She wants to give all dogs a loving home

You wouldn't think that stylish model-turned-entrepreneur Otara Gunewardene would get down and dirty to help stray dogs.

But that's exactly what the 50-year-old founder of Sri Lanka's premier fashion and lifestyle store Odel did.

She was determined to see the streets of her country free of stray dogs and to give all dogs a loving and caring home.

In 2007, she came up with a line of six black-and-white T-shirt designs with catchy dog-themed one-liners.

"These flew off the shelves faster than we expected," Ms Gunewardene told The New Paper.

This inspired her to start Embark, an apparel brand of casual clothes and accessories.

"By 2009, we had moved the brand away from its hallmark black and white (colours), and developed vibrant colours and styles to appeal to all ages and tastes," she explained.

Now all proceeds from Embark are used to fund the work she and her volunteers do with stray dogs.

Over the last seven years, Ms Gunewardene has funded the sterilisation of about 10,000 dogs and the vaccination of more than 25,000 strays.

With the help of volunteers and like-minded people, she has also found homes for almost 2,000 puppies, special needs dogs and adult strays.

She did not say how much she has spent.


"I've always wanted to work with animals - it was my lifelong dream. I had a vision to do something beneficial for them.

From the day I started my company (in 1989), I have always done things to create awareness and contribute towards the environment and animals," she explained.

What sealed the deal for Ms Gunewardene was a puppy named Niko.

"He was my first street dog. I found him on the side of the road where I lived and decided to adopt him. The thought of what might have happened to Niko on the streets motivated me to change the fate of Sri Lanka's countless homeless dogs," she said.

Ms Gunewardene added: "We work with several animal welfare organisations here and support their work.

"We also work with the local government for the programmes in the field and veterinary partners for the clinics and the hospital work." Her charity work is not limited to just Colombo.

It has spread to the north central, eastern, southern and western provinces in Sri Lanka.

Ms Gunewardene's aim? To make it fashionable to own a street dog.

"Also, to make it fashionable to live in a world where it is not all about us, but about us and the animals. We want to spread a constant message about the importance of kindness towards all living beings.

You don't have to love animals, but you can be tolerant towards them," she said.

Having turned 50 this year, Ms Gunewardene wants to dedicate her time to her cause and has even sold her shares in Odel to do just that.

She said: "If you are passionate about what you believe in, you will always be able to make time.

"The level of commitment is simply a measure of that passion. If I am in a position to help, I should."

This article was first published on Oct 23, 2014.
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