What was initially supposed to be a three-week vacation from her work turned out to be a two and a half year commitment for 28-year-old British vet Dr. Janey Lowes.
She was confronted by dogs, a lot of them. Having travelled extensively, Janey was used to street dogs and surprised by the numbers in Sri Lanka. “Sri Lanka was on my list of places I wanted to visit. I first thought I’d just come here for a break from work and volunteer for another charity,” recalled Janey.
She ended setting up her own charity. It worked out well because Janey was in her element. Of course, having a few vet friends didn’t hurt. Westway Veterinary Group in Newcastle donated around £10,000 to help Janey, set up the charity, WECare Worldwide. And what started as a small individual venture has now grown to a fully-fledged charity. Janey received a Point of Light award in 2016 last year for her volunteer work, prompting the then British Prime Minister David Cameron to praise her ‘true compassion’ according to the Chronicle Live. In 2016 Janey won the Vet of the Year at the UK Daily Mirror Animal Heroes Awards.
“People always ask me why I chose this field and I don’t really have an answer. It was always just what I was going to do,” says Janey who is from a farming community. “Everybody lived on farms and I’ve always been around animals”. So it was only natural for Janey to become a vet.
“I absolutely love my job”, she declared.
Speaking on funding issues Janey had nothing to hide. “I’ve got a lot of debt now,” she said laughing. “But late last year I really started to panic thinking that I might have to give this up because of the lack of funds.”
Janey reveals that on neutering days they put up to 70 dogs under the knife. It’s free of charge for any local who would want to get their dog neutered. But then nothing is free. Janey reveals that it costs approximately Rs 300,000 to neuter 70 dogs. In the two and half years Janey has been here she and her team has neutered thousands of dogs and nursed back to health thousands more.
She is just about covering costs now through her charity’s fundraising events in the UK. Her friends in the veterinary field send drugs and other essential items that keep the programme running. Since the BBC ran her story, WECare has received a lot of donations and equipment. Some Sri Lankan companies have also offered donations.
Based in Talalla, Janey says that she feels settled here in Sri Lanka and hardly gets homesick anymore. In fact, the community has received this vet from Barnard Castle, County Durham with open arms. “Their first impression was something like who’s this white girl playing with all the dogs. They used to laugh at me a little bit, but now they understand what we’re doing and why it’s important”, she said.
“Sri Lanka is home for me now,” says Janey. “All the villagers are really nice and my neighbours look after me really well.”
Talalla is a small village and few of its inhabitants are conversant in the English language. But Janey has been quick to pick up the local lingo. “I can speak enough Sinhala to get by,” says Janey.
When asked how the whole concept of neutering was received by locals Janey said that people were initially very cautious. “Some were reluctant to neuter their dogs because of Chinese whispers about surgeries gone wrong. But when they saw how we monitored the dogs and saw how they recovered fully, they came around”, she explained.
Talalla, where she’s based, being a predominantly Buddhist community was not very welcoming of the neutering. But Janey revealed that 60 per cent of the puppies born on the streets suffer and die before they reach the age of six months. So the WECare team used the argument of bad Karma to popularize the concept of neutering, arguing that by neutering they are actually preventing suffering.
“People think that we’re trying to get rid of street dogs by neutering them. That’s not what we’re trying to do”, she said and admitted that street dogs are a part of Sri Lanka.
“I would not want to live in Sri Lanka if there weren’t any street dogs”, she declared.
Seventy per cent is the magic number according to Janey. “We are trying to neuter 70 per cent to make sure that the populations are reducing. It’s about having a reduced population that makes it healthy and rabies-free”, she said.
In the two and a half years since she started, Janey’s work has seen a considerable reduction of street dogs and especially the number of puppies dumped on the street. But for her the biggest achievement is seeing a marked difference in the way people treat the dogs.
Janey usually makes a show of herself, kissing and cuddling dogs, to convince the locals that there is nothing wrong with showing a little love to street dogs. “People are more accepting of dogs now,” says Janey, with a hint of pride in her voice.
But a little love might also give you rabies, right? Janey, although she can totally relate to the locals’ fear of rabies, dismisses it saying that in her two and half years of working in Talalla, she has not seen a single case of the dreaded disease.
“Anyone who’s bitten by a dog should get their (injection) shots because rabies is fatal. But a street dog will rarely bite you unprovoked and I provoke them all the time. In the two and a half years of picking up street dogs, poking them in the ear and doing all the things that annoy them, Janey has only been bitten once. This was when Janey was changing the bandages of a dog with a broken limb. “It was obviously in a lot of pain,” said a passive Janey.
In her work Janey sees a lot of injuries and diseases at very advanced stages. “Some of the dogs had been injured or sick a long time and nobody knew who to call and consequently no vet had been informed. By the time we get to know about them they are really tough to treat”, revealed Janey.
The area Janey currently resides in is not the most affluent of areas. “You can’t expect people who struggle without money to feed their kids, to pay for veterinary services. Consequently one of our goals is getting our name out there so that people know who to contact”, said Janey.
When asked whether any state or local organization has stepped in to help them, Janey reluctantly answered in the negative. “We get a lot of support from the local PHIs (Public Health Inspectors) and the local government vets are great as well. We all try to work together, learn from each other. On an individual basis they are very supportive. But we haven’t received any support from a state institution”, said Janey.
“There are a lot of charities here working towards a common goal. We can work with the local vets and the local government to make the country rabies-free.”
Janey and the WECare team welcome any donations. Anyone interested can visit their site: http://wecareworldwide.org.uk/who-we-are/