Anthony Thanasayan is no stranger to advocacy. He is constantly at the forefront when it comes to advocating for the rights of the disabled. His writings are featured in The Star and The Malaysian Insider, among other publications, and he once served as a councillor in the Petaling Jaya City Council.
He has certainly come a long way from the student who was once barred from attending school because the administrators felt that the school lacked the proper facilities to cater to wheelchair-bound students.
“Malaysians still have the mentality that disabled people cannot do anything, when the thing that really paralyzes us is our attitude. Because of this attitude, buildings and modes of transports are set up without taking into account of the facilities needed by the disabled,” says Anthony. His trips abroad, such as to the United States, revealed to him that there are countries out there which provide excellent facilities for the disabled, and this discovery encourages him to champion for the same facilities to take place in this country.
Anthony was born with spina bifida, a condition that affected his spinal cord and eventually removed his ability to walk. His experiences as a wheelchair-bound person spurred him to become an advocate for better facilities and treatment for fellow disabled Malaysians. And he was just starting on the road to becoming an advocate when he discovered his other calling in life, as a pet lover and advocate.
“I had several dogs when I was young,” he recalls. Dogs aside, chickens and birds were aplenty around his childhood home in Klang. These animals became a constant presence in his life, and he gradually grew fond of them. During his teenage years, he was often confined at home while his peers went out and about. His sole companion then was a mongrel, Biman, who accepted him for who he was and treated him like a normal person.
But it was during a conference for the disabled in the United States that everything fell into place for Anthony. “There we were, all of us in wheelchairs,” he recalls, “and the speaker was a paraplegic (paralyzed from the neck down). He brought a dog in with him. I first wondered why he had brought it in. The reason became clear when he dropped the pointer. The rest of us did not know what to do, and then something amazing happened. The dog picked up the pointer, placed his front paws on the wheelchair, and passed the device back to the speaker! It was unbelievable!”
Until then, he did not know much about service dogs, but the incident spurred Anthony to learn more about them. “The dog was so well-behaved that it stunned me!” he says. The cost of a service dog can be prohibitive, however, and Anthony had the idea of training his own dogs instead.
The Rottweiler comes home
About a year later, Anthony felt that he had saved up enough money to have a dog of his own. “Most of my friends and family members were not keen on the idea of me keeping a dog,” he tells us. “They would tell me, ‘Who will feed and take care of the dog? How are you going to feed it?’ Only one friend supported my idea, and we visited the pet store together.”
It was probably kismet that the Rottweiler which he later named Vai would find him. Anthony initially wanted a German Shepherd, but the store only had a Rottweiler puppy. “I had my doubts about the Rottweiler, but this puppy just jumped out of his box onto my lap and licked me.”
Anthony was stunned. “Many people are hesitant to touch a disabled person, and here was a puppy which seemed excited to see me,” he says with a laugh. The puppy reminded Anthony so much of himself. “I didn’t like to be stuck inside a box myself,” he says, “so I felt like we had some kind of bond.” The dog had a wound, but Anthony did not mind.
From books, correspondences, online research, and trial and error, Anthony began to train Vai. Training dogs is not always easy, but he stresses that it is essential, as an easily distracted dog can be a danger to both itself and his owner. Fortunately, during his training of Vai, he found many fellow disabled people in America who were always willing to share ideas on how to train service dogs.
In time, Vai became not only Anthony’s companion but also devoted assistant. The Rottweiler would voluntarily push Anthony’s wheelchair up a slope, for example. “Often, I only had to train him once, and he got it quickly,” he remembers. “And this only encouraged me to keep going.”
Vai’s presence changed Anthony’s life. “All my life, well-meaning people have been telling me that I should not do this or I cannot do that. This can be demoralizing to the spirit. Vai, however, sees me as a person. He doesn’t judge me, and he is very generous with his love and loyalty. You cannot imagine how good it feels, to have someone who sees you for who you really are!”
After two weeks of living with Vai, Anthony decided to bring home Biman the Second, a Golden Shepherd, and there was no looking back from there. He will always have a room in his home and his heart for his canine good friends. His pets also became his inspiration to found the non-profit organization known as the Malaysian Animal-Assisted Therapy for the Disabled and Elderly Association (Petpositive).
“My dogs have helped me more in five years than any therapist in a lifetime,” Anthony says. “I’m now more confident about myself and my outlook in life is more positive. They have made such a difference in my life, I could not ask for better friends and companions.”
He adds, “Petpositive is my way of gathering like-minded individuals, to give back to others in need of the joyous things that I would always be grateful for.”