Turning her passion for all things furry into a pioneering project, Animal Mama, aimed at tackling Cambodia’s stray animals, Yulia Khouri is gearing up to launch a series of schemes to rid the country of rabies, clear the streets of strays and boost offerings for the country’s pets. Words by Marissa Carruthers; photography by Lucas Veuve.

The excited scrabble of dogs can be heard outside, cats lounge on the sofas and the squawk of birds cry out in the background. This isn’t a zoo, it’s Animal Mama’s headquarters and owner Yulia Khouri’s home.

Here four parrots, five dogs saved from the slaughterhouse, a further four pups and more than 20 cats – and counting – have been given a new lease of life after being rescued from the clutches of cruelty, or offered shelter off the streets.

Harbouring a lifelong passion for animals, Khouri was shocked by the swathe of stray animals that dominate Cambodia’s streets when she relocated to the country almost seven years ago. Having helped a steady string of strays, vaccinating, desexing and rehoming hundreds of animals, the vet bills started spiralling out of control.

“We were running out of money and couldn’t afford to do any more rescues so we decided to invest,” says Khouri, who in March launched animal welfare centre, Animal Mama, with the aim of rehoming, educating, eradicating disease and raising standards in veterinary services throughout the Kingdom.

Starting life as a day care and boarding centre, with profits being ploughed back into the rescue, adoption and care arm of operations, Animal Mama quickly evolved as Khouri realised the complexity of the country’s, and pet owners’, needs.

“The money we were spending on vets was ridiculous,” she says. “So we decided to build a vet clinic instead, and it has carried on from there.”

Animal Care

Slated to open next month, the state-of-the-art clinic, which is partly sponsored and being built by Advance Cambodia, includes an array of facilities, . The sparkling clinic, set in a renovated villa, contains X-ray and ultrasound machines, an oxygen chamber, a lab to carry out skin tests, grafts and blood tests, quarantine centre, pre-screening room to prevent the spread of infection, two consultation rooms and an operating and post-op room.

“The clinic will make a big difference because this is where the education begins,” says Khouri, adding it will operate on a 24/7 emergency basis. Staff will also dedicate one day a week to carry out free work in the community, such as a mobile clinic for vaccinations and collecting street animals to desex and vaccinate them.

In a bid to raise standards across the country, Animal Mama will work with the Ministry of Agriculture to offer veterinary school graduates six- to 12-month residencies at the clinic. An exchange programme with students from Norway is also being mooted.

“This will lead to a lot of sharing ideas,” Khouri says. “This is very important to continue to grow capacity and knowledge as medical personnel.”

War on Rabies

Tackling public health issues related to stray animals is also top of Animal Mama’s agenda – particularly rabies, which is often transmitted through saliva from infected dog bites.

With the deadly virus killing more Cambodians annually than malaria and dengue fever – an estimated 800 rabies-related deaths a year, according to figures from the Pasteur Institute – Animal Mama is in talks with the National Institute of Public Health to launch a nationwide Rabies Vaccination Pilot Project to vaccinate at risk humans and animals. The ultimate aim is to eradicate rabies from the Kingdom.

“Rabies is a huge problem, and is preventable,” says Khouri. The scheme will see at risk areas selected, with pre-screening and awareness carried out within communities. A total of 70 percent of strays in that area will be vaccinated and microchipped, with details entered into a central database.

An international microchip code for Cambodia has already been secured, and Animal Mama is working with the Ministry of Health, pharmacies and pharmaceutical distributers to launch a scheme to ensure post-bite rabies shots are readily available across the country.

“Cambodia is one of the number one countries for rabies deaths diagnosed post-mortem. This is scary because when we look at Sihanoukville, where there are a lot of rabies deaths, there are no post-bite rabies shots.”

Retirement Centre

Animal Mama’s third ambitious arm is to create a retirement centre for ex-working dogs. The seed was planted after Khouri was contacted about retired demining dog Muriel, who needed rehoming. With landmine detection dogs working across Cambodia to clear the country of the many remaining explosives, the options when they retire are slim.

“They are specialised dogs,” says Khouri. “They have been trained since six-months-old and become attached to their handlers because of the amount of trust involved. When they retire they either have to be put down if they are highly strung or rehomed, but that isn’t easy.”

A fundraising drive to create the country’s first retirement home for working dogs is underway, with experts who work with canine units in Israel expected to share their expertise once the kennels are complete. The centre will also work as a tool to educate the public on the vital work the dogs do. To help fund the project, Khouri plans on creating a puppy-training centre. “All of these projects need to be self-sustainable because we don’t want to keep on begging,” she says.

Throw into the mix the educational work Animal Mama is doing with pet shops across the country and dog slaughterhouses, and there are high hopes that care for pets and strays will step up a notch in the future.

For more information, follow Animal Mama on Facebook or visit animal-mama.com.