Rescue World Crazies: We can’t save them all

by Catherine Besch, Founder and Director Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue

One of the many babies rescued at the VAAR shelter, now adopted

If you are a tourist passing through Vietnam, or any country for that matter, and you find an animal that needs help, or at least you think it needs help because it is not in a perfect home that you envision, keep in mind that NO shelter has the ability to take in the hundreds of animals we are requested to take every month. We do not own an island to put all the kittens we are asked to take, and not all dogs you seen on chains are going to find space at our shelter with very strict capacity limits and quarantine rules. We do this for the sake of the animals we already have rescued. Their health and welfare is paramount. We take their care very seriously and will not jeopardize that for the sake of animals we do not have the resources to commit to.

If we were to take all the cats given to us from concerned tourists who feel any cat not in a home is in need of rescue, we also could not rehome most of them.  There is only a tiny number of homes locally that are actually responsible enough to keep a cat safe in a country in which cat theft, road accidents, and infectious disease take cats lives at a very young age.  We require indoor homes for our cats as a result, and now, due to the lack of competent vets regionally, we do not allow adoptions in central Vietnam where we know if anything happens, the animals we have worked so hard to rescue and keep safe and healthy are in serious peril at the hands of bumbling morons. We have learned this from years upon years of experience here watching suffering and death daily, not from waltzing through on a holiday to see a few beaches and temples.

The Island of Misfit Kittens

Saying “no” to an animal has always been pure torture for us. I know very well what “no” means. In this country, it very likely means death. It means another unsterilized, unvaccinated animal is out on the streets likely dying from whatever has happened to them with no one to care for them properly. I also know what “yes” means. I look at the “yes” animals every single day at the shelter and I know that saying “yes” saved their lives and has provided them with an existence that none of the animals outside our gates are lucky enough to have. The contrast is not lost on any of us working in this field. We know what it is like to save lives and let others die and it never gets easier. We break our hearts more often than we wash our hands. It comes with the territory.

If you think saying “no” is fun and that we feel nothing, we are always happy to take volunteers who can watch this process and see just what it is like to wake up year after year with no money to buy animal food, no time to take care of the many animals who need you, and no vets to take your animals to when they are in an emergency. Watch the suffering all around you on a daily basis with dogs on chains, kittens screaming in the markets, pigs barbecued on spits along the road, chickens tied and hanging by their feet on a motorbike on the way to the market. The majority of these things that our eyes are opened wide to are not fixable by us in our little shelter. We are a drop in the bucket and our bucket has no bottom. All of us in this work spread ourselves too thin as a habit. It is devastating to all of us and we still are pressured to take more and more. We cannot save them all. We are not heroes and we are not trust fund babies. We do not have the resources to be the saviors of all an even if we did, it would emotionally and physically kill us to try. We are doing the best we can with extremely limited resources and we must make unpopular decisions about who we are able to help. You are welcome to come live this life, but in my experience, there are not many who can. I would not wish this life on my worst enemy.

The Peanut Gallery

It is rare that I do not have a day where I regret being in an industry in which the forum for lunatics and haters is wide open and attacks are frequent.  Messages, emails, Facebook comments can be loaded with the weirdos of the world who feel like saying all kinds of things that they would never say to your face. This week specifically, one tourist from a 4-star hotel in town told me to come pick up an 8 week old kitten at a restaurant.  I told her as politely as my non-emoticon-laced language can muster that this was not a “rescue” as she insisted as there are thousands of kittens in town and this one is weaned and has a home.  If rescues took every kitten found by tourists in town, we’d be drowning in them by the end of a week. I know I speak for all rescues when I say this.  Just because a kitten is not in a fancy suburban home in California does not mean it is a rescue.  Ideally there would be no kittens on the road or in restaurants for people to find, but the chance of a mass sterilization project being implemented by any vets here is tiny.  We can’t take them all.  Stop getting mad at us when we cannot. When she told me that was a “shitty response” and that it’s good that we are closing because I am an awful person, I had some choice words for her.  Attack me, and I attack back.  No regrets there. For those who do not know me in person, I should mention I am a bit “scrappy”. My mom hates my potty mouth, but she doesn’t work in this industry and couldn’t possibly understand the necessity of throwing a few f-words around in a moment of anger. I didn’t manage to survive this madness running a shelter and clinic in animal hell because I am a pushover and take shit well. Being attacked by tourists for not taking a kitten has happened very, very frequently over the years, but since returning from a few months in Europe and realizing that NO ONE has to put up with this amount of psychotic crap daily from strangers except the lost luggage guy at Heathrow Airport, I will happily retaliate. It’s bad enough we cannot save them all without having to be brutally attacked for it by morons working on their tan and drinking mojitos under palm trees.


