Helping out at the vet's was the start of a life's journey

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 March, 2008, 12:00am

When I was a teenager in northwestern London in the 1970s, I used to go and help out at my local vet's after school and in the holidays. I must've spent weeks there and they let me be very hands-on looking after the animals. I'd even foster some, bring them home and be involved in their healing process.

It was in my teens that I finally had my own pet - a cat called Aze - and I loved him. One day, though, he disappeared, and we think he was stolen for the vivisectionists - who use living animals for scientific experiments.

We were told to put an ad in the paper and state a certain reward which was double the amount that the vivisectionists would pay, but we never heard anything more. I was devastated.

Looking back on my childhood, I view it with a mix of nostalgic affection and a certain amount of regret. I was a baby when my mother died in agony from septicaemia, in which one's blood becomes infected with bacteria.

Strangely, a lot of the bears in China I'm now involved with suffer from it, so it's profound that there's a connection between what I'm doing these days and what happened to mum. It is, after all, a disease that should not be killing people or animals.

Unfortunately, for a long time I didn't take school that seriously, although I did love the arts, particularly English and sociology. I also loved music and drama, and though my teacher could put the fear of God into me, she set me on a rather wonderful musical journey.

On Saturdays and Sundays, I'd go into the BBC and take part in their recording of children learning to sing. Later, in the sixth form, I won the annual school cup for music and drama.

It was in Form Four that I received a wake-up call to get my academic act together. My geography teacher, who I respected, told me: 'If you don't shake yourself up, you'll come to nothing.' And even though it was a verbal smack in the face, I did just that.

As a result, I took my lessons and exams a lot more seriously. I can see now, though, that I excelled in subjects I liked and in which I respected the teacher. For example, I hated physics and the teacher, who was way past his time. He didn't care about his subject or his students.

I did well at O-levels and went onto the sixth form, where I studied subjects such as office management with the idea of becoming a secretary. In fact, I'd have loved to have worked with animals and become a vet, but my father thought being a secretary was safer. So I got my animal fix by helping out at the vet's.

I became involved in animals again when I moved to Hong Kong in the early '90s with my husband, who's a pilot but from whom I'm now separated. My neighbour worked for an international animal agency and, when he left, I took over his role. I have to admit I had, until then, a very cosseted view of animal welfare because in Britain everyone seems to love cats and dogs. But I quickly integrated and made a lot of local friends, knowing I'd get nowhere pointing a western finger.

That led me to found the Dr Dog programme, an innovative animal therapy programme in which dogs visit the sick, the young and elderly and become their friend. That's now spread to six countries in Asia and involves 350 dogs. It's also 99 per cent endorsed and run by Asians, which is how it should be.

In 1998 I set up the Animals Asia Foundation, whose mission is to improve the lives of all animals in Asia by ending cruelty towards them and restoring respect for them. A big part of it is concerned with ending the cruelty towards the bears in mainland bile farms. I'd loved bears at school. But when I walked into a bear farm in China, I'd never seen anything so horrific.

Unfortunately, we do live in a world that is spiralling down into abuse on all levels. I also think it's significant that studies indicate that people who are cruel to animals are also cruel to people - yet another reason to stop animal cruelty.

Which brings me back to school. There's a vital role for teachers to play in fostering kindness and compassion in their students from a young age.