A Heart of Compassion: Donatella Gelli’s Wildlife Sanctuary Takes in Animals Abandoned Due to COVID-19

by | May 22, 2020 | Changemaker Of The Week

It was the baby boar licking the newborn baby deer at her home-based wildlife animal rescue sanctuary in Florence, Italy, that so moved Donatella Gelli. Such compassion as reflected in the boar’s embrace of the baby deer so beautifully and profoundly symbolized for Gelli the compassion she feels for all living beings, and the symbiosis she believes is present in the natural world, that she couldn’t help but cry.

“The force that moves me is compassion,” said Gelli, a TPP changemaker whose sanctuary—which, in part, rescues domestic animals who were abandoned because their owners feared they could carry the coronavirus–was awarded funding by TPP’s COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund. “I cannot see any living thing suffering. I cannot. I’m not able to pass by if I see someone or an animal suffering.”

Gelli said she’s carried this deeply felt value of compassion with her since she was a child, a value that ultimately spurred her to become a veterinarian.

She now teaches veterinary medicine at the University of Padua, more than three hours away from her home. A typical day for Gelli is driving three hours to the University, teaching class, and then driving back home to take care of the more than 1,000 animals at her sanctuary. “I sleep in the winter,” she says, only half-jokingly. “I sleep when the animals hibernate.”

The sanctuary, which was originally funded by the Italian government in 2010, has since been funded by TPP and out of Gelli’s own pocket. She uses the money she earns at the University to take care of the sanctuary’s animals. Originally, the sanctuary was primarily for wildlife, providing a safe haven for creatures as varied as wolves and porcupines. But with the onset of COVID-19, Gelli opened up the sanctuary to domestic animals, such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters, all of which were abandoned because of misinformation in Italy that they could carry the coronavirus.

In addition to teaching and taking care of the animals at her sanctuary (for which she built enclosures with her own two hands), Gelli also educates the public about wildlife and, more recently, wet markets. “We are working to educate people to not be scared of wildlife, instead teaching them that they have to respect the distance between us and them. We live in the same world, and we have to respect each other. As a researcher, I know the outbreak of the coronavirus came from wet markets, which are killing many species and are the beginning of many diseases, including the coronavirus and avian flu.”

Although she finds many of the people she talks to about wildlife and wet markets are resistant to her knowledge, she treats them with compassion as well: “They don’t have a clear image of those markets—it’s so far from the minds of people. But I know that if I’m cruel, they won’t listen to me. I prefer to talk to them about respecting the animals and educating them on the suffering, promiscuous killing, and cruel treatment of the animals in these markets.”

As a veterinarian educating the public and her students about the horrors and dangers of wet markets, and the need for domestic animals to be rescued due to misinformation regarding COVID-19, Gelli is uniquely poised to have great impact in her community. “I educate the public about bats and other animals,” she says. “I talk about what it means to co-exist, not exploit, different species.”

Gelli, ever modest, attributes her success as a wildlife rescuer to the efforts of her 15 volunteers, whom she refers to as “angels.” “They can make the impossible happen,” she says proudly.

Despite the tremendous amount of work her life of rescuing and caring for animals entails, Gelli feels no resentment nor need to complain: “Most important for me is to have compassion and to take care of someone or an animal who is in bad condition. I am realizing my dream, my sense of my life’s purpose. I am happy. I am tired, yes, but I am happy.”

Written by Carolyn Ashworth