Since I’ve been traveling in Southeast Asia, that soft spot in my heart that is reserved for animals has taken more than a few pointy-toed boot kicks. I’ve told you about some of them; others I’ve kept to myself because I don’t want to bum you out too much. I’ll tell you about this one, though, because it has a happy ending. Or, at least, it will, by the time I’m done.
Hoi An is an enchanting little town in central Vietnam, at the bottom of the China Beach crescent, about 45 minutes from Da Nang. Pastoral and quiet, flanked by cinematic marble mountains and rice paddies, Hoi An is an ideal place to hit the pause button and regroup for a while after a long stint on the road.
I was having a most entertaining morning wandering through the town market the other day. I’d been accosted by two old grannies (who turned out to be about my age) who announced “you come, mama take care of baby,” and proceeded to denude me of all unwanted body hair on every decently exposable part of my body, right there on the sidewalk, with twisted loops of thread. I’d gotten a lesson on how to make the wrappers for fresh spring rolls from scratch, as well as those addictive, flavored rice crackers that look like hunks of Styrofoam. I’d had a foot massage, and was about to have another cà phê sữa đá, that dangerously delicious Vietnamese iced coffee with sweetened milk. It was shaping up to be a pleasant day.
As I passed the central market square, I noticed a tiny, black figure skitter across the entrance to the food stall area. When I looked closer, I realized it was a kitten. Barely even there, it would have fit in a teacup with room to spare. I gasped when I saw its ribs showing through vacuum-packed skin, its thin fur sticky and dirty, face crusty. A woman selling sugar cane juice nearby saw my shock, and put her hand over her heart and shook her head, saying “he no have mother.” I stood there for a minute, unsure what to do. Deciding there was nothing I could do, I walked away.
But, I couldn’t get that scrawny bag of bones out of my head. I took a boat up the river to see the fishing villages that afternoon, but, the whole time, I was thinking about that sad little creature scrounging around the market, looking for food. At dinner, I just picked at my meal, feeling guilty. That night, I tossed and turned, unable to sleep, the image of that pathetic, little thing appearing every time I closed my eyes, reminding me that the vilest thing about me is, and will always be, my ability to observe suffering, and walk on by.
Finally, I just said to myself, “To Hell with it! I may not be able to save all the helpless creatures I see, but I can try to do something for this one.” So, I got up, got dressed, and walked across town to the market in the middle of the night, and hunted for him. I managed to find several rats in the process, much larger than the kitten, but I figured they could take care of themselves. They seemed pretty healthy, actually.
There was an older couple still working in the market hall, and I asked them if they had seen a “meow meow,” and indicated “small” with my hands. Oh yes, they knew exactly what I meant, and before long, we had located the little guy, and the gentleman crawled under a booth and grabbed him for me. The lady emptied out a box, and we nestled the kitten in there with my beach sarong, that I had brought along to wrap him in. I heard them laughing as I left. They must have thought I was nuts. They could be right.
I know better than to feed a kitten cow’s milk (unless you want to spend the rest of the day cleaning up explosive diarrhea), but it’s not like there is a Petco in Hoi An, or anywhere I could buy kitten formula and a kitten baby bottle. So, I bought some cooked chicken and fish from a street vendor on the way home. Better than nothing.
I smuggled him into my hotel room, and first things first, gave him a good, thorough bath, which I’m sure traumatized the poor thing. It wasn’t optional, though, considering where I had found him, and the state of his fur and face. Oh, that poor little sticky, goopy thing! He must have thought he was done for.
Once I got him clean and wrapped up in a towel to keep from catching a chill in the air conditioning, I offered him some bits of food. He lit into that food with such voracity, he bit the end of my finger with his needlelike teeth several times. I’m sure it was the first food he’d had in a long time. I was worried about shocking his system with too much food too soon, so I only gave him a little bit at a time. But, appetite, he had in spades, so, I knew he was strong. With his belly full, he fell asleep in my hands, purring ever so softly. I was toast. What the heck was I going to do with this baby kitten? I was supposed to fly on to my next destination, Hanoi, in just a few days! But, I had a little time to figure it out, so, I invoked the immortal words of Scarlett O’Hara and determined to just think about it tomorrow.
The next day, I marshaled my expert information gathering skills to find an animal rescue organization to take my little ward. I enlisted the help of the very tolerant hotel staff, and made calls to every animal welfare organization I could find from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, and everywhere in between. If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s find stuff out.
Through an animal group in Da Nang, I got the number of a veterinarian, Dr. Quang, who, believe it or not, made a house call to the hotel. He told me the kitten was actually a girl, and that she was dehydrated and had an abscess on the umbilical vestige spot on her tummy. Without asking my permission, he flipped her upside down in my lap, and performed a surgical procedure to clean the infection out, right there on the patio. The poor lamb bit the shit out of my hand in the process—who could blame her?—and I bled all over my pants and the floor and the kitten. It was quite a dramatic scene. The house call and surgery bill came to a whopping $7.
Dr. Quang gave the kitty a shot of some antibiotics, fluids and vitamins, and gave me the number of a guy he knew, Phong, who takes in and cares for abandoned animals. I called, and Phong agreed to come for the kitten the next day. Dr. Quang admonished me not to feed the kitten fish or chicken anymore, but to give her rice porridge made with beef stock. Umm, okay doc, sure thing, I’ll just whip up a batch in the coffee maker right here in my hotel room. That wasn’t feasible, obviously. As a compromise, I swiped some paté from the breakfast buffet, and made a kind of mash with some hot water. This went over big with the kitten; she complained loudly if I offered her anything else after that.
