Interview with Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue - U.S.

March 26, 2021Zihao Yu, Lu Shegay, Catherine Besch

Please welcome Catherine Besch, the founder and Executive Director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue - U.S.

Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue - U.S. is an organization working to end the exploitation of all species of animals in Vietnam and globally. Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue - U.S. was among the first organizations to join the Alliance for Animal Law of Asia, an international campaign initiated by the Institute of Animal Law of Asia. Through this interview, we would like to introduce our member to the public and our audience. We are excited to learn more about Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue - U.S!

"Stump-tailed Macaque, Macaca arctoides in Kaeng Krachan national park" by tontantravel is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Part I: Introduction

IALA: Catherine, could you please tell us about your organization?

Catherine: We are an animal rights organization focusing on morally consistent, anti-speciesist messaging for animal advocacy as we seek long-term solutions tailored for the region we work in. We promote high-impact solutions to ending animal suffering for all species. These include veterinary capacity building projects, vegan education, and mass sterilization and vaccination work in areas lacking access to vet care. We have been operating in Hoi An since 2013 and have a rescue shelter and the only farmed animal sanctuary in the country.  We opened the first nonprofit veterinary clinic in Vietnam 6 years ago but unfortunately had to close it three years later. We are working on restarting it as a mobile clinic once the borders reopen to do mass sterilization clinics in central Vietnam.

Our VAAR Macaque Rescue Center should open in 2022 (depending on the government permission) along with our mobile veterinary clinic while we move to a larger property south of Hoi An city to hold our animal rights education projects, veterinary training workshops, and possibly a small sea turtle project if space allows.

IALA: What animal law issues does your organization address in Vietnam and in general? Have you faced any difficulties and how did you get over them? What are the most challenging difficulties you have ever faced during your animal protection work? 

Catherine: Working in rescue in any country is difficult even with easy access to funding, good vets, competent staff, and legal protection, but we have none of those so the challenges are many. In terms of animal law issues that challenge us, the law is less of a problem than the enforcement. Those of us who have lived in Vietnam for a long time know that Vietnam is Switzerland on paper in terms of legislation for so many things. The reality on the ground, however, is that neither enforcement agencies nor the citizens of Vietnam care at all about most of those regulations unless there is money being exchanged somewhere.

In Vietnam, any kind of protection requires payment, be that human rights or animal rights. Due to the government of fear that Vietnam has, no one wants to ever get the authorities involved anyway. This aspect of Vietnamese society has important implications for the rule of law, one that tends to be ignored completely in discussions of animal welfare legislation. Without rule of law, you can put anything on the books and call it a success, but for those of us who wake up there every day and know Vietnam, we know that unless society is behind the legislation, there is no reason to believe it will have any measure of success in protecting any living thing. Social change for animal rights, increased participation in enforcement, and a culturally and politically sensitive approach to animal law with the big picture and all species in mind will make a big difference, but as of yet, we have seen nothing of the kind.

Once we accepted that life in Vietnam is the Wild West and acknowledged that our day-to-day lives protecting animals were not in any way going to be affected by the government, we were able to put our focus on more effective work. When the Vietnamese veterinary law of 2015 was passed and hailed by welfare organizations as a victory, they missed the part where none of it would be applied in any way for the benefit of the animals. This decree wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on. They talked about veterinary drug control in this decree, but I can still get Ketamine in the mail on a tourist visa but cannot get someone to mail me metronidazole. I operated a vet clinic for 3 years with a full pharmacy with zero oversight. Anyone can go to any veterinary pharmacy and pick up drugs of any kind, so the idea that these are regulated is a joke. Try importing them, and you’ll hit trouble in customs. Either way, anything on this decree is made for adding regulations to food safety, protecting farmers’ assets, and giving Animal Health Departments a list of rules they will just print and shove in a drawer. This was not a victory.

Our challenge from all of this comes from the nonstop finagling we do to get the drugs we need to treat animals and to get animals in neglect and abuse situations to be relinquished to safety. There is very little the law will ever have to do with this and I really do not see a change in the future.

