Sometimes the best thing that can happen is failure

For many years, this job has made me miserable. It has made me the worst possible version of myself. So often I would rather be dead than wake up to the work I do and the people I do it with. Every time I even talk about the organization, my neck gets tight, my muscles are clenched and ready to hit something. It has put me in contact with the darkest aspects of society, not just the animal abusers, but the “animal lovers” who still participate in the trillions of unnecessary animal deaths per year in their daily consumption habits. The entire rescue industry has made me feel completely hopeless for the animals because of the speciesism and racism that are the baseline morality for foreigners in Vietnam, a group I don’t even want to be a part of any more.

While I have called Vietnam my home for 9 years, I have been deeply unhappy with my daily life there for many years, often sick, always working in a job I hate that goes nowhere, living in never-ending stress and grief that ignites an explosive and violent anger which embarrasses me and terrifies everyone else. I have never made enough money to enjoy my time in Vietnam like other expats and getting to travel around it as I have wanted has been nearly impossible when stuck in the shelter both taking care of animals and managing staff. I have not turned off my phone in years during the day or night because I am waiting for a crisis at any moment wherever I am in the world. I have lost relationships because of this work and made it impossible to get into a new one while living out of a suitcase or in the shelter hopping from country to country and pet sit to pet sit because I cannot afford to just rent a place on my own and have a normal life. I have a six-figure student loans for my B.S. and M.A. which I have never been able to pay down on because I chose to work in a passion project rather than earn a living, hoping that eventually I could replace myself so that I can have an income that I can live on while the organization went on.

I have lost my 30s to a mission I believed in more than anything in the world and fought for like hell because the animals matter and once my eyes were open to the true nature of animal suffering, I knew I had to dig in and fight with bloodied fists until I died a violent, premature death. I have had stress destroy me physically as my back has crumbled and I have had heart problems, dizzy spells, months of a low grade fever, headaches, and stomach ulcers that have made my work even harder while I could not get a break. The PTSD of being constantly surrounded by noise from the propaganda speakers near my shelter which came on 3 times a day for over an hour, preventing us from even being able to hear the voices in our heads, has made me extremely sensitive to any kind of loud noises I cannot escape which sends me into a panic. I have suffered from so much trauma and so much deep depression and compassion fatigue that often I thought driving into a truck head on with my motorbike was preferable to waking up in my life running the animal shelter and seeing the things I had to see while dealing with the veterinary incompetence, financial crises, asinine advice from the peanut gallery, criticism from the nonvegans who hated our message, and the staff and volunteers who treated this job like a holiday while I sacrificed everything to keep it going. Even in the best of times with the most staff and resources, we were still so helpless with the overwhelming caseload, constantly shifting staff, and the financial crises that were always threatening to put us out on the street.

I have tried hard to get most of the animals adopted. I have tried to hire staff to take over my job as director. I have tried to find other jobs to make this a private sanctuary and just pay for it all myself. I have asked other larger organizations to help and even to take over. When none of that worked, I dug in harder, determined to restart the clinic, to get back on our feet, to be relevant again. It just has never worked. Nothing I have done to make this work has ever made a difference and the sacrifices I have made personally and professionally have taken their toll. It is just no longer worth it.

I started the first farm sanctuary, the first animal rights education program, and the first nonprofit vet clinic in the country and did so as a nonspeceisist organization that was not afraid of saying the word “vegan” loud and proud while other organizations continue to make vegans out to be terrorists for loving all animals the way they say they love pets and wildlife. I have a lot to be proud of, but it did not work, mostly because I cannot do this alone and everything that I have been through and all we stand for has made alone the only way to be. Building what I did took all of me and turned me into a monster. It taught me lessons about humans, particularly “animal lovers”, that I did not want to know. Fighting day in and day out for what I believe and still failing has nearly killed me. I am outspoken about the hypocrisy of animal rescues and the welfare organizations who have badly failed the animals by spreading the outright lie that some animals are more important than others, and this has led to my organization being exiled from the rest of the organizations in the country. I am not afraid of making enemies, and ultimately, I lost the popularity contest of rescue as a result so the animals suffer. I have never been so isolated in my life, but I know that what the organization stands for has been worth it all even in failure.

I hate every single day of my job, and there are no days where I am not doing some part of my job whether it is moving money, answering emails, going back and forth with staff, or responding to comments on social media. This organization is in every cell of my body and I love every animal there like they are family. They mean the world to me, but this is killing me and I can do better for them and for me, not to mention far more for animals outside our gates in the world in which humans continue to see them as nothing more than profit.

In all of this, I know that what I do generally does not matter to anyone and has affected nothing in the system of rescue and animal advocacy. Aside from the animals in our care, it helps nothing while killing me. It makes no changes in society. It saves no animals other than the ones we wake up and feed. We lack the space, funds, and definitely the staff to do more rescues. There is no way to manage the change to doing solely veterinary work without an army of educated, experienced, and appropriately paid professionals who can handle the funding, the recruitment and training of staff, the media, the legal aspects, and the logistics. No matter how passionate I am about this, I cannot do this alone. There are not enough hours in the day and I receive nothing from this to sustain myself.

