What’s On

Vietnam’s nascent network of animal rescue volunteers seeks coalition

By Calvin Godfrey   October 16, 2016 | 12:00 am GMT+7
Vietnam’s nascent network of animal rescue volunteers seeks coalition
This picture taken on January 27, 2015 shows seized cages of live cats transported in a truck in Hanoi. Photo by AFP

'This society doesn’t understand what we’re doing.'

Last weekend, animal rescue volunteers from all over Vietnam gathered at the Continental Hotel in downtown Ho Chi Minh City for a conference on animal shelter management.

Funded and organized by the same coalition of NGOs that successfully lobbied regional governments to halt the cross-border trade of dogs, the conference represented a first step toward creating a safe place for animals confiscated from the country’s trade in dog and cat meat.

“Basically, we’re trying to look to the future,” said Lola Webber of the Change for Animals Foundation. “If you were to stop the sale and slaughter of dogs tomorrow what would you do with them?”

The Asia Canine Protection Alliance (ACPA) flew representatives of volunteer shelters from as far away as Hanoi to offer training in animal intake procedures, humane handling and emergency sheltering considerations.

Attendees ranged from a single Frenchman living with an estimated 120 cats and dogs in Binh Duong Province to urban Vietnamese volunteers caring for a fraction of that number in networks of private homes.

Voicing concerns about a lack of funds, veterinary support and safe adoption options, the volunteers described their uphill struggle to house and care for animals viewed somewhere in a gray area between domestic companions and livestock.

Vietnam lacks any legal framework for establishing or monitoring a shelter. Some groups have spent the past three years trying to obtain official licensing and permission.

“This society doesn’t understand what we’re doing,” said Thu Dang of Gia Dinh Cua Be—a small shelter she helped found, last year, in District 3 before complaints from neighbors and local officials inspired them to relocate closer to the airport.

At one point, she said, police detained one of the group’s 25 volunteers while he was attempting to rescue a stray.

Life after dog trafficking

Three years ago, Soi Dog Foundation, Animals Asia, Humane Society International and the Change for Animals foundation began a campaign to stop the trucking of half a million dogs, per year, from Thailand to Vietnam.

Acting as the Asian Canine Protection Alliance (ACPA), their efforts drew widespread support from British celebrities like Ricky Gervais.

“That trade is almost nothing now,” said Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam country director for Animals Asia.

In his opening remarks to the conference, Bendixsen described how the coalition has advanced its goal of eliminating the dog and cat meat industry by offering to help the governments of Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia accede to a 2020 development goal of eliminating rabies.

“If you talk about animal welfare, you cannot achieve the results you want,” Bendixsen said.

While acknowledging that truckloads of dogs continue to enter Vietnam through border crossings further south, Bendixsen said ACPA’s efforts resulted in the creation of animal quarantine kiosks and billboards along traditional dog and cat trucking routes through Thailand and Laos.

The signs warn truckers to have certificates of origin, quarantine and vaccination in hand or face the confiscation of their cargo.

Without shelter

Last year, Hanoi police seized three tons of cats that lacked certificates of origin from a single truck driver and destroyed them.

The Daily Mail quoted members of ACPA as saying police ignored their requests to adopt the animals and, instead, put them in the hands of a waste disposal company that ran them over with a dump truck and buried their bodies in lye.

An executive at the company held a subsequent press conference to stress that his employees hadn’t crushed the cats before burying them -- presumably alive.

Earlier this summer, the authorities announced plans to burn a half ton of live cats after seizing them in Quang Ninh Province.

The chair of Vietnam’s zoology association had previously endorsed the practice to a Guardian reporter.

Last week, traffic police patrolling the Hai Van Pass discovered cages stuffed with over 200 live cats and roughly 800kg of “foul-smelling” fermented shrimp paste lacking certificates of origin.

The cops instructed the driver to head to the veterinary quarantine department down the hill in the central city of Da Nang.