As an organization, legally we have no protection in spite of doing the best we can to stay on top of any possible registrations that might protect us and animals in an ever-shifting legal environment. All of these are very expensive and time-consuming to acquire through the red tape of Vietnamese government oversight. The idea that any laws would ever protect us or the animals in Vietnam, or the rescuers who help them, is unfortunately unfounded given the absence of the rule of law here. Corruption is deep in Vietnam and the police and government agencies do not protect people, so expecting them to protect animals is just unrealistic. Social change, economic restructuring away from animal product subsidies, building veterinary education systems, grassroots animal rights education, and support of plant-based businesses all stand a far greater chance of helping animals in Vietnam than any law as long as enforcement remains as poor as it is now. The lack of understanding of this fact about Vietnam’s level of corruption often gets the international community running off in the wrong direction for solutions, not at all tailored for the reality of the government.  

IALA: Since the hit of the pandemic in December 2019, everybody has had to shift to a “new normal” life, remote work, and online education. What challenges has your organization faced since then?

Catherine: We have faced the same financial difficulties during the pandemic that I feel most rescues are experiencing. The decline of nonprofit donations has hurt incomes around the world. However, Vietnam has managed the pandemic extremely well from a healthcare standpoint. Our staff are going about all their work normally and have done so with far fewer calls for cases which usually come from tourists, not locals. We are using this time to assess how we can change our work to be more financially sustainable while addressing the big picture issues that will save millions of animals rather than the few we can help every year as a rescue.

We face huge challenges in recruiting staff in Vietnam even without the pandemic, but with closed borders, it is very hard. Very few Vietnamese have the necessary animal care experience and most foreigners that have any experience are working in other jobs making a lot more money than what we can offer. We are very ready to get the borders opened up again. I am currently working remotely from Costa Rica, so I would love to go home soon as it has been nearly a year since I have snuggled and kissed our rescues.

IALA: You mentioned opening a mobile veterinary clinic and the Macaque Rescue Center in 2021. What goals are you intended to achieve through these projects?

Catherine: The mobile veterinary clinic project has been in the works for a while but hit a wall with the closed borders which prevent us from bringing in the international vets and vet nurses needed for this. When it is able to start after open borders, we will be able to carry on long-term mass sterilization and vaccination projects which are vital to preventing the cases we see coming to our rescue. Locally trained vets can get out of 5 years of university without ever touching an animal and then can be legally able to open their own vet practice. They rarely have any training in sedation, aseptic surgical techniques, or even something as simple as vaccination protocols, so we will use this clinic for workshops to take recent veterinary graduates from the Vietnamese veterinary universities to learn about the necessary components of safe surgeries and preventative work for domesticated animals. Also, having this project being 80% mobile means those animals who are not able to access any veterinary care at all will now have a chance. Sterilization is really the only way to manage the overwhelming cases of animals in need of help, and we need to be sure that organizations focus on this rather than slapping a Bandaid on bone cancer by hoarding in poorly-managed shelters.

The Macaque Rescue Center is planned as a collaborative project with the Vietnamese Forest Protection Department (FPD), a government agency in charge of wildlife trafficking. Macaques are heavily trafficked in Vietnam, something I learned myself when I rescued a baby stump-tailed macaque in 2012 when I first moved to Vietnam. The government agency is staffed by people with almost no training in animal handling and animals are usually released upon confiscation with no treatment, no assessment, no tracking, and no proper release to ensure they are not killed by existing troops or die of starvation. The Macaque Rescue Center will take confiscated macaques from the FPD in central Vietnam at a small center at a national park where they can go through the proper process for rescue, rehab, and eventual release or sanctuary as necessary. We will focus on training the FPD staff and local veterinarians so that the government is able to manage this project on its own eventually.

"VIETNAM 1969-70 by Andrew Atherton - Little friend and water buffalo" by manhhai is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Part II: Vietnam Animal Law Issues

IALA: What do you think are the most important and pressing animal law issues that exist in Vietnam? 

