Tania Duratovic was helping animals long before she became a vet nurse. But she decided to get formal qualifications so she could do even more—particularly through her charity Tree of Compassion—to assist animals in need. By Kathy Graham
Tania has always been passionate about “rescuing animals”. She remembers as a six-year-old feeling appalled when she first heard about seal clubbing in Canada. By age 10, she was doorknocking in her neighbourhood to collect signatures for a petition to ban the practice. There’s a saying: ‘Give me a child until he is seven and I will show you the man’. In this case, that child was female, but there’s no mistaking the truth of these words as applied to Tania, a vegetarian who boasts a home menagerie of five rescue cats and a rabbit and can’t recall a time she wasn’t campaigning against animal cruelty, or travelling to disaster zones to help treat those animals affected.
Tania—who studied conservation and ecology when she left school—and has mostly held government jobs in the threatened species area ever since, including her current fulltime position at the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage—says she decided to qualify as a veterinary nurse eight years ago to improve her effectiveness as an animal rescuer. “I felt there was something missing because I couldn’t understand a lot of what was going on medically. I felt helpless with certain things.” (She did toy briefly with becoming an actual vet but says, “I just couldn’t bring myself to do the huge amount of study required, especially if it meant I couldn’t be out there rescuing animals.”)
And no, working in a suburban vet clinic was never an option.
“Most of the time vet nurses work in places where they don’t do a lot other than vaccinations, spaying and neutering or euthanasia and I really didn’t want to do euthanasia,” says Tania. “For me, it’s not just a job … I wanted to do things that weren’t getting done with the animals that weren’t being helped, that weren’t being looked after, that there wasn’t anyone to help treat; those that didn’t have anyone to pay the bills.”
Sentiments that in 2012 also led Tania—with her husband, Phil— to establish their charity, Tree of Compassion.
Visit the Tree of Compassion website and you’ll find features on topics such as live export, animals in disaster zones and vegetarianism; information about some of the hot issues in animal welfare, such as animal experiments and horse racing; resources for animal rescuers on the ground (‘Finding a Burnt Animal’, ‘After Animal Care’); two manuals Tania has written—‘Bushfires, Burns and Their Management in Animals’ and ‘Introductory Fluid Management in Wildlife’—that can be purchased through the online shop with the proceeds going back to Tree of Compassion; and a long ‘Wish List’ of equipment needed for the treatment room at the charity’s “priority project”, the Nepal-based Animal Liberation Sanctuary.
Tania and Phil are both Buddhists in the Tibetan tradition and Kopan monastery near Boudhanath, on the outskirts of Kathmandu is the spiritual home of their teacher, Lama Zopa Rinpoche. When Rinpoche in 2004 flagged the idea of an animal sanctuary—in addition to Kopan’s rudimentary cow shed that remains onsite and currently houses nine cows—it was Tania and Phil who helped fund the purchase of around three hectares of terraced fields a short 10-minute walk away. “We redrew on our mortgage and donated a third of the cost of the land to make sure it would happen. Then they asked us if we wanted to become coordinators.”
Today the Animal Liberation Sanctuary with its panoramic views of Kathmandu Valley is filled to capacity with 53 rescue goats, most initially destined for the butcher’s block; some earmarked for sacrifice during Nepal’s annual Dashain festival where participants believe that offerings of fresh blood will appease certain gods. “At festival time, there’s this influx of animals you see everywhere tied up and ready to be slaughtered,” says Tania. “People will then smear the blood on their cars, or computers or whatever as it’s supposedly good luck.”
“This is where as a vet nurse I often get really frustrated because I know enough to know this can be treated or that can be operated on, yet there’s no-one who can do it. I just hate it. But it’s Nepal.”
The fortunate goats now enjoy life in a facility comprising a main animal shelter designed to reduce water use and waste and provide a healthy environment throughout Nepal’s contrasting seasons, pens to separate quieter animals from the main flock, a quarantine area for sick animals and a “pretty basic treatment room which consists of a tiled bench top; taps that you can close off with your elbows (that was one of my specifications); lights, although half the time we don’t have electricity; a surgical magnifying light from Australia so we can plug that in when we have power; and a dodgy microscope that needs a phone light under it to see anything”.
Internal fencing allows parts of the land to be rested from grazing and, explains Tania, there are areas reserved for growing food such as a local long-stemmed grass that can be harvested three times a year, and for emergencies such as extended dry periods or when hay is scarce.
The sanctuary also contains three stupas containing Buddhist relics “that Rinpoche wants the goats to go around several times a day” to receive blessings. “They manage to go around one side and then they don’t come back,” laughs Tania.
During the construction phase, which Tania says “took forever because no-one wants to work with animals”, she visited Farm Sanctuary shelters in the US “to question what’s the best housing, the best food, how do you best look after farm animals into old age”.
Not that Tania’s work in Nepal is confined to caring just for those animals directly under her care at the sanctuary. She also sees to it that any sick or hurt animals she hears about are treated, everything from injured birds to unwanted male calves (discards from the local dairy industry) let loose on the street “where they get attacked by dogs or hit by cars”.
