American Catherine Besch’s wanderlust has meant living in several places outside her home country over the past decade. “I was looking for some place warm… with nice people and a beach,” she says, of her arrival in Hoi An, Vietnam in 2012. She never imagined she’d be setting up base there and co-founding the country’s first-ever farm animal sanctuary with a friend. Today, Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue (VAAR) is four years old, houses 60 animals and undertakes adoption and vegan advocacy programmes.
Besch is ably assisted in her efforts by Master Julian, a two-year-old rescued pig with remarkable intelligence. “He’ll sit down in the middle of education sessions,” she says of VAAR’s star resident, who responds to ear rubs with soft grunts. “He’s such a goofball. We have conversations — he has a variety of sounds he can make in response to questions.”
Julian, who weighs 200 kg and has a barn of his own, can open doors with his snout, and was once mischievously opening Besch’s refrigerator when she spotted him. She recalls exclaiming his name in surprise, after which Julian looked at her for a moment and then quickly shut the refrigerator door again. She continues after a pause, “I wouldn’t believe this story if someone told me either.” She adds that Julian, apart from being ‘the pig who knows too much’, is a sensitive animal who missed her deeply when she flew home for a vegan Thanksgiving. The shelter managers reported that Julian was listless in her absence. “He’s been very bright since I came back,” she says. “He does this thing where he spins around in the grass and runs off. They have eyes on the sides of their heads… he turns to the side and looks at me with big, baby eyes. He’s my whole world.”
Besch believes that all species deserve freedom and happiness, and is pursuing a PhD in psychology that explores the connection between cruelty to animals and subsequent violence towards humans. She expresses concern about the international problem of unregulated dog breeders.
Apart from evidence of medical problems that pure-bred dogs face as a result of selective breeding (she observes a large number of these cases at their clinic), Besch also believes that there are other ethical reasons to say no to the puppy trade. “Never participate in any sort of (pet) breeding programme,” is her plea. “It is so morally void that anyone would want to put more on this planet when so many are suffering and dying,” she says, advocating adoption of rescued animals instead. “What you’re saying as an owner is: I’m opening my heart to someone who needs me.”
Besch finds that there’s a long way to go for the animal movement, regardless of which country we live in, but is optimistic nonetheless. She cites her own example as someone who was once unaware of animals’ suffering. “Individuals and societies are capable of learning and changing,” she says. “We’ve done it throughout history… I look at everybody with such great hope.”