Catherine: Enforcement of any law at all is what stands in the way of animal protection, and this is not something that can be addressed specifically by animal protection organizations if the rest of the legal system continues to function in the way it does. Welfare laws have done nothing to help the vast majority of animals in countries in which they exist as they protect mainly pets and not farmed animals or sea life. This will not be any different in Vietnam, so we need to really look at animal law as ALL species rather than just pets and how this can be most effectively addressed within the political system we work in.

Most organizations will tell you the dog meat trade is the most pressing issue for animal law and I will very, very strongly debate that. This is something that took me years to understand while working in rescue, dealing head-on with the dog meat trade on a daily basis, and living amongst the dog thieves and legal dog catchers in our neighborhood. People think that raising the punishment for dog and cat theft will change something, but again, this will do nothing. There have been cases in which entire villages beat dog thieves to death resulting in murder charges for dozens of people. Police have had to come to the rescue of dog thieves when villagers have attacked them. There is just no evidence that the police will in any way be able to end dog theft or will bother to punish perpetrators when the demand for dog meat continues and people still leave their dogs out to roam all day and night.

Looking at dog meat with a singular legal solution as promoted by so many welfare organizations misses the point. This has been a huge challenge for us to address publicly. Addressing the dog meat trade with laws has not been successful. Dog meat is the method Vietnam uses to prevent dog overpopulation which in turn keeps down infectious diseases and dog bites which neighboring countries struggle with, so ending it comes with a lot of problems as well. When you have infectious diseases like rabies coming from strays, culls happen, something the Vietnamese government would be more than happy to do.

The idea of a dog meat ban, which is heavily promoted by larger organizations whose donations rely on these campaigns, predominantly welfare-based rather than rights-based, is not realistic as a solution unless the veterinary industry is up to the task of mass sterilizations. On top of that, ending dog meat only means increasing demand for every other species of animal. Pig farmers will rejoice at a dog meat ban, but moving suffering and unnecessary death from one species to another is hardly what anyone should call a victory for the animals. If a dog meat ban is put in place, and no changes have been made to drastically increase access to mass sterilization and vaccination, we will end up with even worse overpopulation and eventually a cull as we see in all the countries around us. Veterinary capacity building and funding in both the public and private sectors have to come long before a dog meat ban that all the Western countries keep petitioning for. The current plans for lobbying against dog meat needs to be realistic of the situation in Vietnam for all species rather than being led by people across oceans who eat every other animal. This is a local problem with local solutions in demand reduction and legally/politically cannot even begin to be addressed by foreign institutions.

There are many opportunities in animal law to address the big picture of animal suffering, but the focus tends to remain on pet species or cute wildlife. Shifting food production and government subsidies away from fishing and animal agriculture to plant-based production will save millions of more animals than any welfare law that will go unenforced anyway. Animal law as it applies to the food system rather than 2 or 3 species humans think are cute enough for clickbait will make the biggest change. Shifting production in Vietnam means also developing an already existing demand for plant-based foods. These changes to the food economy will be more effective in the long run for the largest number of animals and all species will benefit from reduced animal production.

In terms of wild species such as macaques bred for research companies abroad (the U.S. particularly), crocodiles bred for leather products, and other wild species like porcupines in the exotic meat trade, a ban on these would be more effective, but there needs to be a shift away from the demand. The consumers of these products, particularly Americans with the primates and Russians and Chinese going for the crocodiles, have to be part of the solution, but the government cracking down on these facilities would make a difference. Unlike dogs, these animals are bred specifically for this market and if this market is made illegal and there is no longer a demand for it, it will close. Animals in captivity and in entertainment like traveling circuses and zoos are suffering so much in Vietnam, and there is nothing to protect them because there is just nowhere for these animals to go. Again, demand plays a huge part in this that laws just won’t touch.

