British vet caring for pets of township dwellers

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The Independent Online

Most British charities working in South Africa's townships are dealing with the effects of HIV/Aids or crime, but a leading British vet wants to provide a different kind of aid – caring for the pets of township dwellers.

Emma Milne, who stars in the BBC series Vets in Practice and has just spent a "harrowing" two weeks in the townships, says her proposal is not frivolous. She found that pets could teach children respect and compassion in environments where poverty, drugs and violence dominate daily life. When a pet was ill, it often compounded the daily misery of its owner, who could not afford even the cheapest of treatments.

Through a charity, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, Ms Milne, 36, plans to urge British vets to volunteer their help in South Africa, where there is a desperate shortage of trained personnel. Expensive tuition fees force locally-qualified vets abroad soon after they graduate, so that they can earn enough foreign currency to pay off their debts. That means a shortage in the townships.

The British vet helped local staff and volunteers in Soweto, near Johannesburg, and Khayelitsha, on the edge of Cape Town. At the Mdzananda Animal Clinic in Khayelitsha, there is only one full-time vet for the township, which has around a million people living in shacks. The welfare of animals might seem secondary in countries like South Africa, where there is so much poverty, said Ms Milne, "but that's wrong, because a lot of these people gain a lot of love and companionship, which does improve their lives.

"The bond between animals and humans is really important, particularly if you have little or nothing. There was a small child in Soweto who'd lost all his family to HIV. When he went begging, he shared everything 50/50 with his cat, which was the only thing he had."

It was her first visit to South Africa. A day after arriving in Soweto, Ms Milne said, she phoned her husband Mark, also a vet, in Britain, and "cried for half an hour". She added: "You cannot imagine how poor a lot of these people are. They have little or nothing, and live in shacks with no power or toilets. It's incomprehensible to most people living in the UK."

Roughly one township household in three has pets, with four dogs for each cat. Dogs are usually kept on leashes outside shacks for security, and animal welfare workers have to educate their owners on the need to exercise them. But Ms Milne said she had learned a lesson of her own. "In Soweto... we brought out this greyhound and asked children what they thought he needed. We thought they'd say 'Food and water', but actually they said 'Love and respect'. There was a big lump in my throat."

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