September 13, 2016

After a pretty challenging experience in northern Vietnam, which I wrote about in Eating is the Easy Part, I was more than ready to head south, which I had heard was more vegan-friendly. I only had to cross half the country before I met Cat, the fabulous founder and doer-of-every-damn-thing* at Vietnam Animal Aid & Rescue. VAAR operates a dog, cat, and farm animal shelter, a community clinic, and provides much needed veterinary training, animal advocacy, and public education. I also had the honor of meeting all the animals at the shelter and clinic, and hearing their stories, and I'm happy to share a few of them with you!

Daisy Duke, Sunny Buns
This is Cat, petting Daisy Duke, with Sunny Buns jostling for a little bit of the love. They found Daisy during a sterilization project in a nearby village. The family was well-meaning, but did not have the education to take care of her properly. She spent six weeks in the hospital recovering from infectious hepatitis and mange, not to mention damage to her mental health. As you can see she is now happy as a clam! An adorable, fuzzy clam. Sunny's story, on the other hand, is a little more typical (where I come from); she had a decent home, but didn't live well with babies—so she got the boot, and they kept the baby. Shelter life actually suits her pretty well though.

This is Gracie. I might be in love with Gracie. Okay, maybe definitely in love. Two years ago Gracie was chained up at a dog meat restaurant in Hoi An. Her short life was about to end, sure to be killed, and eaten. But the next day, in a show of incredible prowess, and luck, Cat saw her running down the street, wire collar around her neck, and dragging her chain behind her. She had managed an escape (turns out she's good at that)! Cat stepped on her chain, scooped her into a taxi, and whisked her off to a new life at the shelter. She is incredibly sweet, smart, and energetic. And while she has big plans for the world, the shelter is a good stepping stone for now. (I'm still considering coming back for her at some point.)

Ron is another licker, as you can see. Like so many rescued animals, you'd be surprised how trusting and loving he is, considering his background. Ron was found on the top of Hai Van Pass. He was a stray, trying to get by and avoid the dog [meat] catcher when he ended up trapped in a snare. (Who knows who the snare was intended to catch.) VAAR took him in and tried to nurse him back to health. They were sure they would have to amputate his mangled foot but, as luck would have it, the vet was out of town. In the time it took them to return Ron had miraculously healed up pretty nicely, and got to keep his foot. It doesn't work, or look, quite like it used to, but it doesn't seem to slow him down much.

Pancho Villa and Blair
Pancho (right) has been with Cat for a long time. He was rendered homeless when the 2012 tornados in Alabama destroyed his trailer park. Blair (left), on the other hand is a local rescue—the first on at the shelter actually. Cat spotted her on the side of the road 3 and a half years ago. She was suffering from mange, bald, and covered in infections. At first sight she looked like a sick, dying piglet. They weren't sure she'd recover, but after a lot of love, and top-quality vet care, she now looks like a healthy and happy piglet! The only small dogs at the shelter, Pancho and Blair have teamed up and are now inseparable buddies.

Louise was brought to the shelter 4 years ago, and literally moments before being killed on the chopping block. She is gentle and social, but she's also the queen of the place, keeping everyone in line. Chickens can live up to 8 years, but when raised for meat they're killed after less than 3 months.

Case in point: the chickens and cats coexist in (almost) total peace, Louise makes sure of it. Below her roost, staying cool, is Chairman Meow. He was rescued off the golf course in Da Nang, with his three feral siblings.

Chinggis Khan, Conquerer of Many Nations
If Louise is the queen, Chinggis is the king of the shelter. This marvelous beast may not have literally conquered any nations, but he's made two Pacific crossings, which is about two more than the average cat. He was rescued 6 years ago, from some asshole kids on the streets of Mongolia, who were burning off his whiskers with a lighter. He moved with Cat back to the US, and then years later to his current home in Vietnam.

Master Julian
There is probably no one at the shelter with a more commanding presence than Julian, and not just because he weighs 300 pounds. As a baby he found himself in a cage on the back of a motorbike, like so many other piglets in Vietnam. Unlike them he had the great fortune to end up with Cat. He is clever, strong-willed, and emotionally demanding (loves those snuggles!).

He also loves hugs, tummy rubs, scratches under the chin, behind his ears, and even massages on the soft little pads of his feet.

There a lot of stereotypes about animals that are misinformed, slanderous, or just plain mean. The idea that pigs are crazy about food, for example, well... that one is pretty much spot on. He is pretty polite about waiting, though his struggle to contain his excitement is very evident.

Cat Besch
*Okay, Cat doesn't do everything at VAAR, but by my estimation it's about twice the workload you could expect of a normal person. She does also have a small but growing team of staff and volunteers who contribute to their amazing and important work. Cat has been an animal lover and animal advocate for her whole life, but it's been a long path from where she started; riding horses back in Virginia, becoming a vegetarian, adopting cats and dogs, moving to veganism, and eventually becoming a tireless force for the interests of all animals, co-founding VAAR, and opening their shelter and clinic 3.5 and 1.5 years ago, respectively. The way that animals are treated in Vietnam—well, the way they're treated everywhere—but that you see them treated here in Vietnam surely contributed to her ever expanding empathy and passion for justice. Seeing, and especially forming relationships with these animals, can transform how we think of them: from things or abstractions to people—with personalities, and with compelling interests in both avoiding suffering and death, and seeking love and safety. One powerful role the animals at VAAR play is one of ambassador for their species. And having been lucky enough to make a visit, I can assure you they're doing a superb job of it!

If you'd like to learn more, please check out Vietnam Animal Aid & Rescue at their brand new website, on their Facebook page, on Instagram, or on Twitter. And if you're compelled to support their work they are always in need of both donations and volunteers (and staff)!