Whenever she has holidays or can negotiate time off from her day job, Tania takes turns with Phil to travel to Nepal—about once every three months—laden with medical and other items not available in Nepal, such as vet wrap, splinting material, and good-quality cat and dog food (for Kopan’s two resident dogs and a cat), staying a month or so at a time. Even though the sanctuary employs a full-time caretaker, a position not easy to fill, says Tania, because the caste system decrees “animals are lowly dirty things”, a full-time manager, and a vet on contract, Tania says things often go wrong or simply don’t get done in their absence despite her constant “pestering”.
Worming is a case in point. “We sometimes find several animals have died during our absence because they weren’t wormed properly and it just drives me up the wall because it’s preventative but they don’t stay on top of it. We write it down. I’ve got stuff pinned on the board. There’s just not the same level of planning and organisation as over here.”
There’s not the same level of knowledge and skill either, says Tania, noting that “if you take your pet to the vet in Australia, the first thing they’ll do is clinically examine it. You’ll tell them the symptoms, they’ll break it down and feel around, look and listen based on that. They don’t do that in Nepal. They often just look at the animal, ask the owner something, and then write them a script without proper examination, without really trying to determine the symptoms and their causes.”
The upshot is that Tania frequently feels like she’s “more diligent” than the local vets in terms of diagnosis and treatment. She remembers one occasion in particular when she was part of a team operating on a goat. When she suggested the vet anaesthetise the animal with propofol, his lack of experience in this regard meant she had to act as anaesthetist. “This included not just monitoring the vitals of the patient, which is something vet nurses do all the time under the watchful eye of the surgeon, but I actually had to then decide when to administer the propofol. In the end, I called the operation off as I didn’t feel the patient was anaesthetised deeply enough plus by then he’d already been lying on his side for almost two hours—not a good situation for a ruminant!”
“I wanted to do things that weren’t getting done with the animals that weren’t being helped, that weren’t being looked after, that there wasn’t anyone to help treat; those that didn’t have anyone to pay the bills.”
Tania also laments having to repeatedly remind her Nepalese colleagues that “washing is not the same thing as sterilisation,” that needle and syringe sizes do matter, and of the importance of medication and sedation. “They have this impression that pain medication will slow down the healing, which is wrong. As for sedation, they have some drugs like ketamine and diazepam that you can use safely and if they’re setting a fracture, they have to sedate them if they’re not going to anaesthetise them—which they should do but they don’t—otherwise these animals will be screaming. Plus, how do you get the leg to stay still in a position you want? To us, it’s logical; to them, it just doesn’t compute.”
Which is why every opportunity she can, Tania orchestrates a visit to the sanctuary by her mentor and renowned wildlife vet Dr Howard Ralph (featured in the March issue of Vet Practice), whose surgical abilities are legendary.
Tania first met Dr Ralph in the early 1990s when she co-ran a wildlife rescue organisation called SAFE Australia which among other things campaigned against duck shooting and kangaroo culling. Dr Ralph provided free veterinary care to the injured birds and animals. After SAFE folded, their paths continued to cross whenever disaster struck and animals’ lives were imperilled. One of her most vivid memories is working alongside Dr Ralph and other international volunteers removing oil from thousands of endangered African penguins following the 2000 MV Treasure oil spill off the coast of South Africa.
Their collaboration has continued. Once a month, Tania volunteers a Friday (her flex day) and the weekend, driving four hours each way to Braidwood, NSW, to assist Dr Ralph at his wildlife clinic.
The pair also regularly team up to provide training to wildlife care groups across Australia, covering topics like wounds and pain management and first assessment, response and management. Tania says this came about “after working with wildlife carers, especially during disasters, and seeing what they don’t know. They do their own internal training and get guest speakers. But they very rarely get a veterinarian and they very, very, very rarely … well, actually they don’t get anyone that’s as good as Howard.”
Dr Ralph’s most recent visit to the animal sanctuary in Nepal was in March. He also spent time there in 2011 and 2013. Tania who admits she is always phoning Howard “to double check and run things past him” says she needs him physically in Nepal “to perform operations that no-one else can do”, and to which she invites local vets and vet technicians (Nepal’s equivalent of vet nurses) and vet students, so they can learn from him.
Tania arranged for Dr Ralph to give some well-attended lectures at a local college on topics such as fractures and pain management, and to visit the local SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) where, because “they don’t have somebody like me or Phil constantly on top of things, some of those animals are just really suffering. Howard was quite affected by it”.
After all this time, Tania too still struggles to process the suffering she sees, not least because “you know something can be done. This is where as a vet nurse I often get really frustrated because I know enough to know this can be treated or that can be operated on, yet there’s no-one who can do it. I just hate it. But it’s Nepal.
“If I can bring Howard over, they learn a little bit more but that’s the best I can do. I have to keep reminding myself that’s the best it’s going to be. Because otherwise you get worn out and disappointed if you think it’s going to get better and it doesn’t. It does get frustrating but that’s why I come home and then sort of let it go and go back for another round.”
Tania has no doubt that “having a Buddhist perspective certainly helps when it can seem a bit overwhelming. No-one wants to suffer and if you can even help one being lessen their suffering, that can make a huge difference to them—and that makes your perceived difficulties seem small.”