags to riches” adoptions and the sick dogs the Claw team pulls through. 

“Cora is on the go 24/7,” Saskia Karius, a Claw veterinarian who died in 2016, said in the Dateline documentary, Cora’s Pet Project. “She helps, I think, anything that moves, or that breathes, whether it has two legs or four legs … She’s far better at caring for others than looking after herself.”

Bailey doesn’t want to be seen as a hero, and credits her devoted team, young volunteers from surrounding neighbourhoods, for their dedication to animals and people. She officially retired five years ago, but still goes to work every day. 

“Without Michelle, I would have fallen to pieces,” said Bailey. “It’s important to have people to cry with.”

‘So many more hungry people’

Each day brings trauma. “There’s so much more poverty, so much more violence, everything has escalated,” she said  “There are so many more hungry people and hungry kids.”

After Covid-19, many people lost their homes and surrendered their animals to Claw because they could no longer cope. More people from the wealthier suburbs are now also bringing their pets to be treated here. “They’ve lost their jobs, are living in someone’s backyard and their dog is ill.” 

And now there’s the pitbull saga. Claw has been flooded with calls to fetch pitbull-type dogs immediately because people want to kill them. Claw does this without question. “It’s been horrendous. We have at least two or three dogs in this hospital at any given time, who have been mauled. 

“It’s intensified and is definitely a response to crime. People here don’t have burglar bars, and so many more people are keeping pitbulls and not socialising the dogs.”  

In a cage among the pitbull-attack survivors is Braveheart, whose owner, an artisanal miner, was murdered. “The guy was apparently shot, his throat was cut, and the dog’s leg was crushed.  People in the area brought the dog to us. We had to remove the leg. On Sunday, our perimeter wall came down with the heavy rain and this poor dog ran back home. He is back with us now.”

Crime hotspot 

Crime has spiralled too. Bailey has lost track of the number of bodies she has seen. “We’ve got so many murders and rapes here. It’s too terrible. People come and call us, ‘can you call the police, there’s a body’. It’s almost slowly becoming normalised where you don’t go to pieces because someone has been shot in the head or been necklaced, like you would have [seen] years ago.”

She said that often there is little sign of justice, adding that one seldom hears that someone’s been arrested and that people don’t always report crimes because they have given up on the police taking action.

Just this week, Bailey, who usually does her rounds alone, witnessed two armed robberies, which she said was not unusual. Three months ago, she fought off hijackers in Slovoville. “It’s not that I think I’m invincible, but I am street smart.”

Bailey is worried about a group of women and their children who have fled to a nearby hostel. “We have two rival Sotho gangs here that have been around forever. They also rob the zama zamas. We haven’t been a victim but so many other people have been.” 

Two months ago, one of these gangs went to an informal settlement and demanded protection money from each of the shack owners. One of the extortioners was murdered. “The gang promised to kill everyone there and burnt down some of their shacks.”

Bailey has been delivering donated supplies. “Where we can we’ve been able to muster support. It’s very tricky here to do appeals for things because there’s so much xenophobia.”

‘Every day there’s good things’

Amid the despair, there is hope. Like the group of young children who walked all the way from Braamfischerville, each gingerly carrying a tiny puppy in their arms for deworming.

“When you make a dog well and see people going home with the dog they love, what’s not to love about that,” Bailey said. “We have an old man who walks here from the other side of Kagiso with his dog. This makes it worthwhile to get up in the morning and not think this is the Gulag archipelago.”

Every day, she feels privileged to return to her home in Florida and her husband, Tony. Navigating these vastly different worlds can feel schizophrenic. 

“A lot of South Africans live in bubbles. It’s really important that people know why life is hard for so many people. When the grant money runs out or dad doesn’t get a piece job, there’s no food and it’s just normal here. Very often people come to us for just a little soap powder because the kid hasn’t gone to school because their school clothes aren’t washed. That’s how hard life is; that’s the reality.”