March 25, 2010

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A quintessential Chestnut Hill family
Gigi Glendinning: animal rescuer extraordinaire

Gigi adopted Slidell, a six-year-old male Maine Coon Mix, a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, when Gigi was volunteering in New Orleans. Slidell had remained in a shelter, unclaimed.

You might say that Gigi Glendinning, 42, is a member of a quintessential Chestnut Hill family. She and her brother, Andrew (now a Lafayette Hill contractor with three children); her sister, Ellen (now a freelance accountant in Lafayette Hill with two children); and her brother, Bruce (now a regional manager for Prudential Fox and Roach, living in Flourtown with two children); all grew up in Chestnut Hill with their mom, Sandra, now a resident of The Hill at Whitemarsh; and their late father, Robert, a prominent realtor with an office on Evergreen Avenue (and frequent contributor to the Local).

They lived successively in houses on Prospect Avenue, then St. Martin’s Lane, then Auburn Avenue in Wyndmoor and finally, in a Woodward house on Mermaid Lane. Both sons went to Chestnut Hill Academy, and both daughters went to Springside School.

“My dad never went to college himself,” said Gigi, “but he provided us all with great educations. We were very lucky. By buying and then selling the houses we lived in, that’s how he paid for all of our college tuitions.” (Robert Glendinning died at 75 last year of Alzheimer’s Disease.)

After graduation from Springside in 1985, Gigi went to St. Lawrence University in New York state. Then she drove to Seattle with two friends from Wyndmoor, Elizabeth Harris Mellon and Betsy O’Neil, and lived there for a decade. “I heard there were mountains and lakes so it sounded good to me,” Gigi said.

Gigi is a bitter foe of zoos and circuses that keep elephants imprisoned in tiny, cramped spaces. These Asian elephants from the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey’s circus “performed” at the Wachovia Center on February 24 through 28.

Gigi was an art major in college, but on the west coast she became a licensed massage therapist. “It all started when I adopted a dog who had been abused,” she explained. “She was afraid of people. A dog trainer told me that she would feel safe if I massaged her, so I did that on a regular basis, and it really helped. That inspired me to go to school and learn the trade”.

Gigi proceeded to have a small massage practice from her home on Lake Union in Seattle, and eventually she was trained in Colorado in equine massage therapy. In 1999, she moved back to the Chestnut Hill area “to be close to my seven nieces and nephews and to work on horses here.” Gigi bought a “shoebox” in Gwynedd Valley on one-and-a-half acres of ground. “Horse massage was great; there is nothing like having a huge animal drop its head and smack its lips and lean into you while enjoying the massage”. But two years into the job, an unexpected brutal attack by a horse shook Gigi up enough to stick with massaging smaller animals and people.

Among her many current volunteer activities on behalf of animals, Gigi presents humane education assemblies at local schools such as Springside and Germantown Academy. One issue Gigi discusses with the students is the presence of elephants in zoos and circuses, which she passionately opposes. She presents the facts, showing elephants in captivity versus the elephants that are “off duty” living in sanctuaries. Gigi, who is a Vegan (she does not eat meat, fish, dairy or eggs), tries to promote critical thinking and engage the students in forming their own opinion. She strongly believes that the next generation will put an end to such cruel traditions. “We are a sophisticated enough society by now to know better” she said. “To exploit these wild animals for our entertainment is simply WRONG.”

Zoo officials have been on the defensive in recent years, including those at the Philadelphia Zoo, over the fact that these huge pachyderms have so little room to move around. In the Philadelphia Zoo the elephants had a quarter-acre of living space. Dulary, their Asian elephant, was moved to The Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee, where she is now living a much deserved life with freedom. Kallie and Bette, the zoo’s two African elephants, were not as fortunate. They remain in the zoo system, living now in a cement barn with a small yard in the Pittsburgh Zoo’s breeding facility.

These are some of the 22 rabbits Gigi rescued from a backyard in the Chestnut Hill area. The rabbits were confined in tiny cages that were almost never cleaned out and were filled with inches of feces.

Gigi said, “Since their move to Pittsburgh, the zoo has officially decided that Kallie and Bette are not healthy enough to breed, so now more than ever, we must insist that they do the right thing and send them to PAWS in California.” PAWS is a sanctuary that offered to take Kallie and Bette, at no cost, over three years ago.

