When Janey Lowes saw a dog with an infected eye on a beach in Sri Lanka she wanted to do something to help.
Like many of us, she found herself upset at how dogs were treated so differently to those living here in the UK.
A vet herself, when she tried to get another vet to help, she was told because the animal was a street dog, nothing could be done.
Janey could have just hopped on a plane home, leaving the dog as a distant memory.
But she didn’t. The 31- year-old from Gosforth in Newcastle upped sticks and moved to Sri Lanka.
She set up a clinic which has tended to over 4,000 sick and injured animals, neutered 4,500 and vaccinated 7,000.
Earlier this year she appeared on Ben Fogle’s New Lives in the Wild on Channel 5 and in November 2019 she returns to Newcastle for a fundraising ball.
We spoke to her about her extraordinary achievements and her WECare story.
Can you tell me about the moment you decided you had to do something to help?
I was on a beach in South Sri Lanka, where I saw a dog with a horrendous wound on its eye; well what I thought was horrendous at the time, but now I know better it wasn’t that horrendous at all!
I tried to contact a local vet who could help me and no one would because he was street dog.
I had to leave knowing I’d left him behind, and I found that really really hard. I was on holiday with no equipment.
A dog in the UK has a choice of hundreds, if not thousands, of vets and these dogs don’t even have one option.
Can you tell me the story of the first animal you helped?
Her name was Joy, full of joy, full of happiness.
She lived in the village and she had a maggot wound, which at the time I thought was horrendous, but I probably wouldn’t even notice it now!
I would change her bandages at night with a head torch on.
It was a big learning curve for me and I’m glad in hindsight I started with a small one!
How does life for dogs compare to the UK?
Dogs here are free and they’ve spent generations living on the streets, living as an integral part of the community, part of everyone’s day-to-day life.
In the UK our dogs are in protected environments with an owner who can pick up on anything that’s wrong or untoward before it progresses.
Street dogs don’t have anyone to pick up on anything until it’s horribly bad.
I don’t believe it’s an issue for a dog to live on the street.
That’s all they know; they’re very happy and they have their freedom, friends, community and often a guardian who will feed them.
But they are missing veterinary care, so that’s where we come in.
And when it got to the end of your holiday you decided to stay?
Yes, it was when I saw the dog with the eye on the beach.
I had to do something, but I didn’t quite know that meant uprooting my whole life until I got home and realised that I could be most effective on the ground and dealing with the problem head-on, not from my comfortable life which was totally unrelatable.
I left my dog Finn behind, which was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but I knew he was in good hands with my Mum and he would be proud of what I was doing.
What was the reaction when you told your family and friends back home in Newcastle your plans?
They were very supportive, they thought it was a great cause and I’d always travelled a bit, so they thought I’d be back in a year.
So fast forward five years and you have your own clinic. Can you describe a typical day?
Every day is different! People often ask me this and it really is so difficult to say, but that’s the joy of what we do here.
It keeps us all on our toes – we never get bored and we know we’re truly making a difference.
We have a permanent team of local and international staff of 18.
We rely heavily on volunteers to help make things work.
If people are interested in volunteering, head to the volunteer page on our website to fill in an application form!
And holidaymakers will get in touch about dogs that need help – does this sometimes lead to them adopting the dogs?
It definitely gets busier in the on-season, but we get quite frustrated at times, because there is a lot of irresponsible tourism going on.
We often get calls from people who have picked up a puppy, taken it with them for a few weeks then don’t know what to do with it when they’re leaving the country.
They’ve taken the puppy from its territory – with potentially a mother, siblings or guardian nearby – and it’s now miles away from its home.
You cannot apply Western ideals to the situation here – it’s taken over five years for us to truly understand the intricacies.
So for people to think they understand the situation after a few weeks on the island is infuriating because we are often expected to mop up after them.
Sometimes people want to take dogs home but are put off when they find out the costs, which are quite high.
We don’t rehome dogs, but there are companies in other parts of Sri Lanka which can help.
What is the main thing animals need treatment for?
Road traffic accidents, Rabies, maggot wounds, TVTs – these are the most common things we see.
They’re all quite distressing and things you wouldn’t see in the UK, but we see them on a daily basis sin Sri Lanka.
As a vet, these cases remind us of exactly why we’re doing what we’re doing.
Are there any special animals that stay in your mind?
There are so many, but Belle is always the one that sticks in my mind.
Early in my time here, I was called to a dog that had been attacked by a wild boar in the local village.
She was a street dog but had been taken in by the locals and had open fractures on her front and back leg and a broken tail.
I straight away thought this dog should be euthanised, as open fractures are very hard to manage even in the most sterile, clean environments which Sri Lanka is not.
But the locals refused euthanasia on religious grounds, which forced me to think outside the box.
It pushed me out of my comfort zone because I really didn’t see a way forward with this patient.
Speaking to specialists in the UK didn’t put my mind at rest as they said euthanasia was my only option, but I couldn’t do it.
Fast forward a few months and some out-of-the-box treatment and Belle is a very happy three-legged street dog.
I learned some very valuable lessons about their resilience and it made me think differently about the haste with which UK vets sometimes suggest euthanasia.
What’s the key focus of your work?
WECare has three main focuses. CNVRs (Catch, Neuter, Vaccination and Release clinics), which we run whenever we have the funds and staffing to make it happen.
Secondly, we provide veterinary treatment for sick and injured animals.
We are the only animal hospital outside of Colombo that provides overnight inpatient care and with up to 35 inpatients, patient consultations and emergency treatment, this keeps us busy!
Lastly, we provide education to communities and the veterinary industry.
This is vital to changing attitudes about animal welfare and to improving the veterinary industry in Sri Lanka as a whole.
What is your biggest struggle?
Everyone thinks living on a tropical island is dreamy but I face struggles and challenges you can’t even imagine.
The thing that keeps me up at night is funds.
It’s sometimes really hard to get people to care about animals that are thousands of miles away even though they’re in a thousand times worse situations than our dogs at home, with minimal help available.
To me, we’re one world but sometimes it’s difficult to get people to understand it shouldn’t matter where a dog is suffering – a dog is suffering and as a nation of animal lovers, geographical location shouldn’t affect our empathy.
Find out more about Janey and her work
If you found Janey’s story inspiring, you might like to read Why Jade and Sam founded StreetVet or Why Jeff is on a mission to help Zante street dogs.