The road less travelled

Photo: Ollie Walker

For young British vet Janey Lowes, a regular job in a local practice didn’t quite cut it. The 28-year-old now runs a charity that provides veterinary care for Sri Lanka’s street dogs—and has no plans to return home any time soon. By Angela Tufvesson

After five or six years at university, and several more adjusting to the demands of the profession, many early career vets settle into a comfortable routine working in a local practice under the mentorship of a senior associate. Practice ownership or specialisation are often future goals.

For Janey Lowes, not so much. The 28-year-old British vet is the founder of WECare Worldwide, a charity that provides free veterinary treatment for street dogs in Sri Lanka.

The country’s roaming dog population is thought to be somewhere between one and three million, which lives alongside a human population of 21 million. Unsurprisingly, there are not enough resources to support this number of dogs and, as a result, many starve to death or succumb to disease, with an estimated 60 per cent of puppies dying before the age of one year.

Rabies is prevalent in Sri Lanka, leading to both human and animal deaths, and the dogs are prone to skin disease, fractures and inflicted injuries, including severe burns, bomb injuries and collar wounds. Thanks to decades of civil war, animal welfare education and knowledge about responsible pet ownership are severely lacking.

Lowes, who has lived in the island nation for three years, says her organisation—which employs four staff in Sri Lanka and works with a network of volunteers in the UK and around the world—has developed three programs to improve the health of street dogs. The catch-neuter-vaccinate-release (CNVR) program helps to reduce the dog population and vaccinate the existing population against rabies. WECare Worldwide also treats sick and injured animals, and works to educate local communities and train local vets.

Treating street dog Boola

“We’ve neutered, vaccinated and treated about 5,000 dogs, and we aim to neuter about 500 dogs a month if we can,” says Lowes. “The fact that Sri Lanka is an island helps a lot because it means we have borders so it’s possible that we can eradicate rabies, but it’s going to take a bit of time.” In the not-too-distant future, the organisation hopes to open Sri Lanka’s first fully equipped veterinary hospital.

So how does a young vet from Barnard Castle, a small market town in the north of England, end up in charge of an international charity in Asia before many young people have even moved out of the family home?

Hailing from a farming community where “everyone’s a farmer or their uncle or brother is a farmer”, Lowes says she always knew she would work with animals. After graduating from Nottingham Vet School in 2012, she completed stints working as a farm vet and in a large animal-hospital tending to companion animals before realising a conventional career path wasn’t going to satisfy her in the long run.

“I worked in a really big hospital in the north of England,” says Lowes. “I loved it, loved my colleagues, loved my clients, it was really good, but then it just got to the stage where I thought, ‘Is this it?’ I just couldn’t imagine, after slugging through university for five years, that doing vaccines and microchips and that sort of thing was what it was all for.

“There’s this saying that always struck a chord with me: ‘There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.’ I always thought that I had a story inside of me and I wasn’t living it. Now I wake up every day and have purpose.”

“At the same time, I broke up with a long-term boyfriend and for the first time in my life I had a bit of freedom to choose what I was going to do. For some reason I just thought, ‘Why not use my skills to try and make a difference somewhere else?’”

Powered by a healthy dose of wanderlust and a desire to help the street dogs she’d seen suffering on a previous holiday in Sri Lanka, Lowes headed back to the country for what was supposed to be a one-year sabbatical.

“I did a little google to see if I could volunteer for someone for a little while and realised there was nothing that fitted my beliefs,” she says. “I really don’t remember the day where I made a conscious decision to set up a charity. It was more, ‘I want to help these dogs. What do I have to do to make this a sustainable change?’

“I’ve realised—it’s so cheesy to say—that this work is totally my calling. The relationship I was in was really perfect but the whole time I felt like something was missing. There’s this saying that always struck a chord with me: ‘There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.’ I always thought that I had a story inside of me and I wasn’t living it.

Educating young villagers

“Now I wake up every day and have purpose, so I ended up staying. I love the island and I love the people—there’s such potential because everyone is so compassionate and caring.”

Lowes says stubbornness and guilt have helped her to push through numerous challenges, including battling complex bureaucracies in the UK and Sri Lanka to set up the charity, learning how to manage staff and volunteers, and juggling vet work with not-for-profit necessities like fundraising, marketing and website management, to forge a meaningful career in a foreign land.

“Things have happened where I’ve sat crying my eyes out, and I’ll call my family or friends and they say to come home—but I just can’t,” says Lowes. “It’s me being stubborn but it’s also because I can’t just go home to my cushy life in England and forget what’s happening in Sri Lanka.

“We come from a very privileged background. We are so lucky we  get the education we do and we should be the ones stepping up and taking responsibility for it and trying to help and teach others as a result of being so lucky.”

That said, Lowes’ nationality, age and gender can get in the way of her ambitions. As in Australia, 60 per cent of vets and almost 80 per cent of veterinary science students in the UK are female, yet most leadership positions in the industry are occupied by older men—ditto the bureaucracies Lowes deals with in the UK and Sri Lanka.

“People really underestimate me and a lot of my colleagues because of our age and gender … Sometimes in Sri Lanka people think I’m just another crazy white woman trying to save the street dogs, and that I’ll be gone in no time.”

“People really underestimate me and a lot of my colleagues because of our age and gender,” she says. “It’s frustrating at times when you feel like you’re constantly having to prove yourself to everyone. Sometimes in Sri Lanka people think I’m just another crazy white woman trying to save the street dogs, and that I’ll be gone in no time.”

But, Lowes says, the increasing feminisation of the veterinary industry, along with growing acceptance of workplace flexibility and portfolio careers, means there are more opportunities than ever for female vets to step outside the traditional practice box.

“You don’t have to fit the stereotype anymore of going into a job and working 8am to 6pm every day for the rest of your life,” she says. “That’s not what it’s about anymore. It’s almost like it’s a bit of a blank canvas now—we can do whatever we want to do.”

For young vets keen to explore overseas opportunities, Lowes says the rewards can be rich but it’s important to understand the work won’t be glamorous or easy.

“Working overseas is really difficult because you have limitations on what drugs you can use and what equipment you have, but it makes your clinical thinking and clinical assessments so much stronger because it’s all you’ve got to go off,” she says.

“You end up improvising and changing things up, and it makes you a much stronger person as well as a better-rounded vet. There’s no need to work on any particular skills because when you tend to get to these countries, a lot of it goes out the window. You just need to go at it with an open mind, some dedication and bit of resolve because it’s not the easiest ride—it’s not going abroad and playing with orangutans and sitting on a beach.”

When it comes to the hip pocket, Lowes says it can pay—literally—to apply for unpaid positions as many not-for-profits develop paid roles for hardworking volunteers. As with any job search, many positions are posted online while others are best sourced through professional networks. “It’s a field that’s really opening up and there’s a lot of opportunities right across the world,” says Lowes.

And you never know what may happen; like Lowes, you might find professional fulfilment abroad and commit to a rewarding yet unconventional career path.

“When I go back to the UK, I do think it’s such an easy life—why don’t I just do this?” says Lowes. “I never thought I’d say being a vet in the UK is an easy life but in comparison to Sri Lanka, with all the stressors, it is easier to be in the UK but I feel like I’m making a bigger difference in Sri Lanka.

“My mum keeps asking when I’m going to come home and find a husband, but it’s not really happening! This is where I’m going to be for quite a while.”

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1 Comment

  1. Janey, great to see that you live your story..
    And for sure a great saying: There’s no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.

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