Kelvin Wee, the founder of an animal shelter in Laos, was in tears as he recalled the story of a two-year-old mongrel who was adopted from the shelter by a fellow Singaporean in May.
“She was not in a bad situation, but she was lost. And she was so scared when she came to us,” said the 57-year-old Singaporean, who was speaking to Yahoo News Singapore over a video call from Vientiane.
“But if you look at the dog today, it’s an 180 degrees turnaround, from a scared, shy dog to a totally happy dog.”
Based in the Laotian capital since 2013, Wee runs the Vimaan Suan Animal Recovery Centre (VS). The name Vimaan Suan means garden paradise in Laotian.
While VS officially began last December, Wee had already been using his own house in Vientiane as a base for rescued animals for several years. He currently owns 13 pet dogs and also houses 17 rescue cats at home.
VS has numerous programmes for the animals in the city in the works, such as spaying, neutering and vaccination. But its main focus is an animal shelter located in Ban Khamhoung in Xaythany District.
The 2,500 sq m building, which VS has rented since last December, currently houses around 40 dogs and cats. VS employs a caregiver and a part-time vet to care for a mixture of mongrels and pedigree breeds. Many of the animals are victims of accidents, abuse or neglect, including some which are paralysed or very senior.
“We’ve been doing a lot of rescue work for the last few years, but based on the need, I decided that we had to rent a place where we could rehabilitate animals before we re-home them,” said Wee, who works for a design advertising company. Rescue animals are sent to the shelter after being treated by partner vets and clinics.
“We had one dog that was adopted by an amazing Lao family. They found him with a big knife wound in his head, and the head was bleeding and everything. And he’s the sweetest dog in the world.”
Due to significant job losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, some local families have also been giving up their pets as they could no longer afford to keep them.
Asked if he has ever considered setting up an animal shelter in Singapore, Wee replied with a laugh, “Cannot afford lah.” He also pointed that there are already many shelters in Singapore. “There’s no point in duplicating something that is already there.”
Building a sustainable project
VS gets by largely on donations, while Wee works with a core group of about 20 volunteers. One of them is Rebecca Derry, a 37-year-old public health specialist. The American, who found two newborn kittens about a year ago, was seeking advice on them and discovered VS on Facebook.
Together with her husband, Derry volunteers at the shelter once a week. While Derry deals with the physical rehabilitation of the animals, her husband, a construction worker, helps to remodel the shelter to make more space for the animals.
“Kelvin’s idea is to start the momentum for animal welfare, and eventually let the Lao people take over. He’s always been passionate about it, but this is much bigger than just one person. He saw that there was a need to expand our efforts,” said Derry, who praised the “really supportive” Lao community.
“Sometimes, someone will turn up with a kilo of rice. Different countries’ ambassadors will also come and give more expensive donations.”
VS, which has applied for non-governmental organisation status in Laos, is looking to do more. In 2017, with the help of friends and supporters, it purchased a 3,800 sq m plot of land, which will eventually serve as a sanctuary for animals that cannot be adopted. Construction will resume in 2021 following a long period of planning.
“The shelter was not intended to be a permanent home,” said Wee. “The immediate need that we see is a place where we can bring the animals to be rehabilitated and then find them homes. The sanctuary will be where the animals that cannot be re-homed will go to.”
VS projects only employ Lao people, so as to create opportunities for them. The group also works with different organisations such as the local university’s veterinary school and the UK-based Worldwide Veterinary Service, to send graduates abroad for training attachment.
Wee also hopes to gradually change the culture of animal welfare in Laos, where pets are often allowed to roam at will. There are few local laws requiring pets to be licensed or vaccinated. He is careful to stress that Laos remains a developing country where many may not be wealthy enough to afford a lot of things.
“Maybe we can slowly help them, or try to steer them in the direction of better care so that the animals don’t have accidents and don’t die of diseases that are preventable by vaccinations. It’s going to take time. Vaccinate, spay and neuter – those are the messages we want to get out so that we don’t end up with a huge overpopulation problem.”
To date, VS has seen some 52 adoptions. One of the adopters is Lao entrepreneur Nini Vilivong, 37, who re-homed a three-legged dog named Gucci. He was the last of a litter of seven to be adopted, and was born missing a limb.
Having visited the shelter, Vilivong had initially only intended to make a donation. But she and her 10-year-old daughter met Gucci, who was just four months old then, and felt an “instant connection” to him. After initially taking him in for a week, Vilivong and her family ended up adopting Gucci in July this year, the week of her daughter’s birthday.
“The work Vimaan Suan does is great but they need more financial support. The centre accommodates a lot of animals,” said Vilivong.
Asked why he works to rescue animals, Wee paused before replying, “Why not?” Acknowledging that he has been “blessed” all his life, he added, “I’m a bit crazy, there’s no question about that. But it’s something that makes me happy when I go to bed every night, and it’s something that makes me happy when I wake up and look in the mirror in the bathroom.
“To see (adopted animals) happy today, and so loved, makes everything worth it.”