Dungler died at the Lionsrock sanctuary he founded
BETHLEHEM, South Africa––Helmut Dungler, 56, founder of the international animal charity Vier Pfoten (Four Paws), died on January 5, 2020 from a sudden massive heart attack suffered on one of his frequent visits to the Lionsrock sanctuary, among the biggest and most ambitious of the many Vier Pfoten projects and subsidiaries.
The unexpected death leaves the future of many Vier Pfoten projects around the world uncertain. Dungler himself was the charismatic fundraiser who found the wherewithal time and again to develop large projects successfully in places where others had either already failed, or did not dare to try to work. Most of the Vier Pfoten middle management, directing a staff of nearly 500, about 115 in Austria and the rest abroad, have backgrounds chiefly in program service.
Largest European animal welfare organization
“What began in March 1988 as a small association that campaigned for a better life for pets, farm animals and wild animals is today the largest European animal welfare organization,” summarized Christina Mondolfo for the Austrian periodical Wienerzeitung in March 2013.
Continuing rapid growth since then, Vier Pfoten now has a global budget of around $13 million, as of the end of 2017, about $1.6 million of which is raised in the U.S.
Many U.S. animal charities raise and spend much more. The American SPCA raised $309 million in 2017; the Humane Society of the U.S. raised $271 million; the Best Friends Animal Society raised $102 million; People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) raised $62 million; and the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) raised $42 million.
But few if any of the biggest U.S. animal charities accomplish as much with the money in as many places as Vier Pfoten.
Jackdaws & hedgehogs
Born in 1963 in Waidhofen an der Thaya, a Lower Austrian town of then barely 5,000 people, and still fewer than 7,000, Dungler “grew up in the country and always had contact with animals,” continued Mondolfo. “But the impetus to take a closer look at our fellow creatures and their needs came from a jackdaw.”
Explained Dungler, “She had fallen out of the nest and I took her home and raised her. She accompanied me everywhere. She was incredibly witty and intelligent. But then one day a flock of jackdaws came into the village and she showed me that she would like to fly with the others, so I understood that a wild animal should never be a pet, that this would not be a species-appropriate life. I let her go. At that moment I realized that caring for animals means letting go.”
Dungler later rescued many other animals. Hedgehogs were among his favorites.
At age 19 Dungler relocated to Vienna, 100 miles to the southeast, to study veterinary medicine. But the course emphasis was on agricultural work.
“There was the opinion that a chicken belongs in a cage”
“Back then there was the opinion that a chicken belongs in a cage. Because that is good for the chicken because the chicken is protected from predators, and for the consumer because he gets a clinically clean egg,” Dungler recalled in 2013 to Anita Kiefer of the Austrian periodical Non.
Finding that reasoning unpersuasive, Dungler dropped out of veterinary school in 1984, at age 21, to take a job managing marine mammal campaigns for Greenpeace, Austria.
“However, that was a little ‘too far away’ for him,” Mondolfo wrote. “He looked for animal issues specific to Austria. In the mid-1980s environmental and animal protection became more important causes, but animal protection campaigns remained mainly restricted to dogs and cats. There were no large campaigns for farm animals or wildlife.”
Perceiving this as an opportunity, Dungler and three friends started Vier Pfoten.
“We couldn’t think of a better name”
“The name was actually only intended as temporary, but because we couldn’t think of a better name, we stayed with it. And it’s not bad,” Dungler often recalled.
The first Vier Pfoten campaign challenged the approximately 60 fur farms then operating in Austria.
“Fur animal husbandry was not regulated at all in the Animal Welfare Act,” Dungler learned, but contamination of groundwater was, and fur farms were serious offenders.
“Ten years later the last fur farm in Austria closed,” Dungler recited of the first big Vier Pfoten success.
This accomplishment was reinforced, and Dungler’s longtime concern for laying hens was addressed, when Vier Pfoten won passage of a new Federal Animal Protection Act, effective on January 1, 2005, which required that battery caging for hens end by January 1, 2020; banned fur farming; and banned the use of wildlife in circuses.
Vier Pfoten meanwhile rose to international prominence by operating mobile dog and cat sterilization clinics in Bulgaria, Croatia, Romania, and Slovakia after the fall of Communism, becoming the largest nonprofit sterilization service provider in all four nations.
Along the way, Dungler met and married Ioana Tomescu, daughter of a Romanian shelter operator. Ioana Dungler became projects director for Vier Pfoten.
