The End of Our Animal Rescue is Here
While the past decade of my life has been working full time both onsite and remotely for the work here in Vietnam, I no longer see how I can go on like this and how the staff can keep working so hard for a futile mission in a region overrun with speciesist organizations and lacking in long term programs making real impact for ending animal suffering outside the pet/wildlife arena. The concept of being a vegan animal rescue organization fighting for all species means absolutely nothing at all when there is no financial, human, or veterinary resources to back it.
The change I have seen in the past 10 years in Vietnam in the animal sector has been disconcerting to say the least. When we started the organization, we couldn’t get cat vaccines, much less test for common infectious diseases without ordering tests from abroad. We could not buy dog collars in our little historic town of Hoi An and had to buy our animal food in Da Nang, 40 minutes away. Things have changed and I’ll admit, there have been good things in regards at least to the supplies we can buy now even if we still have to order everything for seniors from abroad. The first animal welfare conference was held a year into our work beginning in 2013 and the second one happened when we had just opened our clinic, the first nonprofit vet training project in the country at that point. There was hope then, but mostly because I was still following the rules of welfarist propaganda rather than being open about veganism and the need for anti-speciesist high impact projects.
I feel no hope now. While new animal rights social media pages have slowly started popping up to counter the nonsense welfare ideology that teaches that Meatless Mondays and ending dog meat somehow will affect the hundreds of millions of animals on land and in the sea murdered in Vietnam annually (part of 2.8 trillion globally), the welfare organizations with their “love some fluffy animals/who gives a fuck about the other animals” mentality has swept the nation and this is beyond anything our tiny organization can change. To change this will not be from a fake blonde, middle aged, over educated, badly burned out American with $14 in her personal checking account. I am not interested in being a pariah who fights against all reason to get the public to see that we cannot both love and kill animals. Even with $1mil in the bank, we can’t do jack shit while trying to just get the basic care our sanctuary animals need here. The day to day life involves being in a beautiful (if not overdeveloped and extremely noisy) and historic area with the best vegan food on the planet, but is a nonstop shit show of hustling to survive, having no time off, no moment without a phone attached to me waiting for the next crisis, and an endless process of recruiting predominantly lazy and unqualified people with very little interest in being reliable and committed to a mission that is emotionally draining, physically hard, and will hurt like fuck to live through for too long. I have no real social or personal life outside the 2 hours I whoop my own ass at the gym in hopes of quieting the anger that steeps in someone working their ass off for a futile cause. The idea of ever having a savings account makes me belly laugh out loud. In nine and half years, not once have I taken a salary like the other staff. I eat when we can afford for me to eat. I buy shoes and clothes when we can afford for me to have them. I have health insurance only because my mom likes the tax write off. I have busted my ass for nearly a decade for a concept that works only on paper but is a waking nightmare to live through every day as we try to address the endless preventable suffering in Vietnam and globally with a morally consistent message that is just not being heard.
I look at others we work with who have been stuck in this horrible industry of rescue and sanctuary work for a while and I look at how they age and emotionally deteriorate. I watch how they hide their anguish, frustration, and straight up anger against the forces in society that they, too, are unable to fix or even affect in countries around the globe. Those of us working in sanctuaries and rescue full time are forced to make things cute on social media to entertain the masses of people scrolling through our posts for 2.3 seconds while taking their morning shit with their phone in hand. When we speak in big, adult words that acknowledge the difficulties and the frustration, we are ignored and even chided for spreading negative “vibes” and the moment I tell them as “politely” as possible to go fuck themselves unless they can last a goddamn hour in my shoes, I am blocked (usually rightly so….). This work would be isolating, devastating, and frustrating even in my own country and even in a situation where I was surrounded by people who speak my language and understand at least a bit of what I am trying to do. Here, it is more like living out the life of Tom Hanks’ character in “Castaway”. To be anti-speciesist as a rescuer is incredibly lonely and to do this in Vietnam is more like living alone in Siberia than being surrounded by happy vacationers and friendly locals who think I am an extremist for caring for all species. It is not sustainable as a profession when most days you would rather be dead than do your job and the only thing keeping you alive is the knowledge that no one else would take care of these animals if I committed suicide.