IALA: In which ways do you think Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue - U.S. could help the animal advocacy field within the Alliance for Animal Law of Asia?

Catherine: We have been working in Vietnam for 8 years with international and local staff and have extensive experience with grassroots advocacy and interaction with veterinary educational institutions. We have watched the country change so much over the years and we know very well how things really operate there in the government. Lobbying as a foreign-run organization with or without INGO status in Vietnam is illegal and as the US 501(c)(3) also not possible from what I understand, but we have nearly a decade of experience with domestic pets, wildlife, and farmed animals in a country most people only know from war movies and viral videos about the dog meat trade which say nothing of the reality of working and living here with animals now. Our CFO and Operations Manager are both Vietnamese with a deep understanding of Vietnamese law in regards to the veterinary industry, property, and animal protection. We know a lot about how Vietnam differs from other parts of Asia and the work of other animal advocacy organizations in our region due to the political, legal, cultural, and economic situations that differ so much from our own. We have a network of organizations that we have worked with and been in communication with over these years that can also help consult on legal issues here. Our side of the work for animals involves education in society, managing cases that come to us, building up the veterinary industry to effectively manage the existing animals and prevent more animals from being born.

IALA: In many Asian countries, the regulations with regard to animals exist but lack enforcement. What is the situation in Vietnam and how do you think animal protection can be improved?

Catherine: It is not animal protection that requires improvement but a rule of law in general. This really needs to be addressed as the big picture and international organizations simply do not have the ability to do much about this. The Vietnamese are responsible for this and are the only people capable of handling it. We can support them to a degree, but this is their country, their language, their culture, and their government. They face incredible difficulty in this, however. Lobbying does not work while there is censorship rife and obstacles from the government on dissent. Speaking up for animals means starting with speaking up for people and doing so in a very crafty way that either involves numbers of people so large that the government cannot control them (unlikely), or is done in a non-confrontational way in which the politicians don’t feel attacked though this is very slow. The fact is that the laws that protect humans in the most basic way like helmet laws for children on motorbikes or drunk driving laws are absolutely useless and if they cannot protect the skulls of children from the roads, a dog, cat, chicken, sea turtle, or bear will not be a priority.

Animal protection ultimately will improve with social change rather than legal. Vietnamese animal organizations are popping up everywhere and while these kids know little to nothing about animal rights or animal care, they are media crazy and the attitude towards animals is changing. This is a very conformist culture, and sticking your head up for anyone is very hard, but the shift towards a younger generation being advocates for animals in their daily lives is happening and that needs to be fostered. It is difficult to speak of legal protections for animals without going off on a long tirade about Vietnamese law and political culture in general, so we need to really put animal protection into the public discourse in Vietnam regarding politics and laws. That feels like the only real possibility to change things. Doing this through a non-speciesist format is also vital in a country in which rising wealth comes with rising animal product consumption.

IALA: What are the attitudes of the government and the public towards legal protection of animals, animal law movements, animal welfarism, and animal rights activism in Vietnam?

Catherine: It is very difficult to get an animal protection organization registered as a nonprofit or organization of any kind in Vietnam. In general, the Vietnamese government frowns on organizing any social change issue. We had some Anonymous for the Voiceless types of gatherings in a few cities, which were always stopped by the police. Vietnam is also very non-confrontational so much of the objections to animal rights activists are rather quiet by the public. They tend to be dismissed by most people, but the movement is growing. The animal rights movement does need to do what works for Vietnam, however, not what works for Paris or Los Angeles. The Save Movement, street protests, and anything else that confronts people will fail and be smashed by the government. Vegan festivals are very successful in Vietnam now, especially as vegan food is the best in the world in my opinion. That is not confrontational and it is supported by the local authorities usually, so it is an avenue we are exploring a lot more in the coming years.