News about the animals ended there and local volunteers in the area say they worry the officials let the truck continue on its journey, despite their efforts to take in the cats.

There is reason to believe them.

In 2014, that Kim Lien Veterinary Quarantine Department of 19 departments that reportedly waved through a truck loaded with 336 pigs suffering from foot and mouth disease. The sick pigs, which began their journey outside Hanoi were discovered south of Ho Chi Minh City.

In August, Dai Lo newspaper ran a lengthy story about operations at the station that claimed quarantine officers working the night shift seldom bothered to leave their kiosk. Instead, they accepted whatever paperwork was presented by passing drivers and waved them through.

Sold to the meat trade

Lexie Green, a veterinary technician from New York, works with a network of 50-60 volunteers in Da Nang who foster and adopt out stray animals. She and a South African national named Domenique Terry also hold an English-language after-school program designed to teach kids empathy for animals.

They call their group Paws for Compassion and, at the moment, both women remain wary of Vietnam’s shelters since the implosion of the Da Nang Dogs and Cats Information and Rescue Station (Tram Thong Tin va Cuu Ho va Cho Meo Da Nang).

On April 14, they said, police and volunteers confronted the shelter’s live-in director, Vu Van Chinh, inspiring him to flee. Chinh would later tell reporters the sheer number of animals in need had overwhelmed him. The pressure, he claimed, caused him to abuse some and sell others to cat and dog butchers.

The story drew international press attention. Green and Terry arrived that day to find a swarm of volunteers arriving to adopt the remaining animals.

“It was the first thing to hit the news that day so people were flocking to adopt animals,” Terry said.

Green remembered scrambling around, hoping to find homes for 15 dogs.

“I took in eight cats,” Terry said. “All of them died.”

According to Thanh Nien newspaper, Chinh met with his team members, donors and reporters on April 17 and confessed to abusing and selling off animal rescues.

He denied accusations that he had personally benefitted from shelter donations.

During the meeting, one of the volunteers who’d helped expose him, Nguyen Hoang Duong, called for an official audit of all donor funds.

In the end, the audit never came and Duong told VnExpress he has forgiven Chinh for his transgressions.

“I don’t want him to get into more trouble,” said Duong, who continues to volunteer to find homes for stray animals as a part of the Da Nang Animal Rescue Center (Cuu Tro Dong Vat Da Nang).

The group of about 40 volunteers hopes to open a shelter, next year, that they can staff on a rotating basis. According to figures presented at the recent conference, their members house a dozen dogs and 20 cats in private homes.

“I believe the success all depends on the people involved,” he said.

Strength in numbers

Adam Parascandola, of Humane Society International, stood on hand this past weekend to give a pair of talks about how to humanely handle animals at a shelter and deal with emergency situations—such as the arrival of an entire truckload of dogs or cats.

A policy expert on animal protection and cruelty response, Parascandola helped move over 500 dogs from farms in South Korea to homes in Canada and the U.S.

During last week’s conference, Katherine Polak of Soi Dog Foundation revealed that western animal lovers had been willing to spend as much as $2,500 to have a single rescued dog flown to the U.S. or Canada. That figure has fallen as the organization has partnered with foreign animal shelters that take in larger numbers using donated frequent flier miles.

“Everyone loves a meat dog,” Parascandola told the attendees with a laugh.

He described Vietnam’s budding animal welfare movement as nascent compared to the countries in which he has worked.

“The oldest animal welfare group present at the conference formed six years ago and most of the groups formed in the last couple of years,” Parascandola wrote in an email response to questions. “The desire to form a coalition is something all the groups share but they are only beginning to form this coalition whereas in China and Korea many of the groups have been around for a long time and they have very strong coalitions formed.”

Ultimately, Parascandola said coming together will prove key to tackling the root of animal suffering by providing education and encouraging spay and neuter campaigns.

"There are always groups which work outside these coalitions but most groups desire to work together as there is strength in numbers,” he wrote.

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