Mekong Delta woman opens heart and hearth to abandoned dogs

Tran Le Thuy expends all the warmth in her heart to care for sick, abandoned dogs. The heart-breaking work’s a labor of love.

Hero groans. Thuy wakes up. It’s 3.30 a.m. She guesses he must have peed.

Hero has had his backbone broken and his hind legs paralyzed. The smart, gentle golden retriever has been living with Thuy, 52, for more than a month. A normal golden retriever is precious, costing several million dong (VND1 million = $43), but Hero had been left to die.

"When he was beautiful and healthy, they loved him; but when he was sick they abandoned him at a landfill," said Thuy, her eyes filling up with tears as she recalled seeing the video of the paralyzed dog trying to run after his owner before helplessly seeing the motorbike disappear. The day she saw the video, she went and picked Hero up.

Thuy feeds her dogs their favorite sausages. 

A fruit vendor for more than two decades, Thuy lives in Bui Huu Nghia Commune, Binh Thuy District, Can Tho City. While she loves dogs, she never thought of having them as pets. One day in 2014 changed everything.

It was the flooding season in Can Tho. She woke up early one morning to hear some puppies crying. She looked where the crying was coming from and found two puppies around one month old caught among the floating water hyacinth and trash. She took them home, warmed them up and fed them. The two puppies went on to become family members.

When they got better, Thuy posted the story on a Facebook group of dog lovers in Can Tho and earned a lot of kudos. But the kudos had their "fallout." Whenever anyone in the city saw a sick and abandoned dog, they thought of Thuy and contacted her.

And Thuy could not turn away or say enough is enough.

"Saving one dog without saving another makes me feel bad, so whenever they call me, I just go and pick them up," Thuy said. She now mothers 36 dogs, most of them suffering some sickness or disability including intestinal infections, dermatitis and cancer.

Thuy with Hero, who practices walking with his cart for an hour every day.

Each dog comes with a special story of its own. One of the most memorable ones is of a pitbull she saved two years ago. It was suffering from dermatitis and had been abandoned at a landfill for more than 10 days. No one dared approach the seriously ill and aggressive animal. Eating trash for days had ruined the dog’s intestine, which bled whenever it moved.

People told her to feed the sick dog and leave him to his fate. There was nothing else that could be done. But that was not possible for Thuy. For more than a month, she took the dog to many veterinary hospitals and clinics in town, but they could not save the pitbull. Then she found a clinic in Ho Chi Minh City, around 200 km away, where they promised to do their best to save its life if she took it to them.

Thuy’s husband, a retired soldier, rented a four-seat car and drove his wife and the pitbull to Saigon. Five days later, they rented another one to go home.

The name she gives to all her dogs attest to their story or their personality. One, Phao Hoa (Fireworks), got the name because it was prone to farting a lot. The golden retriever became Hero for overcoming parasites, blood issues and a broken backbone.

With no medical experience, Thuy had to rely completely on local clinics, initially. Today, she is a pro at taking care of them, having learnt a lot of things from the Internet and actual practice.

"The only thing I have not done is a surgery," she said, adding that she now can inject vaccines and medicines for the dogs on her own.

Fellow dog lovers are impressed and awed by Thuy’s work.

"She must love them a lot as she never hesitates to shower a dog with a lot of mites and scabies. I would be shivering, and can never do it like her," said Thanh Ha, who follows Thuy’s activities on Facebook.

Once she’s done treating a dog, Thuy hopes it can find a new family to love and take care of them.

"They are safe and well fed here, but I do not have time to take care of around 50 dogs," she said.

However, she does not give away her dogs to anyone who asks for one. She once gave one to a woman she’d met online. The woman used to visit her place to play with the dogs and even bathe them. The first night she took the dog away, however, she did not send a video as promised.

Guessing there was something wrong, Thuy visited the woman’s place in the middle of the night and learnt that the dog had been sold for VND300,000 ($13). Thuy insisted on asking the woman to take her to the dog’s new house and got him back. Since then, she only gives her canine wards to relatives and friends after making sure they would love and take care of the dogs responsibly.

Some don't make it

Thuy feeds her canines with rice, ground meat and home-grown vegetables. They eat six kilograms of rice and three kilograms of meat every day. 

Saving an ill dog is not easy. Thuy has failed several times. The dogs who don’t make it are cremated. Thuy pays VND100,000 ($4.31) per kilo for the cremation and scatters their ashes on the river bank.

Every month, she spends around VND10 million on buying food and medicines for her dogs. They money she earns from selling fruits and her husband’s pension are all used for the canines.

"If we have more money, we'd feed them well with two meals per day, one of rice and the other of dried food. When we earn less, apart from the rice, they will have less dried food as we cannot buy much," she said, adding that she also feeds them with vegetables grown in her garden.

Thu, Thuy’s neighbor, said: "She loves the dogs so much, she has a big air-conditioned room for them to stay in on hot days. The dogs do not bark unreasonably. She just raises her voice and they go silent."

Previously, Thuy’s family used to have more money to travel and buy new clothes. Now, they spend everything on the dogs and are very careful about spending any money.

"In the morning, I sometimes crave a cup of coffee but I have to think carefully about whether I should buy one or not," Thuy said.

Many people have asked her to go to local slaughterhouses and save more dogs, but she does not have enough money and energy. Besides, she is afraid that doing this could encourage dog stealing, so she only tries to save sick and homeless ones.

"Saving a life is easy but taking care of it for years is difficult. I hope people do not abandon their dogs."

Around lunch time, she puts rice and food into a big pot, waiting for it to cool down before feeding her dogs at around 4 p.m. She cleans up later, with the little ones at their "mother’s" heels. Some fall fast sleep on the clean floor.

She looks at Ca Phe (Coffee), suffering from liver cancer, rubbing its back on the cement floor to scratch itself.

"I used to cry when they died. But now, I am also relieved for some. Death may free them from pain."