39-year-old Veterinarian Dr Nguyen Van Nghia has dedicated his life to animal welfare, turning what began as a childhood hobby into a career. “When I was young,” he says, “I tried to help baby birds that had fallen from trees. They would often die, but now I recognise what I was doing wrong.”
After studying animal sciences at the Ho Chi Minh City University of Agriculture and Forestry, he turned his attention towards small animal medicine, eventually receiving a scholarship to study at the prestigious University of Bristol’s school of clinical veterinary medicine in the UK.
He returned to Vietnam in 2008 and established the Saigon Pet Clinic in Thao Dien.
Dr Nghia starts his day early. Waking at 5.30am, he tends to his nine cats before heading out for a jog with his dog, Lexus. Work begins at 6.30am when he arrives at the clinic and starts preparing for the day ahead. A staff meeting is held at 7am to discuss the day’s schedule and any special cases or procedures that will be taking place, and whether any emergency calls were taken overnight. He also receives an update on the condition of any animals in intensive care or those waiting to be re-housed in the adjoining Animal Rescue Centre (ARC).
For many pet owners, their once loveable bundles of fur can become a financial burden too great to bear as food and vet bills rack up. In the case of expats planning a relocation, the cost of shipping their creatures has, for Dr Nghia, become another excuse for people to abandon their pets, although he works closely with airlines and foreign authorities to try prevent this. “When you adopt an animal,” he says, “please adopt them. I don’t want them to suffer again. You have them for life.”
One of his proudest achievements was the rehoming of a husky named Sam. At just four-months-old, Sam was imported from Alaska by a wealthy Vietnamese family. Of course, Alaska and Saigon are two very different places and soon the tropical climate was beginning to cause severe skin conditions and infections. The dog’s first owners abandoned him at the clinic and although a second family later adopted him, the clinic’s treatments proved to be unsuccessful. “The real treatment was to send the dog back to Alaska,” says Dr Nghia.
With a Vietnamese stamp in Sam’s canine passport, US animal regulations wouldn’t allow him to return for fear of disease. With the help of a Canadian expat living in Saigon, along with a string of volunteers and donations, Sam was flown to Vancouver where his treatment could continue in a far more hospitable climate.
Dr Nghia’s devotion to animals has become well-known in his community; he points to a box of kittens that has been left on the clinic’s doorstep overnight. “It’s not right,” he says. “If I take a group of kittens, three months later, another group will come. You have to neuter the mother.”
At 7.30am, consultations and the daily parade of sick and injured animals begin. If a surgical procedure is scheduled, Dr Nghia will focus all of his attention on the task. “I prefer to do surgery in the morning or the evening. At that time it’s very quiet,” he says, adding that he encourages owners to ask any questions the day before. “On the day of the procedure, I want to be mindful, to just concentrate on the animals.”
After lunch, consultations continue unless he has arranged a school or orphanage visit when he will take a few of ARC’s cats and dogs along to teach young children how to properly respect and care for them. “We need to educate the younger generations. That is one of our jobs at ARC. I don’t need to teach adults; they learn from their kids.”
At around 5.30pm he’ll head home to begin researching and studying, or preparing lectures and marking assignments as part of his ongoing role at the agricultural university. “People say I’m a crazy man, but I’m not sure. My whole day is for the animals.”
For more complex surgical procedures, he will return to the clinic at around 7.30pm when the building and the telephones are quiet. Depending on the rotation of his shifts, he’ll then either go home for some much-needed rest, or stay on-call in the clinic until the following morning to deal with emergencies and watch-over the dozens of cats and dogs housed in the ARC accommodation facility. The newly-arrived kittens, for example, will require hand-feeding every three hours.
“There’s always something to do,” he says. “I’m busy but I’m a very happy man. I love my job very much. I just want to make things better for animals.”