The best laid plans…
The business plan we have now is the most beautiful file we have. It lays out a plan to continue to promote veganism through vegan festivals and online through education about the detrimental effects of speciesism. It plans on a mobile veterinary clinic staffed by 2 international and 2 Vietnamese vets all working to sterilize and vaccinate and provide some basic veterinary care for animals in rural areas that do not have any access or funds to good veterinary care. They will be on the road throughout central Vietnam for 40 weeks a year working to reduce the population of animals breeding uncontrolled and spreading debilitating and deadly infectious diseases without end. The local vet staff will be learning to perform clean and properly sedated surgeries that were never taught or practiced in veterinary universities. They will learn modern veterinary medicine on par with any country with far greater developed vet science and public health systems and they will learn in addition to all of this that ALL species matter and are not to be used or exploited for human gain. Dogs, sea turtles, snakes and chickens will all just be patients. Without teaching vets that speciesism is detrimental to ALL life on this planet in addition to the veterinary industry, global food security, public health, and climate change, we are pissing on a forest fire. Vets should work for animals, not for the continued enslavement, torture, and murder of trillions of animals every year. This is what we stand for firmly and without wavering for the approval of the masses of animal abusing, “animal loving”, non-vegans who slit throats of some animals and buy sweaters for other animals who live on their couches.
On paper, it is brilliant. We have the science on our side as well. The overwhelming evidence for decades is that the uncontrolled breeding of domesticated animals (farmed and pets) is detrimental for animal rights and for public health, and that climate change is real and cannot be stopped with the continuation of animal agriculture and the fishing industry. Our food system is broken for the animals, humans, and the planet and we are not in any way hiding that in our messaging unlike welfare organizations that sell cage free, free range bullshit to dog loving meat eaters. I also know from a decade of experience on the ground in rescue in Vietnam that sheltering any species of pets or farmed animals on its own is like slapping a BandAid on bone cancer. It doesn’t even begin to touch the problems we seek to address.
The baseline messaging for animal rescues globally is telling people to save dogs while eating whatever the fuck else they want and it is just asinine, morally inconsistent, and financially profitable rubbish while doing nothing to actually help animals. We have this business plan to avoid this illogical messaging which is built from experience, from floods of blood, sweat, and tears. Our future plans have been designed through reading the most current literature on the food system and animal rights, attending and speaking at conferences, and interacting with people not locked in a shelter in a small town in Southeast Asia. The mission was built of labor and heartache and loss after loss, year after year of hustling to stay afloat and having so little power to make real change regardless of the amount of work we have done, the time we do not have for our own self care, and the total lack of support from the dog loving, animal eaters of the rescue world here in Vietnam and abroad.
Good help is hard to find
The entire brilliant plan is a money pit with no end, however, and we have no revenue source that we can count on. In this global economy and as a nonprofit exclusively, we just cannot keep the ball rolling in a meaningful way to help more animals. While money is among the most difficult to acquire resources in an anti-speciesist animal organization, this whole experience here as a foreign organization is as colonial as it gets. Human resources are just as hard to get and keep than any currency we try to get into our accounts, and as an organization that treats this work as a career rather than a volunteer vacation or hobby, we also have to come up with the cash for these human resources to survive.
