American man opens pet rescue cafe in Saigon

By Ngoc Ngan   January 17, 2024 | 06:45 am PT
Seeing hundreds of dogs at the Binh Chanh Rescue Center with only a few volunteers caring for them, Alex Ward took it upon himself to find the animals new homes.

He did so by opening his own "pet rescue café." "I admire the volunteers’ efforts, but it's a shame they aren't better known," Alex said.

The American man enlisted a friend as a partner in establishing a cafe that combines rescuing dogs and finding new homes for the abandoned, often disabled, dogs and cats.

As a profit-making café, he believes the model could be more sustainable than those depending on charity funding.

The model has existed for years in the U.S., South Korea, and Japan, to name a few, where even the "developed" countries’ rescue stations are often overloaded with strays and strapped for more donor contributions each fiscal year.

Alex Ward at his dog and cat rescue cafe in Thu Duc City, on the morning of Dec. 20, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Ngan

Alex Ward at his dog and cat rescue cafe in Thu Duc City, on the morning of Dec. 20, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/Ngoc Ngan

In October 2019, Alex, Geneva, his Filipino friend, and another Vietnamese friend, established their first coffee shop in An Phu Ward, the heart of HCMC’s affluent expat community.

While enjoying coffee, visitors to the establishment can also learn about the freely-wandering rescued pets that are being raised there. Their names, personalities, and specific health conditions are described on a list placed on the cafe’s tables. Dogs wear red, blue, or green scarves to indicate their friendliness level to customers who want to interact.

To adopt a pet at the shop, a new keeper must complete a 60-question application, pass a survey about creating living space for pets, and undergo a check for compatibility between pets and owners. After that, the new prospective pet houses will have two weeks to test their new life with animals to ensure they won’t just be abandoned again for "unjustified" reasons.

"We don't want them [the dogs and cats] to feel abandoned again," Alex said. "That's why adopters have to go through a rather complicated process."

To date, Alex has opened two shops, one in Binh Thanh District specifically for cats, and one in Thu Duc City for dogs. Both locations combined currently nurture and nourish a total of 70 dogs and cats acquired from 5 rescue stations in HCMC.

After four years, Alex and his friends have facilitated 110 successful pet adoptions and rescued 170 dogs and cats. The shops count about 30,000 visitors each year. The café profits help Alex pay 75% of the costs of rescuing, vaccinating, and treating animals. He pays the rest with his own money.

Among the pets adopted by new owners, Alex remembers May the most:

He arrived at the cafe with one of his legs cut off by his previous "owner." May was then fed, bathed, and provided unconditional love by the shop’s helpers for months.

Then one day, a regular customer in her 60s stopped by saying that she had quit her job due to poor health, also expressing the fact that she couldn't live without May.

So, she applied to adopt him.

The dog had waited two and a half years at the shop, but now has a happy life with his new family in Thu Duc.

In another case, Min Min is a blind dog with one eye protruding: an appearance that scared many people.

In the summer of 2022, a Malaysian couple came to the shop to play with Min Min and decided to adopt him. They agreed to spend thousands of dollars to bring Min Min to Shanghai, China to live together with them at their home. To this day, the couple still send pictures and videos of Min Min’s happy life.

Sua, a 40kg Alaskan dog with a disabled hind leg, had to stay at the shop for nearly three years. Sua is fussy about adopters because of her large size and the difficulty of caring for her disability. In the end, Sua found a new home with a male student in Ho Chi Minh City.

The shop does not promote quantity but focuses on the quality for adopted dogs and cats instead. Alex said all the waiting has been worth it.

Justin, a regular customer at the dog and cat rescue cafe in Thu Duc City, on the morning of Dec. 20, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/ Ngoc Ngan

Justin, a regular customer at the dog and cat rescue cafe in Thu Duc City, on the morning of Dec. 20, 2023. Photo by VnExpress/ Ngoc Ngan

Justin, a 43-year-old American man moved to Ho Chi Minh City with his wife for work 4 months ago. They decided to adopt a dog to make their new house feel less empty.

Justin came to the animal rescue cafe in Thu Duc City following a friend's recommendation. He saw Chi curling up in the sun, with her jet-black fur and round eyes, and it was love at first sight. Seeing Chi running and jumping around the field only sealed the deal even further.

To adopt Chi, in addition to completing the application like other people, Justin was also trained on how to take care of a Vietnamese dog in a narrow apartment because it requires different processes than raising dogs with typical outdoor lawn like most pet homes in the U.S. After two weeks, Chi was adopted by Justin and his wife.

"He's happier than when I first got him," Justin said. "It's great to have more friends in my life."

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