Nalinika Obeyesekere is reforming Sri Lanka’s failing animal care system by improving veterinary education, tending to the country’s large stray animal population, and introducing new commercial opportunities in the animal service industry. She launched the country’s first multi-doctor veterinary practice, and uses a portion of the profits to subsidize free treatment for street animals and promote animal safety awareness. Equally important, her initiatives emphasize a renewed ethic of compassion and civic responsibility throughout Sri Lanka’s war-torn society.
The New Idea
Nalinika has introduced a new model for veterinary care in Sri Lanka with three key aims: To develop a better trained workforce; to leverage new opportunities in the animal service industry; and to promote a general sense of compassion toward animals through community education programs.
Sri Lanka’s veterinary profession has long suffered from inadequate training and poor service. As a first step toward improving the quality of care, Nalinika established Sri Lanka’s first professional body of veterinary practitioners to promote ongoing professional development. The society offers an affordable continuing education program, with a focus on professional ethics.
Nalinika is furthermore pioneering new fields and commercial opportunities for animal care. With the number of pet-owning households on the rise, her multi-practitioner Pet Vet clinic highlights the growing profitability of animal care, thereby drawing better students to the field. She likewise promotes the use of animals for therapeutic purposes, and is generating new businesses in the animal service industry.
Finally, Nalinika operates a free service to care for street animals. This arm runs both mobile clinics and awareness programs in schools and communities, designed to promote better animal care. Children and their families are taught about rabies prevention and control, bite prevention and responsible pet ownership. The sum effect is an emerging ethic of compassion in a country brutalized by decades of war.
Sri Lanka’s sole veterinary program offers only a basic foundation in veterinary medicine, with limited facilities and few specialists. Unlike Western countries, Sri Lanka lacks post-graduate opportunities in clinical medicine, and local veterinarians cannot afford to attend today’s regional conferences and training programs. Because vets receive only modest salaries, typical entrants to the profession are those who fail to get admission to medical school and have little interest or aptitude for the profession. As a result of its lack of quality education, Sri Lanka’s veterinary sector is now known for its poor standards of practice and inadequate facilities.
Meanwhile, local vets have been unable to keep up with the increases in middle-class pet ownership. The government employs the majority of the country’s veterinarians to take care of farm animals, leaving pet owners to turn to local pharmacists or other unqualified individuals. These demands have accompanied a staggering rise in the number of stray animals: In the city of Colombo alone, there are an estimated 20,000 stray dogs and a similar number of cats. These animals scavenge for food in dumped garbage, and often carry skin infections and other diseases, resulting in numerous public health and sanitation problems.
These problems are exacerbated by a lack of compassion for animals among the general public. People rarely take responsibility for caring for stray animals, and frequently abandon unwanted puppies and kittens on roadsides and in temples and schools. Rather than attempt to improve animal welfare as a whole, municipal authorities simply round up and kill the stray animals whenever there are incidents of rabies.
In her efforts to reform the vet profession, Nalinika relies on the Society of Companion Animal Practitioners (SCAP), a group of veterinarians who work to increase access to veterinary knowledge and professional development. Using reputable professional networks around the world, she has already enlisted the help of twelve overseas professionals to lead a training program through SCAP. Additionally, she works with universities to revise admissions procedures as a means of discouraging the entry of students who lack a genuine interest in veterinary medicine.
Her well-equipped Pet Vet clinic, founded with two other women, has grown considerably in recent years. It charges those who can afford to pay, and uses a portion of the profits to subsidize a free clinic for street animals and pets of people who cannot afford to pay for services. Having begun merely as a partnership, the clinic now operates as a private limited company, thereby ensuring greater transparency. It quickly earned a credible reputation, and new clinics with similarly high standards have begun to replicate her model.
Most of Nalinika’s work with stray animals is done through a private foundation. Relying on international and local support, the Blue Paw Trust works to find humane ways to control the safety and health threats caused by stray animals. The Trust spays and neuters 2,500 animals each year, and has conducted massive rabies vaccination programs following events like the 2004 Tsunami. The foundation’s work also includes educational efforts in schools and communities, and among farmers’ and women’s groups on public health needs and animal welfare.
Capitalizing on Sri Lanka’s large stray animal population, Nalinika trains street dogs as seeing-eye dogs, companion dogs, and therapy dogs. She has facilitated placements of therapy dogs for autistic children and trained dogs as companions for older people. Her efforts extend to the animal care industry, where she is working to set up kennels, grooming, and other auxiliary services that will provide youth employment opportunities.
Nalinika’s long-term goal is to establish a full-service teaching hospital that will bring together SCAP’s professional education efforts, the Pet Vet clinic, and the Blue Paw Trust, and upgrade the overall quality of companion animal medicine in Sri Lanka.
Nalinika’s father is an anthropologist and when he went to remote areas for field study, his family accompanied him. With the help of their mother, the three children picked up sick and injured animals—rabbits, birds, and dogs—and brought them home. Two kind local veterinarians mended and provided care for the various animals they had in their garden, sparking Nalinika’s interest in the field. When she was ten-years-old, Nalinika and her family moved to U.S., where she eventually graduated with a degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology from University of California at Davis, Afraid of spending the rest of her life taking care of the pets of wealthy Americans, she elected to return to Sri Lanka to pursue her veterinary degree.
After graduating, Nalinika taught at a university for two years, where she was exposed to the same bureaucracy and red tape that she felt hindered progress in the veterinary profession. She eventually chose to leave the university, and in 1996, she and two other women broke tradition and combined their interests, knowledge, and resources to create the first multi-doctor veterinary practice in Sri Lanka. This was the start of her journey to revolutionize the systems of animal care in the country.