Welfarists tend to focus on rescue and hoarding cats and dogs in shelters in which there is no oversight at all. This, unfortunately, leads to a lot of problems, but the young Facebook generation thinks it is adorable so they want to emulate it wherever they are in the country. The government stays far away from this issue. There are a lot of people who really love animals, but the resources for caring for them with vets who are simply clueless about them, and the pervasive issues with the dog and cat meat trade plus animal farming, in general, makes it hard for them to find a way to help animals. We are faced with many abuse cases in which owners insist that the animals are their property and they have the legal right to do whatever they want to them. Ownership of animals as property tends to be the basis for abuse around the world regardless of whether the animal is for-profit or a pet, and again, the government will not be involved in this at all. Vietnam is no different in that regard. In general, I would say the movement towards anti-speciesism is small but growing, and vegan food businesses are everywhere and well supported, and this is something the government can help with as they make it so easy to start a business and get financial help with it. Vietnam is a very capitalist communist country, and it is easy to use that to our advantage for the support of private sector work that helps animals.

"Stray Dog in Da Nang, Vietnam" by biron.clark is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Part III: International Cooperation

IALA: What goals would you like to achieve through the Alliance for Animal Law of Asia?

Catherine: I would like to be able to help those abroad better understand how animal law fits into the work for animals in Vietnam through our political system and culture towards law and government oversight. The animal advocacy sector tends to apply a one size fits all solution which is simply not effective. This is true for most development sectors but tends to be pervasive in animal advocacy in Asia. I’d like to ensure that the development of laws for animal protection is effective for all animals, not just cats and dogs or some kind of fluffy wildlife species which always seem to be the sole target in these discussions. Farmed animals and sea life suffer in much greater numbers around the world and we need to be using legal methods to shift away from production rather than merely regulate it. Investing in just changing production methods for farmed animals (adding a few more inches of space for a chicken, banning gestation crates, etc.) wastes money and time in a middle-income country in which these infrastructure changes happen at a snail’s pace. I would like to connect with organizations and individuals through this Alliance who have experience and interest in fostering more effective changes for the largest number of animals.

IALA: Are you seeking any global participation in developing animal law through Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue? Which countries or regions do you think you can involve improving the protection of animals in Vietnam?

Catherine: I have found in the 8 years in this work in Vietnam that international participation in the process of lobbying for animal law tends to do almost nothing while only gathering funds for welfare organizations with big promises made to people who are not familiar with Vietnamese politics. It is so often used as a fundraising tool by Westerners rather than as a method of creating lasting change for all animals. Any help from the international community should be directed solely at building up the capacity of the Vietnamese themselves to address legislative change through domestically targeting campaigns and effective lobbying in Hanoi and on a local level. Assistance from legal experts in other corrupt countries of similar cultures with experience passing this type of legislation and building up enforcement is required. In nearly a decade of experience in Vietnam, I have seen only Americans, Aussies, Brits, and other Europeans sticking their noses in without any understanding of the political situation or even the language. Vietnam does not need more White Saviors. Developing animal law in Vietnam is absolutely pointless if we address it through the lens of American law and Western campaigns. The global intervention needed should be behind the scenes by legal experts from similar cultures and political systems and it should support local groups, ideally in Hanoi, who can work to develop animal law.

IALA: Do you have any experience or suggestions to share with our members on how to advocate for animals more effectively?

Catherine: From starting my work in animal advocacy in Vietnam from an ethnocentric, welfarist mentality, I know well how Vietnam is perceived by outsiders. I definitely was one of those people who thought I could make a difference with my Western framework. The past 8 years have taught me how wrong I was. I also learned how the rescue sector, specifically the welfare and anti-dog meat campaigners, have fed into a scary amount of racism towards Asia from Western countries. I have been on the other end of too many racist emails from people who happily point their fingers across oceans they’ve never crossed while ignoring the corpses in the supermarket in their own neighborhood. I just ask that animal advocates understand that effective advocacy comes not from a place of self-righteousness and ethnocentrism, but from one which understands how each and every one of us is guilty of participating in violence against animals and thus each individual also has the ability to combat it every single day wherever they happen to be on the globe.

