Each month, we’re shining a well-deserved spotlight on one MUTTS reader who’s also an inspiring and dedicated animal advocate.

Our March Reader of the Month is Bilyana Yakova, a 34-year-old Washington state resident who works as a program manager for Pet Partners, a nationwide nonprofit for therapy animals. Separately, Bilyana runs a nonprofit organization that raises funds and awareness for the veterinary treatment of animals in underprivileged parts of the world. She was born and raised in Bulgaria, and says that’s part of the reason she has such a personal understanding of animal homelessness in other countries.

Bilyana lives with her two pups (Tigger, a 6-year-old Havanese mix, and Julie, a 5-year-old terrier mix), a foster dachshund (Odie, age 16), and a bonded pair of foster cats (Eleanor and Baby). When she’s not spending time on animal-related causes, she likes to dance, read, paint, and crochet.

How did you originally become interested in animal advocacy?

My love for animals was originally nurtured by my grandmother. As far back as I remember, she helped as many of the countless animals on the streets of Bulgaria as she could — feeding many of them, arranging for TNR whenever possible, fostering, and helping them get adopted. To this day, in her late 70s, she continues this work and puts aside a large portion of her pension income to buy food for the homeless. She inspires and humbles me daily.

Tell us more about your current efforts to help animals.

In late 2011 I founded Animal Aid International, a tiny nonprofit. AAI is mostly just me and a couple of my friends. Currently, we collaborate with nonprofit organizations in Bulgaria and Romania that rescue animals from the streets, foster them, and find them homes. AAI raises funds for the vet care needed by these animals, and also periodically raise funds for the spay and neuter of homeless animals. It’s an entirely volunteer-run, bare-bones operation but annually makes a difference in the lives of hundreds of animals.

I am also a foster parent for animals. I foster dogs from Old Dog Haven, an amazing organization which pulls elderly dogs from shelters and places them in permanent foster homes for the rest of their lives. Since I have plenty of room at my house, I also foster cats for a wonderful nonprofit called Purrfect Pals. I typically take in the older, sick kitties and do hospice a portion of the time.

My love for animals is reflected in my personal choices as well. I don’t eat meat and I don’t use leather products. I make as many environmentally conscious choices as possible, since protecting the environment protects the species who call it home.

What’s one of your fondest animal-related memories?

A really special memory for me is the rescue of kitty Charlie (pictured) in 2012. My mom and I were visiting family in Bulgaria, and I had joined my grandma in her daily rounds of feeding homeless animals in her neighborhood. And I met Charlie. He was a two-month-old kitty with an eye infection so horrible that he was already blind. I knew there was no way he could survive on the streets. I connected with a local vet and arranged for Charlie’s surgery — his eyes needed to be completely removed — and amazingly, I was able to make last-minute arrangements for him to travel back with us to the U.S. By the time we got home, my mom had fallen in love with Charlie and adopted him herself. Charlie has no idea that he doesn’t have eyes; he’s a confident, happy, sociable cat who runs around the house and greets strangers.

What have you learned from animals?

They’ve taught me patience and persistence in my rescue efforts since every single one of them matters. They’ve also shown me absolute, unconditional love, beyond what I’ve experienced with humans. And certainly resilience! I have seen animals recover from horrible injuries, abuse, and neglect, and yet still live in the moment and choose to love the person who gives them love.

Tell us an interesting fact about yourself that might surprise others.

I’m definitely an introvert. Many of my rescue friends are surprised to eventually see that part of my personality. If you meet me in the context of my rescue work, I’m happily at the center of activity. My passion for animal advocacy transforms me in amazing ways.

If you could be any animal in the world, which would you be (and why)?

I love and choose to protect a variety of animals. But at the end of the day I am partial to dogs and would probably want to be one. I find that dogs have the kind of loyalty and purity of emotion that I truly wish there was more of in this world.

What’s one of your favorite quotes?

“What we do for ourselves dies with us. What we do for others and the world remains and is immortal.” — Albert Pine

Who is your favorite character from the MUTTS comic strip?

That would be Mooch, who always puts a smile on my face.

Lastly, we’d like to give a big shout-out to Isabel Redondo, a MUTTS reader from Ontario, Canada who nominated you to be our March Reader of the Month. Is she also an animal advocate?

She definitely is! We met through the work of Animal Aid International, to which Isabel started donating and the work of which she shares frequently. I am beyond fortunate to be surrounded by many animal lovers. I find they are among the best of people!

Readers, would you like to nominate an animal advocate for MUTTS Reader of the Month? If so, read our how-to guide for more info!

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