As of 2010, Dungler told ANIMALS 24-7, the Vier Pfoten mobile surgeons had averaged 30 sterilization surgeries per day in the field, at an average cost per operation performed of about $5.00 in U.S. dollars.
“The white city”
Spay/neuter programs rarely win even a fraction of the public notice and acclaim that goes to animal rescue, even though spay/neuter work prevents hundreds of times more animal suffering.
But several times the Vier Pfoten mobile teams grabbed the spotlight, if briefly.
In Dubrovnik, Croatia, for instance, to sterilize dogs and cats for two weeks overlapping the October 2005 International Companion Animal Welfare Conference, Vier Pfoten international project manager Amir Khalil, DVM, and a surgical team headed by Katica Kovacev, DVM set up outside the building that was the city quarantine station during the Black Death in the 14th century.
The marble walled central city just beyond had changed little since the 13th century, despite seven months of shelling during the 1991 civil war that accompanied the break-up of the former nation of Yugoslavia. The cobbled streets and white marble buildings reputedly inspired the Osgulath and Minas Tirith “white city” scenes in The Return of the King, the last film in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
As The Return of the King (2003) had just been a big hit in European theaters, the Dubrovnik mobile spay/neuter campaign––though small compared to most that Vier Pfoten had done––proved to be a magnet for television coverage.
Preventing dog massacres in Ukraine
Seven years later, Vier Pfoten in spring 2012 won global acclaim for sterilizing and vaccinating more than 4,000 street dogs in Kiev, Lviv, Donetsk, and Zaporozhye, Ukraine, to prevent dog massacres threatened by local authorities ahead of the multi-city Euro 2012 football championships.
Dogs were rounded up and killed in a fourth Ukrainian city, Kharkov, which had refused Vier Pfoten help.
The 2012 spay/neuter campaign in Ukraine led to Vier Pfoten sending a team in August 2017 to trap, sterilize, vaccinate, and release about 120 feral dogs found living in the still highly radioactive 20-mile exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear reactor complex.
The dogs are descendants of pets who were left behind during the hasty evacuation of the nearby city of Prypiat, after one of the Chernobyl reactors exploded and melted down.
Because the dogs are radioactive, they cannot be removed for adoption. As humans are not normally allowed into the exclusion zone at all, it has become a haven for wildlife.
The face of Vier Pfoten
Focusing on fundraising, Dungler delegated on-the-ground direction of the Vier Pfoten mobile spay/neuter program to Khalil. Coming to Austria from Egypt to study veterinary medicine, Khalil began with Vier Pfoten as a volunteer in 1994.
Hired as Vier Pfoten chief veterinarian and project manager in 1997, Khalil eventually became the public face of Vier Pfoten through leading dramatic rescues of starving animals left in zoos amid shooting wars from eastern Europe to Libya, Yemen, and the Gaza region in the Middle East. His September 2011 rescue of about 700 animals at the Tripoli Zoo after the fall of the Muammar Gaddafi regime made Vier Pfoten the first animal charity allowed to work in Libya in more than 40 years.
“Although Amir is always traveling and sees so much suffering,” Dungler told Mondolfo, “he is always in a good mood. However, one should not underestimate his tenacity.”
As local organizations in eastern Europe developed the ability to do their own spay/neuter work, Vier Pfoten moved on to other projects.
Dog & cat fur
But the mobile spay/neuter campaigns had enabled Vier Pfoten to develop a wealth of local contacts who soon helped the organization to become a leader in exposing and lobbying against the clandestine traffic in dog and cat fur.
A byproduct of lethal animal control during the Communist era, the dog and cat fur trade persisted into the post-Communist era, when animal control work passed to often corrupt private contractors, who typically used the old Communist-era facilities and hired some of the same staff.
There may still be some illegal commerce in dog and cat fur, but Vier Pfoten exposés of German and Hungarian shops selling dog fur garments in December 2005, using DNA evidence obtained from hairs, significantly embarrassed some of the more prominent offenders.
Developing extensive eastern European connections also enabled Vier Pfoten to take over what remained of a faltering World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA) campaign against traveling “dancing bear” shows and severely substandard mini-zoos, many of which predated Communism, and some of which originated in the Middle Ages.
Bulgaria, under WSPA pressure, banned “dancing bear” shows in 1993. But WSPA, having pursued similar campaigns in multiple nations, promising to build sanctuaries for rescued ex-“dancing bears,” became over-extended. Sanctuaries did not materialize on schedule, if at all, or were eventually developed by other organizations.