The White Saviorism that represents the majority of development work globally is just not doing what we hoped it would and that rings true in animal rescue as well as in other sectors. For onsite staff, we do not hire inexperienced animal caretakers or vets of any nationality, a prerequisite that is based on having watching over 150 people come and go as staff and volunteers in the past decade and having evidence that 80% were more of a liability than an asset due to their lack of experience. Animal care is NOT unskilled labor. In Vietnam unfortunately, this means there is almost no chance of getting a local with the experience to take care of our rescues to the standards we hold that prevent infectious disease outbreaks and address the enrichment and behavioral needs of each individual in our care. They simply have not had any positive interaction with animals in a supervised, professional animal caretaking setting that is not a hoarding facility riddled with disease outbreaks and unsterilized animals breeding like wild rabbits. I have been called racist plenty of times for not hiring Vietnamese caretakers after horrible experiences with local rescues, staff, and volunteers. However, the reality is that I do not take inexperienced Norwegians, Germans, or Aussies either. I am extremely reluctant to hire any Americans at all regardless of experience. As an American myself, now an expat for 17 years, I can tell you that our self-righteousness and patriotism/nationalism is counterproductive to being useful in any way outside our home country. It takes many years after escaping the mothership to work out that we are not the center of the universe and that our culture and politics are nothing we should be importing. I can’t stand even being in the room with almost anyone under the age of 30 at this point because I have had it up to my fucking eye balls of selfie-taking, entitled little shits with no work ethic who can neither spell nor understand the word “commitment” worth a damn. If I am racist against Vietnamese in our shelter staff hiring practice, I am even more discriminatory towards my own nationality and basically anyone born in the 90s and later because they simply are not hard working and experienced in the care of animals. Period. Being a good animal caretaker and a reliable employee takes TIME, not a well-crafted CV and the right passport. Sadly, by the time someone has that experience and work ethic, they are not willing to work for $500 a month plus accommodations which is all we can even offer now (still the highest paying rescue in the country!). As people get good at this work, they want a life with a home and vehicle and health care, not a noisy shelter, nonstop sweat, and the inability to save money.
We do not have the time to babysit and micromanage staff, so unfortunately what ends up happening is that all our caretakers are not locals, do not speak Vietnamese, and are just living and working in an island of happy sanctuary for animals living at a far higher standard of care than any outside our gates. What exactly can an organization in Vietnam made almost exclusively of foreign caretakers do for creating change within Vietnamese society? Nothing. Not a damn thing. We are not heroes or saviors of any kind. We are just trying to take good care of the rescues and ensure they live long, loved lives with top quality vet care and food in safe surroundings and unfortunately that limits our interaction with local people. This is not development by any stretch of the imagination. This is just providing vital sanctuary for those with nowhere else to go- on its own still a great cause though.
Sanctuary on its own is not development
Without having the capital-intensive veterinary training project which is all about engagement with the community and training in modern veterinary medicine for local vets, we are just an island of happy and well-cared for animals with a bunch of white faces. The financial needs of a veterinary project far exceed the itty bitty funds we scrape by on, so let’s be real now. The project is not completing the mission we set out to accomplish. We cannot continue to sell the idea to people incapable of understanding or caring about the need for a nationwide overhaul of the veterinary industry through continuing education, international exchanges, and a ton of international coordination that goes on for years and years, not weeks here and there as some vet organizations do in the name of media/fundraising-friendly “training and development”. We also cannot change a culture, society, economy, and political system we are not a part of.
By no fault of their own, very few Vietnamese even see animal rights as an issue. In my experience, this is because most have almost no concept of the international definition of human rights either because of their experience without them for their entire lifetimes in a locked down, censored, and extremely oppressive Vietnamese regime. We live in a country in which rule of law is weak and social mores, family ties, and tradition are more important than legislative measures anyway. Just like any development sector, to create change, the local people must acknowledge that there is a problem that requires change. This must be organic, not imposed by colonial powers in the form of international animal welfare organizations led by foreigners with no language skills or cultural understanding here. Even after 10 years here, I am still an outsider working with other outsiders who know even less about the country. I am the child of a Marine officer and CIA agent whose full time job was to kill people who I have lived among for a quarter of my life now. But I understand now that I will never really be part of this and I will never create the change I would have wanted to as an American regardless of my family’s past. Had I been able to acquire the funds for veterinary training projects and vegan festivals, perhaps things would have been different, but I refuse to ignore that some things are just not meant to be.