Many zoo officials have defended the presence of elephants by arguing that most zoo visitors would never get to see a live elephant in their lifetimes if it were not for zoos. Also, that zoo visitors, after seeing these magnificent creatures up close, might be motivated to donate money, time, energy, etc., to efforts by the many organizations working to preserve these creatures in the wild.

“There is no evidence,” replied Gigi, “that people who see zoo animals then turn around and help the wild animal populations. In fact, the amount of money it takes to keep just one elephant in a zoo could save many of them in the wild. I believe it is more valuable to have reverence for an animal we can’t see because it lives so far away or lives deep in the sea. What are we truly learning when we are staring at a wild animal contained and behaving in an unnatural way?

“These animals have their place in the world, just as we do, and it is not behind bars. They have committed no crime, so why should they be in prison? Just because we ‘can’ do it does not mean we ‘should.’ It’s a lot to ask of an elephant that it be kept in a tiny yard so your granddaughter can see it up close. Elephants roam about 20 miles a day in the wild on average, and to keep them in a sandbox is a crime. Nowadays there are many ways to get to know all about elephants without seeing one up close.”

Gigi does not just pay lip service to animal rescue work, though. She went to New Orleans twice in 2005, once for 10 days and again for five days, to do rescue work with animals made homeless by Hurricane Katrina. She brought two cats home, one of which moved in with her, and the other was adopted. In 2003 she spent three weeks in Kenya, East Africa, with Earthwatch in a program to try to save black rhinos; the same year she spent two weeks in Washington state working with chimpanzees who had been “retired” from research. In 2006 she volunteered with the highly respected Elephant Sanctuary in Tennessee.

In recent months Gigi trapped, neutered and released 13 feral cats living at Sunnybrook Golf Club, keeping the colony from tripling in size. And for the month of April, her cat, Slidell, who wears a camera on his collar capturing cool images, will be the featured artist at the Manayunk Art Center. His framed photographs will be for sale to raise money for PAWS of Philadelphia.

Gigi’s most notorious rescue was in 2007 when she happened upon 44 rabbits jammed in hutches in a local backyard. “It was straight out of Animal Cops when I saw the bunnies,” she said. “So many of them were being forced to live in their own waste. So much waste that when I opened the back door of a hutch, I could barely get my hand in.”

Fortunately, the man raising them welcomed Gigi’s help and was willing to let her find homes for 22 of his lot of 44. The other half went to auction in Lancaster, where rabbits are sold for meat, fur and the pet store trade. “These bunnies were destined to be transported in cardboard boxes on the back of a flat bed truck, held up at auction for the best price and then, who knows what?” said Gigi.

“They are raised inhumanely as commodities and therefore, buying animals at pet stores supports such abuse. People who want to adopt animals should go to their local rescue organizations. For me it was love at first sight, so I did what I could to help them.”

Gigi set up her own sanctuary of sorts and spent 75 summer days seeking loving families to adopt them. “Lots of kids got involved, so the rescue served as another opportunity to teach kindness toward animals. In fact, I couldn’t have done it with out my young neighbor, Sara Healy, who helped me rotate the bunnies for their ‘grass time.’ These rabbits had never touched the ground before, so watching them happily hop around was incredibly rewarding.”

The photographs taken during her summer with the rabbits inspired Gigi to create greeting cards that tell their story and laid the groundwork for a line of stuffed animals that do the same. In fact, she was giving Hill resident Merrie Allison’s dog a massage in her Navajo Street home when Merrie suggested that her friend, Kundan, could manufacture the stuffed animals. With that, Gigi’s dream began to come true.

If you visit her website, (named for the 22 rabbits she had to leave behind), you can read more about the rescue and also learn about elephants. Her “Brave Bunny & Patient Pachyderm” stuffed animals are another means to educate young minds about animal welfare. The “bunnies” would make ideal gifts for kids at Easter time. A portion of the proceeds is donated to House Rabbit Society and PAWS (Performing Animal Welfare Society).

“Sometimes,” Gigi said, “when I am doing the labor involved with caring for the four rabbits that live with me, I think I’ve lost my mind, but then one hops over to say hello, and I realize it’s a labor of love.”



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