In the years I have been working in rescue in Vietnam, I have had some hard lessons. I have seen horrendous cruelty, but also incredible devotion and love towards animals in the places no one would expect and from people that the international community will immediately condemn. While Vietnam is generally not a great place for animals and we have a long way to go, I have learned that many other cities around the world are not good places either, Chicago, Paris, and Berlin. Those places consume more animals per capita than any Vietnamese person does, while their citizens think that they are not as cruel as Asians eating dogs because if they hit their dog (who has a cute sweater, of course) they would get in trouble with the police. This ignorant mentality really needs to stop.

Animal cruelty is human, not Vietnamese specifically. It can be combated on structural levels in government by legal means initiated by citizens when enforcement is strong, but we need to look at the problem more holistically and address it as such. This means ending speciesism within animal advocacy because speciesism is hypocritical. “Vegan” is not a dirty word, but if people who claim to work for animals cannot even promote not eating or wearing them, then I am not sure as a sector we have much ground to stand on.

If we are not looking at the demand within society for products relying on animal cruelty, then we are missing the point in any country. We cannot expect piecemeal legislation to be effective. Succeeding in raising punishments for harming one of 5 million dogs killed for dog meat in Vietnam does not mean anything to the 200 million chickens killed or 33 million pigs. I do not have all the answers but I have seen and done watched others do what has not worked for too long. Local works. Speciesist and international does not.

IALA: What else would you like to tell the audience of the Institute of Animal Law of Asia (IALA)?

Catherine: I would like people working in animal advocacy to do their best to understand the vast difference in political, economic, social, and cultural influences in every country which may affect the ability of legislation to be effective in fighting animal rights abuses. Even within the state of Alabama where our organization is registered, what works for Birmingham will not work for less affluent cities and towns with greater racial diversity, more hunters, less vegan options, etc. That’s just within a 5-hour drive under the same state and federal laws, so please always consider the differences across oceans and borders and even within those countries.

Hanoi is definitely not Hoi An where our shelter is. It might as well be a totally separate country in terms of wealth, policing, and even dialect though we’re just an hour flight away. We all need to remember where we are and where we come from before judging others and planning programs.

Also, I would like international, English-speaking advocates to acknowledge the organizations within other countries and their invaluable knowledge base, especially since the vast majority of these other advocates do not speak English, do not have great social media accounts, and do not interact with international institutions. These are so often discounted in international advocacy and it really holds us all back. People who are such locavores that they won’t eat strawberries out of season at their Whole Foods still think they can tell another country how to develop legislation for animals in their own community 8000 miles away. This is what really needs improvement and I think with a more inclusive and multilingual/multicultural approach, we can learn a lot from one another.

I am fully aware that my view on the topic of animal law will rub a lot of people the wrong way. I know that the version of myself that started this organization 8 years ago with stars in my eyes and a fire in my soul to save doggies would really hate me now. The lessons I have learned on the ground, slogging it out, and watching preventable death and suffering on a scale most people could not live through a week of having taught me some very hard lessons that showed me just how wrong my adorably naive 33-year-old self was. The transformation I have been through while constantly adjusting to the reality of Vietnam was pretty ugly, but I am glad I learned these lessons. I have a degree in International Relations and have lived and worked around the world for nearly 15 years outside any English-speaking country, so I am not just looking at the subject from my American eyes. I know my current understanding of international development and law would scare my former professors who have not lived as I have been working with animals in Vietnam and throughout Asia. It is perfectly reasonable to dismiss me until you have walked in my shoes, but I hope some of my words have made an impression and that people acknowledge that they come from a place of a passionate desire to help animals effectively.

IALA: Thank you again for taking the time for this interview. We enjoyed talking with you and discussing animal law issues that we can solve together as the Institute of Animal Law of Asia (IALA) and Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue - U.S.

Read our blog on Animal Law in Vietnam here.

Learn more about Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue - U.S.:

Stay tuned for more interviews with other members of the Alliance for Animal Law of Asia!

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