Vier Pfoten, meanwhile, debuted in sanctuary work by founding the Bear Sanctuary Arbesbach in Austria in 1998, expanded in 2009, now housing seven bears.
The Belitsa Dancing Bear Park
Making a success of that pilot project, Dungler in partnership with the French-based Fondation Brigitte Bardot in November 2000 opened a 2.7-acre sanctuary for six bears called the Belitsa Dancing Bear Park, located about two hours southeast of Sofia, the Bulgarian capital city.
The site happened to be near the Rila monastery, founded in the 13th century at the reputed location of the grotto of the 10th century animal-loving vegetarian saint John of Rila (876-946).
Proximity to the monastery, already a pilgrimage destination for more than 1,000 years, helped to make the Belitsa Dancing Bear Park somewhat of a pilgrimage destination too.
Having a sanctuary to accept confiscated bears at last, the Bulgarian Parliament declared European brown bears a protected species, who could no longer be hunted, bought, sold, or displayed to a paying audience.
No more dancing bears
As of the mid-2002 passage of the law, 41 bears were kept by Bulgarian zoos, 21 remained with “dancing bear” exhibitors, and four belonged to circuses, according to the International Bear Foundation.
The Belitsa Dancing Bear Park was expanded to 18 acres, to accommodate all of the bears in private hands. To expedite the bear rescues, Vier Pfoten in effect bought many of the bears outright, rather than relying upon confiscation by law enforcement. By 2007 there were no more “dancing bears” in Bulgaria.
“We gave each owner $5,000 [U.S. funds], but not for the bear. It was to give the owners a chance to begin a new career,” explained Khalil. “Some of these bears supported families of up to 28 people. We wanted to save animals, not kill people.”
The money was at the time equivalent to four times the Bulgarian average annual wage, and the payments sometimes backfired. Christian Science Monitor correspondent Matthew Brunwasser watched in July 2002 as former dancing bear owners Maria and Angel Angelova sold their bear to Vier Pfoten, then reported that they were said to have begun exhibiting a monkey in Sofia.
More bear sanctuaries––& one for big cats
Vier Pfoten tightened up the contractual arrangements associated with their bear rescue program, then helped to start a whole network of sanctuaries, often in partnership with local organizations.
The Big Cat Centre Tierart, for example, in Germany, “is the result of cooperation between Vier Pfoten and the association Tierart, which was established in 1999,” the Vier Pfoten web site explains. “In 2000, the association bought a former U.S. Army barracks to rehome exotic and native wild animals.”
Vier Pfoten helped to build species-appropriate facilities for big cats, completed in 2015.
Not only a sanctuary, the Tierart site is also a wildlife rehabilitation center, returning to the wild about eighty animals per year.
Other Vier Pfoten bear sanctuaries opened at Mueritz, Germany, in 2006; Prishtina, Kosovo in 2013; Ninh Binh, Vietnam, in 2016; Domazhyr, Ukraine in 2017; and Arosa, Switzerland, in 2018.
By the time the first three Vier Pfoten bear sanctuaries were up and running, Dungler had become aware that there were no suitable sanctuaries for exotic cats in Europe, and no chance of developing any, either, because of the cold, wet winters.
At the same time, Vier Pfoten had assumed responsibility for the care of 10 African lions, left homeless by the financial failure of the Gaenserndorf Safari Park, which had operated in Vienna from 1972 to 2007.
Forming a South African subsidiary, Dungler bought a formerly notorious hunting ranch, along with all of the animals there that the previous owner was willing to sell. To Dungler’s frustration and disappointment, the previous owner took 15 lions to a more remote hunting ranch and remained in business.
Khalil was sent to South Africa to supervise turning the hunting ranch into the Lionsrock sanctuary and destination resort. South African employee Fiona Miles led the transformation of Lionsrock into the centerpiece of the Vier Pfoten empire, where Dungler eventually died.
“He didn’t dare run into the grass”
Among the few big cat sanctuaries worldwide offering semi-wild habitat, Lionsrock opened to visitors in February 2008, housing 77 big cats by mid-2012.
Most of the big cats, chiefly African lions, came from failed zoos and circuses. One of the first lions, however, came from a Romanian radio station, which had conducted a campaign to free the lion from a severely substandard mini-zoo, and then had difficulty finding anywhere to send the lion.
Dungler was at Lionsrock when the young lion arrived.
“When we opened his transport box,” Dungler recalled, “he didn’t dare run into the grass. He did not know what grass was at all, having been kept on concrete all his life. It took a few weeks before he realized that this was his new home.”
