Street dogs of Sri Lanka given a fighting chance
Twiglet, Lucky, Woody, Dobbie and even Bum-hole Bart are lolloping about with dopey grins on their faces - as dogs do the world over when they're healthy, happy and well-loved.
But these five are especially fortunate. They're among the 7000 street dogs - out of an estimated three million in Sri Lanka - that have been subject to the expert attention of the WECare animal hospital in the south coast village of Talalla.
While waiting there for adoption they are neutered, vaccinated, de-wormed and patched up for the thousand and one shocks their flesh is heir to on the island's roads and alleyways.
Some of them have been to hell and back, says the hospital's founder, British veterinary surgeon Janey Lowes.
There are an estimated 26,000 traffic accidents a year involving dogs, leaving many injured and in pain, but they can have everything from rabies to maggot wounds, distemper, broken limbs, skin diseases, wounds from wild boar attacks and venereal tumours.
Janey and her team stitch them up, get them functioning again and, more often than not, return them to their patch of street where they are, she says, very happy.
"They love their life: they are free and pretty much every dog has a food source - which is one of the joys of living in a Buddhist country,” she says. "The people are so generous. They will give food to all the dogs at the end of the day.”
Their staple diet is the same as the human population's - rice and curry: they turn their noses up at commercial pet food, Janey says.
It's the domesticated dogs she feels sorry for.
"The street dogs have freedom compared to 'owned' dogs here that people buy and keep chained up or caged for much of the day,” she says. "They have zero quality of life. If I were a dog I'd much rather be a street dog. The only thing that's missing is someone to take responsibility when they're sick or injured.”
The state of the animals is no reflection on local culture, Janey says. Sri Lankans are not cruel or negligent, but they face their own struggle to survive.
And in recent months they have had other things to worry about, she says.
"The Easter Sunday attacks left the whole country feeling a multitude of emotions but mostly we are all just overwhelmingly sad, plus a little dazed and confused,” she says.
"It would be wrong of us to worry about how it affects us at WECare, as so many families have lost their loved ones. So our focus is on continuing to be a part of the community in Sri Lanka and ensuring that we do our bit for anyone, human or animal, that needs support.”
Janey, now 30, arrived for a surfing holiday at the nearby Talalla Retreat five years ago and was shocked at the state of some of the animals. She felt the urge to do something, returned home, asked for a sabbatical from her country practice and made plans to be in Sri Lanka for a year, to neuter and vaccinate as many dogs as possible.
"The plan was to address the bigger picture, of population control,” she says. "But then my duty of care kicked in, because I hadn't realised quite how many dogs were sick and injured and quite how horrific this stuff was.
"I got this property because I had 13 dogs in my house and was operating on them at home. The hospital building was really cheap, and the only place that had four walls.”
After a video of her work went viral she got some more funding.
"Now, while this looks really basic, it's one of the best-equipped animal hospitals on the island, which is a scary thought,” she says.
Janey spent her early childhood on a beef and sheep farm and worked as a vet in Newcastle for three years before coming to Sri Lanka, where "it was like starting all over again”.
"It's been harrowing at times,” she says. "You have the craziest ups and downs. It's traumatic. Some of the things we see are just hideous. But we can't judge things by our Western ideas of what 'cared for' looks like.
"The extent of the cases is not something you'd ever see in the UK, where you get quite comfy, and feel competent and confident in your decisions. Here it's a different story.”
Her professional evolution has meant life-and-death decisions have become less hasty.
"I'm more ready to see what's possible when you give things a shot,” she says. "I realise that dogs are a lot more resilient than we give them credit for.
"Here I'm really inclined to give them a second chance. They're such little fighters. It's tough on the street sometimes and if they have got to this point, who am I to say it's their time?”
Although the hospital always needs money to keep going, paradoxically, she is more free to make clinical decisions than in the UK. An operation in the West could cost thousands, and the owners might baulk at the expense. But in the Sri Lanka hospital all that is needed is anaesthetic and suture material - the surgeon's time comes free.
"Here it's really just about what is in the dog's interests. It's quite freeing, really,” Janey says. "It's not a case of saving every dog but of being able to provide some quality of life for them ... It's not that we have to think of putting them to sleep, but of re-homing, with a family, or even keeping them here and under sponsorship - which we don't do very often.”
WECare Worldwide has 17 staff, one in the UK and several working full-time at Talalla, some of whom have given up high-paying jobs in the West to work for Sri Lankan salaries. Several local people are being trained, and a Sri Lankan vet provides good support.
The hospital receives sponsorship in the form of equipment from veterinary companies and from many Sri Lankans "because people love what we do”, but most donations come from holidaymakers who have visited and seen what they do first-hand.
The nearby Talalla Retreat is owned by Byron Bay businessman Laurie Rose, who was an early trustee of the WECare charity. The resort and its well-being and yoga affiliates continue to support the hospital with a percentage of their income, and by suggesting guests visit and see what they do.
"The staff at Talalla are just incredible. They're gold,” Janey says. "They get that people can have a holiday and give back to the community as well.”
She wakes up content every day, "very much knowing that this is my place on the planet”, but also aware that there's always more to do. On challenging days she surfs, to burn off the stress.
For information about donating to WECare, visit www.wecareworldwide.org.uk/donate.