Vietnam often gets a pretty bad rap when it comes to animal rights. Dog thieves and irresponsible owners who keep their malnourished pets in cages too small are among those contributing to that reputation.
Local media regularly contains stories of dog thieves being beaten, sometimes fatally, by vigilante groups or local residents angry about their activities.
While it would be abhorrent to condone these misguided attempts at justice, it does at least suggest that Vietnam is a country divided when it comes to how animals such as cats and dogs are thought of.
In Hanoi, there are two organisations working to try and help pets that have been abused, abandoned or otherwise not looked after.
Founded in April 2012 by Nguyen Luong Tuyet Nhung, Hanoi Pet Rescue (HPR) has fought an uphill battle to become the biggest pet rescue force in Hanoi.
In the beginning, the aim was only to rescue and rehome abandoned cats. With dog meat being more valuable to the illegal pet trade, abandoned cats were far more likely to be left in the street.
Their work, however, has always been limited.
“Many people suspect that we are dog or cat thieves just pretending to be rescuers,” explains rescue coordinator Thu Thu Ha.
Combined with the “my animal, my property” attitude many Vietnamese pet owners have, this makes rescuing abused animals challenging and dangerous.
Owners accused of abusing animals do not recognise HPR as having any right to intervene. However, driven by an inherent love for animals, Nhung, Ha and the other earliest members persevered, and after just one year they had the volunteers and resources required to rescue and look after dogs, too.
With no direct sources of income or trained veterinarians on staff, HPR must rely on the generosity of its supporters and volunteers to keep the animals healthy and happy until new homes can be found.
“We have volunteers at our shelter to clean up and feed the animals twice a day,” says Ha, 27. “We also get a 50% discount from some of the veterinary clinics in Hanoi who cooperate with us.”
One of the volunteers, who is sweeping up spilled cat food when we arrive at a shelter housing over 50 cats, is 19-year-old linguistics student, Chu Ha Lien. Lien joined HPR in July 2016, and now lends her time as a rescue and shelter volunteer.
“I remember feeling so hurt when my first cat died; I was in seventh grade,” recalls Lien. “After about six years, I felt ready to have a cat again, and my friend told me about HPR.”
After seeing some heart-wrenching HPR social media posts, Lien immediately asked to take part in their work, something her parents weren’t overjoyed about.
“They don’t support eating dog and cat meat,” insists Lien. “But this work takes a lot of time. Going out to rescue animals instead of staying at home is not something they agree with.”
Although most of the pets they rescue are just abandoned, there have been some exceptional cases of particular cruelty.
In 2015, HPR received a call about a cat abandoned in an apartment yard in Hoang Mai.
“One of her legs, and her tail, had been cut off,” says Ha. “Her ears had been cut into circular shapes, and looked like earrings; which is why we named her Khuyen.”
Ha fostered her, during which time Khuyen was unsuccessfully rehomed four times, refusing to eat in each of the new locations. However, every time she came back to Ha, Khuyen would eat again.
Giving Khuyen the nickname “crazy puppy”, Ha adopted her permanently, and now has 10 cats and a dog living with her.
“They don’t fight, but I have one domesticated cat who hates all the others,” Ha says, “so I keep her separate, in my bedroom.”
For more information on the work Hanoi Pet Rescue do and how you can help, visit facebook.com/hanoipetrescue.org. To report an abused or abandoned animal, call their hotline on 01234 524650
For the Greater Good
HPR have strict rules about not buying doomed cats and dogs from restaurants, a rule which former coordinator Pham Khanh Quynh disagreed with so strongly, she decided to leave and start her own organisation, Hanoi Pet Adoption (HPA).
“I’ve even chased after motorbikes which were taking dogs to restaurants in cages,” says Quynh, 25. “My motivation to rescue animals happened simultaneously with turning vegetarian and becoming a Buddhist.”
Having learnt from her time in HPR, Quynh runs HPA with a high level of accountability. Would-be adopters are interviewed, potential new homes are checked and follow-up visits are carried out.
“We have less than 20 active members,” says Quynh. “Our fosterers keep the animals temporarily; currently we have eight dogs and around a dozen cats waiting for homes.”
The Dog Lady
One of HPA’s most active volunteers, Tran Thi Thao, moved to Hanoi from Thanh Hoa City to join the group full time.
Thao discovered HPA after she found an abandoned and very sick dog called Kangaroo in her hometown.
“Kangaroo has a liver problem, which causes an extreme build-up of liquid in his belly,” explains Quynh. “All the vets we took him to said he wouldn’t survive much longer.”
However, Thao began teaching herself veterinary medicine, learning from books and the internet. After learning a technique to drain the excess fluid on a regular basis, Kangaroo now lives in HPA’s Ha Dong shelter, until he can find a new permanent home.
HPA’s shelter is still a long way from being fully equipped. Only recently, someone donated a fridge; but they’re still in need of basic supplies such as bedding, pet supplies and homeware.
Thao now lives in the HPA shelter full-time, a situation Quynh was happy to welcome, as it helps Thao to pursue her dream of becoming a veterinarian. In exchange, Thao helps take care of the animals there while studying.
“Thao has rescued more than 20 dogs herself,” Quynh says. “She keeps them herself, because she’s so worried they won’t be looked after.”
Long Way to Go
Although groups like these are gaining popularity as they continue to fight the good fight, the prevailing attitude towards animal rights across Vietnam is still changing too slowly.
“People often become very aggressive when we try to take their pets away,” says Quynh. “They view them as their property, to be treated how they want.”
Even Quynh’s own parents don’t support the work she does. She’s already endured being kicked out once for her commitment to animal rights, but even a spell of living in squalid conditions with the animals she protects didn’t dissuade her.
“I still have five secret cats at home,” says Quynh. “I keep them in my bedroom, my parents have no idea.”