Rachel Wright on setting up an animal hospital in India
My empathy for animals was with me from the start. When I started school in Peterborough, our cat would follow me to school, sit on my teacher's chair and accompany me home afterwards. I rescued animals from a young age too, usually injured birds, and, when I was 16, I did work experience at a local vets and was asked to stay to work at weekends. I had found my vocation and went to the University of Bristol to do my veterinary nurse training, qualifying in 1994. Following qualification, I worked in a number of practices, including the Royal Veterinary College's animal hospital in Camden, where I taught practical skills to student vets and nurses.
Travel was another passion, and in 1997 I embarked on 8 years of volunteering with a variety of projects around the world, helping people and animals. I funded the trips by returning to London and doing locum work for as many hours as I could. The highlights of these trips included working on an art project with Aborigines in the Australian outback; setting up a new veterinary hospital for the Orangutan Foundation in Kalimantan, Borneo, and working for the India Project for Animals and Nature in Tamil Nadu, southern India, caring for rescue animals and doing village animal outreach work. I even volunteered at the Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand, taking care of rescued elephants.
Tree of Life for Animals Hospital
After years spent in developing countries I still felt unable to make a lasting difference to the animals. Then I had a ‘lightbulb moment’ – I had to open my own hospital. In 2004, I was shown a photograph of four dogs tied together to a wooden post and left in the desert to die. It was a common method of stray dog control in the local area and the decision about the location of my hospital was made. Before long, I had purchased some land and construction had started for the Tree of Life for Animals (TOLFA) Hospital in Kharekhari, a village in rural Rajasthan. We opened our doors on October 4, 2005, and it has grown steadily since then. 10 years on, the scale of our achievement can be measured in many ways, including animal rescue, rabies eradication, treatment of livestock, mobile health clinics, education and the fact that we employ around 50 local people. As of December 2015, we had:
- Admitted 22,542 animals to the hospital (and we offer lifelong shelter to animals that would be unable to survive on the streets)
- Neutered 17,913 dogs and vaccinated 21,587 against rabies
- Treated thousands of livestock for local farmers
- Set up a mobile health team that visits 24 villages, in addition to our pet owner clinics
- Taught more than 4000 children about the Five Freedoms, how to care for a pet animal and how to avoid being bitten by a dog
- Relishing the challenge of setting up a veterinary hospital
In the early days of setting up TOLFA, my role was, of course, very hands-on; these days it is more varied. I report to funding organisations, donors and trustees; I monitor our various projects and create new ones as funding allows. I also spend time with Indian visitors, government agencies and the media. Importantly, I make sure that I still spend at least some time helping out with treatments and discussing cases with our veterinary team or doing nurturing work. This is what I enjoy the most and I would go crazy if I couldn't spend at least some time doing it.
"I have thrown myself into a different culture, learning the different facets that make India so incredible, and I feel completely at home here"
We have faced many challenges along the way, which only redoubled my determination to succeed. Overall, however, the positives far outweigh the negatives and I have relished the challenge of setting up a veterinary hospital from scratch, taking the experience I have gained and putting it into practical application.
Life in India
At a personal level, I have thrown myself into a different culture, learning the different facets that make India so incredible, and I feel completely at home here. I am married to an Indian and we live in a traditional Indian extended family with our five-year-old daughter, Mahi.
What is most satisfying is that, with our help, the attitudes of local people towards animals are changing. More and more people call us when they see an animal in need and they take responsibility for the stray animals living among them. Almost 70% of the animals have a ‘care person’ so, while the animal remains a street animal and doesn't live in the person's house, they will give it simple food and call us if it is suffering from injury or illness. They will also follow up on their care afterwards. It is very encouraging to see this and it confirms our belief that we really are making a difference.