One thing that is really lacking in the rescue world, particularly in Vietnam where no laws exist regarding animal welfare in care facilities, is capacity LIMITS.  Hoarding is the standard here.  Most locally and foreign-run shelters, if they existed in the UK, would be subject to confiscations and criminal charges due to overcrowding and poor welfare standards.  This is not out of lack of caring, much like the vets who do not have higher standards of care, but because of being insanely overloaded and constantly asked to take more and more animals they have no space for. The number of animals per square meter is almost always exceeded and colony management is poor if they are in groups.  Controlling disease in group care is not easy and it takes a competent vet with experience in shelter medicine to enlighten some of these groups about the steps necessary to keep a colony healthy.  Frankly, we’d be lucky to get a vet who could read bloods and x-rays properly in our area, so obviously we are lacking in the shelter medicine department.

The animals kept alone in cages fare worse often, as they are stuck in these wire bottom boxes with usually little to no bedding, often no litter tray, and no enrichment or social interaction.  The stress levels of cats particularly can be quite high in poorly managed, overcrowded shelters.  We have worked hard to avoid this situation in our cat colony by topping our numbers at 20 in our indoor/outdoor cat enclosure, with the two other bedrooms being used for several cats who cannot get along with the other colony cats.  This separation is vital for those cats sanity and health, but as a result of these rooms being used by those “misfit” cats, we now have no space at all for quarantine.  Our shelter is not purpose built, but adapted slowly with construction over 5 years, so we do not have an appropriate quarantine facility which in this region, is vital.  Aside from the horrors of trying to run this financially and trying to keep the animals we have already fed, we simply cannot risk the lives of our other animals by botching a quarantine.  Although all our animals are vaccinated there are many viruses and bacterial contagions which are not covered by vaccines.  Again, without vets on staff or available locally, this is a risk we cannot afford to take. 

So if you have any interest in saving animals you see in Vietnam on your journey here, I commend you for your kindness, but do keep in mind that we are not in California.  We all have limits to our physical, financial and veterinary capacity which when overloaded, is a fucking nightmare. If you do not have to bury bodies before you go out to dinner every day, consider yourself lucky but be aware that for years this was a necessary task at our clinic that was overloaded with dying animals brought to us by concerned locals and tourists, few of which would donate a penny towards mass sterilization though. The language I use to describe this is very much appropriate in this context so no apologies are forthcoming.  I have personally worked my ass off to open this shelter and keep it running against odds few tourists passing through could fathom, and it would be lovely if a little less flak would be shoveled my direction.  Contrary to popular belief, I do not live the expat life with champagne on the beach every night and I do not make any money doing this beyond what I take to eat and put gas in my motorbike.  My credit card debt at this point exceeds what I make in a decade doing this.  Don’t even ask me about my 6-digit student loans.  I don’t take every kitten on the road because I simply cannot. Try not to judge me for that.

We have limits to our resources (financial, physical, human, and material) and in the best interest of the animals we have already rescued, these limits will not ever be flexible.  If you care about animals and you are still happy to shit on those who sacrifice everything to do all we can within our existing limits, then you are just an asshole and there is not much I can do to help you. Once upon a time I tried to save everyone, and now I am just happy that the hundreds we did are healthy and happy and we can keep food in their bowls even when mine is empty.