Al Ma’wa for Nature & Wildlife
Partnering with the Princess Alia Foundation of Jordan, Vier Pfoten helped to establish Al Ma’wa for Nature & Wildlife in 2011.
Al Ma’wa for Nature & Wildlife project operates two facilities.
The New Hope Centre for veterinary care, quarantine, and rehabilitation of wildlife rescued or confiscated from illegal traffickers is located in Amman.
The 346-acre Al Ma’wa Wildlife Reserve, in Jerash, which provides lifelong care to animals who cannot be returned to the wild.
Some animals, native to southern Africa, are relayed to Lionsrock.
Big Cat Center Felida
Also relaying animals to Lionsrock is the Big Cat Center Felida, at Nijeberkoop, Friesland, “founded in 2014,” recalls the Vier Pfoten web site, “after Vier Pfoten took over an existing big cat rescue center, Pantera, which had been active since 1992. Pantera was severely in need of maintenance and struggled financially, causing the facility to request help from Vier Pfoten in 2013. The result was a complete takeover and transformation of the center into what it has become today.
Since 2014,” the web site says, Vier Pfoten has transferred seven lions, six tigers, and one leopard to Lionsrock.”
Jejak Pulang Orangutan Forest School
The newest Vier Pfoten sanctuary in full operation is the Jejak Pulang Orangutan Forest School in East Kalimantan, opened in May 2018 under primatologist Signe Preuschoft to rehabilitate confiscated and rescued orangutans for return to the wild.
Also in 2018 Vier Pfoten announced two ambitious projects in Myanmar, formerly called Burma.
Elephants Lake, a 42,000-acre sanctuary for former working elephants, hopes “to bring together new herds and subsequently release the animals into the adjacent North Zar Ma Yi Forest Reserve.”
The other Myanmar project aims to eradicate canine rabies from the nation by vaccinating a million dogs and cats by 2021.
Demonstration projects in March and May 2018 vaccinated 59,058 animals in 516 communities in the Lewe and Nyaung-U townships of the Mandalay region, in the very center of Myanmar.
At the 2018 celebration of the thirtieth anniversary of founding Vier Pfoten, however, Dungler chose to spotlight his early concern for farmed animals.
Farmed animal suffering, Dungler said, “is primarily the result of a completely unsuccessful agricultural policy, which is expressed, above all, in prices that are far too low for our food [meaning specifically the products of animal farming]. This produces three categories of victims: first the animals, who are kept in terrible conditions due to price pressure; farmers who are not adequately remunerated for their work, who also suffer from competition from those countries that have no animal welfare standards at all; and consumers who get cheap products that are of poor quality and are often not what is claimed on the label.”
“Heli Dungler’s death is a severe blow for us and fills us with great pain,” said longtime colleague and Vier Pfoten board member Josef Pfabigan. “Our thoughts and our deepest sympathies are with his family during these difficult hours.”
Said the lobbying organization Eurogroup for Animals in a prepared statement, “Heli has left his pawprint on Eurogroup for Animals itself: he was a highly committed member of the board, with a keen eye to detail and a clear view of strategic direction. Hand-in-hand with Four Paws,” Eurogroup pledged, “we will make sure Heli’s vision and passion live in our daily work.
Chinny Krishna testifies
“I had the pleasure of working with Heli Dungler on the World Society for the Protection of Animals board between 2004 and 2008,” longtime Blue Cross of India chief executive Chinny Krishna told ANIMALS 24-7. “I have rarely met anyone as committed to animals as Heli. His death is a massive blow to his organization, which is one of the finest international animal welfare organizations in the world.
“The Blue Cross of India has worked with Vier Pfoten in many disaster relief projects,” Krishna mentioned.
“A few years ago,” Krishna recalled, “I got an e-mail from Her Royal Highness Princess Alia of Jordan asking for my help to visit Jordan and set up an animal birth control program there,” modeled after the Indian national ABC program, which was in turn modeled after the Blue Cross of India program, begun in 1966.
“He was to visit us in March or April”
“I went there and asked Heli whether Vier Pfoten could help out,” Krishna continued. “He immediately sent a team there, which also resulted in opening the wild life sanctuary just outside Amman. He was to visit us in March or April to work out something to cement 10 years of association with the Blue Cross of India.”
“Dungler was actively associated with JBF for many animal welfare activities,” said Gangutri Borgohain of Just Be Friendly, the leading humane society in remote Guwahati, Assam, India––an organization never featured in Vier Pfoten publicity or appeals, but one of the first to post a remembrance.