Paws for thought
A nation of exotic beaches, lush jungles and timeless ruins, Sri Lanka’s alluring charms draw countless visitors to its shores to experience a slice of tropical life. But underneath the natural beauty, there is another striking sight – millions of roaming street dogs. It’s a heart-breaking scene but most people feel powerless to help. Not Dr Janey Lowes (Veterinary Medicine and Science, 2012). After a backpacking trip opened her eyes to the plight of these animals, trained vet Janey determined to use her expertise to treat Sri Lanka’s street dogs, establishing animal welfare charity WECare Worldwide. From humble beginnings, using her own skills and a local volunteer to tend to animals in the street, Janey now manages a team of veterinary surgeons, nurses and volunteers, with ambitions well beyond the shores of Sri Lanka. Receiving one of the University’s prestigious Alumni Laureate Awards in 2017, this inspirational young vet explains why she is passionate about saving lives one paw at a time…
“I’ve always been an animal lover. I decided to study veterinary medicine when I was around 13. I always knew I wanted to work with animals in some way.
“After I graduated from Nottingham, I worked as a vet in the UK, but there’s a fairly high level of demoralisation in the industry at the moment. While I loved my job, I didn’t want to start hating it, so I took a break and travelled to Sri Lanka. Seeing all of the street dogs in Sri Lanka, with no options, was heart-breaking. A lot of people come back from Sri Lanka and say, “it’s awful to see all the dogs and I feel so helpless”, but I felt I couldn’t say that because I can help them. When I got back to the UK, my plan was to return to Sri Lanka to help neuter the dogs and then return home. And then it all just snowballed from there!”
One of the best moments for me was when I saw a little boy kiss a street dog on the nose – it showed me we can make a difference
“It’s been a real challenge, the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. One of the biggest obstacles is changing the perceptions of street dogs within the local communities. There was a lot of scepticism when we started – I’ve got Sri Lankan friends who said, “you’ll never change their views”. We’ve probably not changed 50% of them, but a lot of people are more open to caring for the dogs now. We go really over the top in showing affection to the dogs – we run up to them and kiss and cuddle them, to show everyone that we’re not going to die because we touched a street dog. There’s such fear of them but they’re lovely animals.
“One of the best moments for me was when I saw a little boy kiss a street dog on the nose. One of our local volunteers was with me at the time and said, “I’ve never seen anyone do that in 32 years of living here”. That was a real moment that showed me we can make a difference. Education is a real priority. We’re trying to work with the local government to go into schools on a weekly basis to teach children about responsible animal ownership, but we also want to target adults because the elders are the bosses in the communities. Sri Lankan veterinary standards are a little lower than the UK so we’re also working closely with local vets to try and change this. I’m fortunate that I’ve received the education I have from Nottingham and I feel that I should be taking that knowledge and sharing it with others.
“We’re an animal welfare charity, but I also see us as a veterinary charity. I want to improve veterinary standards across the globe because otherwise our work isn’t sustainable. We’re helping dogs in Sri Lanka now, but who’s going to continue this work in the future? So we have to teach and build up local knowledge. I’d like to have centres of excellence dotted over Asia and Africa to improve standards, aiming towards a global standard of care, not just national standards. It’s a bit of a dream – but then I never thought we’d get as far as we have, so I want to aim high.”
“Working abroad is awesome and builds character but there have been tough moments. I think an outsider looking in would see the animals as the most challenging part, but that’s where we shine because it’s our area of expertise. Navigating local customs and the political environment has been more difficult. Being a woman, and a white woman, has been interesting. You’d never see a female vet in Sri Lanka walking around the streets to touch a dog, so we do get quite a lot of attention, especially in the villages where people aren’t used to seeing independent women. People underestimate us – but that can be the same in the UK too, especially for female farm or equine vets.
I'm fortunate that I've received the education I have from Nottingham and feel I should share that knowledge with others
“Being in Sri Lanka has really taught me to think on my feet and have confidence in my skills and decision-making. I worried that my skills would stall compared to my peers in the UK, but I’ve actually progressed much more quickly in Sri Lanka because I’m seeing emergency cases almost every day. One of my first cases here was a huge learning curve. A street dog had been attacked by a wild boar and it broke her back leg, front leg, tail and left her with puncture wounds everywhere. The locals wouldn’t let me put her to sleep because of their religion but I didn’t think I could do anything to help her. I emailed three specialist orthopaedic surgeons who agreed there wasn’t much I could do to save her. I decided to take off the back leg and try my best to save the front leg – I stayed up with her for six weeks, giving antibiotics through the night, and she pulled through. It made me question the practices we have in the UK when we have to put animals to sleep because people can’t afford the treatments. I realised how resilient these animals are – Belle is such a softie and now lives with me in Sri Lanka!”
“I really love what I do. I think the thing that I enjoy the most, although it sounds cheesy, is that I’m making a difference. I’m lucky that I’ve found the path that works for me – every day I have a purpose to what I’m doing. And I’ve got that constant reminder every time I go out of my front door and see dogs on the street. It’s much bigger than me and that’s humbling. I reached a turning point about a year ago when things got tough – I could either go home or carry on. I’m so proud of what I’ve achieved by carrying on. We need to continue to share the love for these animals and educate the next generation to care for them too. You just have to look at the dogs to remind you why you’re doing this.”
Discover more about WECare Worldwide, Janey’s inspirational work and how you can get involved online.