Locally grown animal advocacy has also failed
In a non-confrontational culture that is ruled by a government of fear, one that has a tight grip on freedom of speech, to even start this conversation within Vietnamese society about animal rights is complicated and as a foreign organization we would need to be part of the conversation in a way we cannot as a rescue/sanctuary alone as we bust our asses on the ground day in and day out. Like any country, there are many Vietnamese people who “love” animals no differently than where our foreign staff are from and the idea of treating them better in general is organic and not imposed. But globally we still have failed as a species to understand that loving animals isn’t real love if you think one can pet dogs and stab pigs without breaching any moral hard line. That is not a Vietnamese issue, but a global failure sold by the animal advocacy industry. The animal welfare industry in particular has been propped up by foreign entities here that sell welfarism and its speciesist baseline to include the most batshit insane aspects of animal advocacy such as cage free campaigns and high welfare farming systems which are so popular in the West and still just as ineffective for the animals themselves. Even organizations made of young people calling themselves vegan and animal rights activists have bought into this for the financial gain from the ample grants available for such useless campaigns that do nothing more than waste money and time on promoting the continuation rather than the replacement of animal agriculture. Veganism remains a dirty word in animal rescue and animal advocacy and very little will change that from our work.
For ten years the mission to end preventable suffering and death has been noble yet ineffective except for on the tiniest scale at the highest price. This price has not only been monetary, but emotional. No one could get through this work unscathed mentally. It breaks you in every way possible and physically now I am not able to continue most of the work either. We can do better for the animals. This sanctuary in Hoi An alone is not how we will do it though. We have to do better for the animals, but also for the people who keep these animals alive and well. They, too, are important and deserve to have time off and financial stability.
The struggle has to end eventually, but for a while it will go on as usual in that we are caring for the animals we have, not taking more, and continuing to seek funding for the animals that we have already promised a great life to. We are working on getting as many adoptions as possible and moving to a smaller but better suited property for our new plan. I’d love to get as many adoptable animals out of the country as we can. In the next 5 years, we will likely have only a handful of animals left alive as they are all already aging and those who were not yet adopted will be in their mid-teens in 2027 if they live that long in these low vet resource conditions. As I am eventually able to have outside income to pay for their care, the organization will eventually just be a private sanctuary. Those still not adopted will remain with me and adored as usual through the end of their lives, but we are not taking more animals.
If the welfarists and anti-dog/cat meat pig organizations want this endless, extremely expensive and human/veterinary resources intensive work, they can fucking have it. No one can say I did not work my tits off year after year and sacrifice all I had for this mission even if it was publicly unpopular and financially a disaster. I will not fight the morally bankrupt, puppy lover/animal eating, climate change denier, speciesist, anti-vegans for a job I hate which has taken everything from me and left me in the middle of my life with nothing to show for it. I am walking away as director ASAP with a TON of knowledge about how shelters and speciesism in animal advocacy are not solving the problem of ending animal suffering in Vietnam or globally.
I do not know what the next step is for me
Aside from the idea that I will one day be able to turn off my phone, I would like to think one day my future will involve more than 2 digits in my checking account. For now, being able to attend a few conferences this fall season would be a big help in getting an idea of the next steps that will help me provide the finances the animals need and a life for me that doesn’t make me scream into my pillow every morning when I wake up at 4:30am to start a day with little to look forward to aside from pig snout kisses and kitty tummy rubs in between nonstop errands, vet trips, and staring at a nearly empty bank statement wondering how I’ll get through the week. I am not required to know what to do now. I do not owe anyone an explanation for that either. I sure as fuck deserve a goddamn minute to work that out though without feeling ashamed for being utterly fed up and ready to move on after an extremely difficult decade fighting an unwinnable battle. Farm transitions, animal law work, writing, speaking, agricultural waste product R&D, seaweed farming, and vegan product distribution businesses are all on the table. I’d kill to return to my PhD, too. No matter what, I will ensure above all else that the animals we have are going to live the best life possible with me, staff, and a few in new homes far, far away from here.
Pissing up a rope is just no longer on the agenda.