She complained a lot, that little thing. With good reason, for sure, she’d had a pretty weird couple of days. When she would cry, it sounded like she was saying “Whyyyyyy? Whyyyyy? Whyyyy?” It reminded me of Nancy Kerrigan after Tonya Harding’s husband whacked her in the knee right before the Olympics. So, I named her Nancy. It suits her, I think. But, she’s Vietnamese, so her last name is Tran. Nancy Tran. Miss Tran, if you please.
Nancy Tran likes to watch TV. She is particularly fond of K-Pop videos. But, she’ll watch whatever. Here we are watching Thoroughly Modern Millie, which I contend is one of the most brilliantly deranged and hilarious movies of all time. I could be projecting, but I think Miss Nancy liked it, too. If you haven’t seen it yet, please remedy that immediately. Preferably, with a purring kitten on your chest, if possible. But I digress.
The next day, I got a response to my email to a local animal sanctuary (run by a couple of foreign women, at least one of whom is American), saying they were, unfortunately, already beyond capacity, and couldn’t take Miss Tran in. They are just a volunteer group, with no funding or sponsorship, and they weren’t in a position to accept any more critters. I understood, but it was disturbing, as it began look more and more like Phong was going to stand me up and leave me with this kitten to take care of.
I found a listing online for rescue organization in Hanoi that focuses on adoptions, and read several reviews in English—presumably from expats—saying what a great network it is. So, I rang them up and asked, if I could get Nancy to them, would they take her and find her a good home. Yes, they would, she said.
But, Hanoi is about a 14-hour drive from Hoi An, and neither the airlines nor the railroad would allow me to take Miss Nancy Tran on board on such short notice, and without health certificates that I couldn’t get until she is healthier and vaccinated. I was going to just hire a driver and make the trip by car, but the director of the Hanoi rescue hotline told me not to do that, that she would make some calls and try and find me some help closer to where I was. Bless her, she did, and guess who came through? Dr. Quang and Phong! The people I had already been in contact with! There just aren’t that many people rescuing animals in Vietnam, much less, central Vietnam.
The following afternoon, Nancy was already looking and feeling so much better when Phong came for her. What a sweet, sweet man. Dr. Quang had filled him in already, so he knew all about our Miss Tran. As we chatted, I realized he was with the Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization, the rescue shelter I’d already been in touch with that said they were too full to take another animal.
This worried me, but Phong assured me she would be okay. I promised to make a donation over the shelter’s website to help them take care of her and the others, which I did (http://www.gofundme.com/vnanimalwelfare). Nancy Tran and I both cried inconsolably when Phong took her away. I was a wreck for the rest of the day, and beyond. I’ve gotten email updates from them, though, telling me she is doing well and getting stronger every day.
When I got to Hanoi, I had coffee with Trang, the woman from Hanoi Animal Rescue who had helped me over the phone. She told me about the foster and adoption network they have developed to save dogs and cats from the meat trade in Vietnam. They have miraculously been able to find good homes for almost all of the animals they have rescued, if they are healthy. They interview prospective adoptive homes, and do follow up checks to make sure the animal is doing well. Unfortunately, they are also a completely volunteer-run group, with no funding or sponsorship, and despite their successful adoption program, mounting vet bills are on the verge of shutting them down. Apparently, the only officially organized and supported animal welfare group in Vietnam that deals with dogs and cats, as opposed to wild animals, is Animal Rescue & Care (A.R.C.) down south in Ho Chi Minh City.
In the meantime, though, Trang has been invaluable help, pitching in with me to figure out a way to get Miss Nancy up here to Hanoi, so she can be adopted. Trang even called a cattery that ships fancy cats all over, and they said Miss Nancy is too small to be shipped alone; she’s going to have to travel escorted, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, anyway. Time is of the essence, though, as the smaller and cuter Nancy is, the more likely she’ll be adopted by someone who doesn’t want to cook her for dinner. (Trang told me that, in northern Vietnam, some people apparently believe the meat of a black cat is very good for the health.
There’s no meat on Miss Nancy right now, but by the time she is healthy and strong enough to make the trip up here, there will be, so it is of paramount importance that she land in the right home. I remember my folks had this problem when we had to get rid of our pet goat, Willy, when I was little. There were lots of people calling, wanting him for a barbecue.)
But, we’ll figure it out. There’s a way, I just have to find it and throw some money at it. One thing’s for sure: I won’t rest until my Miss Nancy Tran is settled into a loving home of her own.
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For more information about the animal rescue groups discussed in this post, see:
1. Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization (Central Vietnam—Hoi An): http://www.vnanimalwelfare.org/ or https://www.facebook.com/pages/Vietnam-Animal-Welfare-Organization/163375270485035. To make a donation: http://www.gofundme.com/vnanimalwelfare
2. Hanoi Animal Rescue (Northern Vietnam—Ha Noi): http://venha.org/en/ or https://www.facebook.com/tramcuuhochomeohanoi. To make a donation via PayPal, click “send” on the homepage, and enter email@example.com as the recipient.
3. Animal Rescue and Care (A.R.C.), Ho Chi Minh City (Southern Vietnam—Saigon): http://www.arcpets.com/ or https://www.facebook.com/pages/ARC-Vietnam-Animal-Rescue-Care/156253704415502.
4. Cứu Trợ Động Vật Đà Nẵng — Animal Rescue of Danang (Central Vietnam—Da Nang): https://www.facebook.com/CuuTroDongVatDaNang?fref=ts (site in Vietnamese only).