I am not a trust fund baby. I do not have a side hustle paying my bills. I do not even have a savings account and I am 42 years old with a Master’s degree and have traveled over a pretty big chunk of the world most people will never see or even dream of seeing. I have more to offer the animal rights movement than this organization which has been financially in crisis almost from day one. The experience I have with nonprofit management, rescue case management, international development, and the veterinary and health care industry is valuable and could be put to use in a way that would have far greater impact than a shelter that is always on the verge of collapse in a place where we have almost no support at all. The absolute rubbish I write for the fundraising, media, and newsletters lowers my IQ daily while so few people even bother to read what I write or donate when we are desperate. If we get a media reach beyond a few hundred it is an absolute fucking miracle. My experience and my writing on the work we do and the reality of how it differs from other parts of the world goes totally unnoticed. So little of what I write gets read at all. All that I have put into this means nothing.

What I set out to do is impossible. It will never happen because an organization relies on much more than passion to be successful at the mission. An organization is people. I have failed to gather or keep the right people and in Vietnam the lack of professionals locally who are capable of managing this type of project without hoarding animals or outright harming them makes this impossible. We cannot afford better educated and more experienced staff. Most of the time we are chided for even mentioning we pay our staff a salary at all. Without the people with great animal care skills, fundraising experience, and the basic admin skills to run a nonprofit business who we pay to stay working for us and managing this sinking ship, there is nothing we can do. My hands are tied and have been for years.

Driving around Hoi An is like living in a graveyard. I used to feel so much hope there, I had friends, and enjoyed my time. The more animals I had, the more bodies I buried at the end of the day, and the more fuckwittery I encountered from the people who say they love animals, the less I could even go out in public to interact with “normal” people in the city that I called my home. Now I feel more alone than anywhere in the world in this country I have lived in for 9 years. I have a tiny handful of friends throughout the world now and an even tinier handful of people who support our work. I do not go out. I do not mingle. I do not date. I don’t even like to tell people what I do there. The only thing I even enjoy in Vietnam now is traveling in it, running in it, eating in it, and loving on my animals that live there. There is never a moment’s peace for me there if my mouth is not full of some version of a rice noodle or my head is not buried in a cat tummy. At my home, which is the shelter where I have had to live with over 100 people and hundreds of animals who have come and gone through these years, I am always on. I am always responsible for the people who work with me, waiting for them to come home, making sure they are happy enough to keep helping, trying to keep the animals quiet enough to not bother the neighbors. I have had no real private life in so long I cannot even imagine what a home would be if it were not just a full time job surrounded by complete strangers who only listen to my bullshit because I pay them and they cannot escape me when we all live together.

None of this is sustainable and none of it is changing in spite of my best efforts to do so. I have worked so hard to replace myself for years, and in all my efforts, no one with any measure of professionalism and stick-to-itiveness has come forward, especially not for the salary I offer. In all the worst aspects of this work, among the top five has been the people I have been faced with who initially wanted to help and so quickly proved incapable of adding anything to my life other than stress and more reasons to mistrust people with good intentions. I don’t remember what it is like to not be let down yet being so desperate for help that I just had to placate these people to make sure the animals were OK. I have sold my soul to the devil to care for my rescues and while I do not regret ensuring them a good life, I wish I had known long ago that it would be at the expense of my own life in the way that it has been.

This just has to end in some way as I transition away from doing this full time so I can put my skills, experience, and education into something with a far higher impact and in a way in which I can have a salary I can live on and a life I actually want to wake up to. I don’t know exactly where that will be and how it will play out, but it has to happen. I tried very hard to get a job before when I had tried to close the organization a couple of years ago, and failed miserably in spite of sending out CVs to anywhere I even remotely qualified to work at, but I have to try again because living on the edge without having the impact the animals need is a total waste of time.

The challenge now is finding a way to manage the care of the animals in the long term. The pigs and the chickens are the only animals unable to leave the country once borders open, but I think most of the cats will end up living out their days in Vietnam as adoptions for adult cats is extremely difficult anywhere in the world. I am not in any way abandoning them. They are all my family and I am fully committed to their lifelong care in whatever way I am able to do that. They will under no circumstances be given to another rescue in Vietnam, particularly one that does not espouse vegan ethics which is unfortunately every single one of them. In my experience dealing with animal rescues in Vietnam in the past 8 years, there are none that qualify for providing the care necessary for these animals and doing so without being blatantly speciesist and morally bankrupt. I will need to hire people to care for the animals long term as I have for years now, and though I will always be coming and going to Vietnam for them, I will not be able to care for them full time. If it is ever possible to get the pigs and chickens on a plane out of Vietnam when the restrictions due to African Swine Fever and Avian flu are lifted, they will be on the first trip out. They only have to stay because of those legal restrictions for now. If there was any way to let them live with me elsewhere I would have done it by now at any cost. Vietnam really is a total nightmare for animals and for people that love animals. It is hard to debate that if you have lived there. I wish I could say I saw hope for that to change soon, but I don’t.

There are no answers from here other than that I change is inevitable and while funding and staff remain elusive, there is nothing I can do about that. The most vital step is the one in which you say, “This is a nightmare and I will no longer live in this fantasy”. Everything after this has to improve in some way or another.

Cat Besch is a ferocious animal activist, pig snuggler, amateur vegan chef, and runner who is the founder and director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue-US.