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Love, care, and shelter at Khayelitsha’s animal clinic

Love, care, and shelter at Khayelitsha’s animal clinic

From a makeshift shipping container to a fully-equipped hospital, this clinic offers a vital service to the community.

“It's an incredibly under-serviced area and it often feels like a field hospital in a war zone. Suddenly animals arrive all at once and someone yells, 'Incoming!’”

Brian Bergman was doing the morning rounds in Mdzananda Animal Clinic’s cat ward when he reached into a cage and pulled out a puppy.

The puppy was isolating among the cats in case he had a virus that could spread to the other dogs. As Brian cuddled the puppy, he suddenly felt overwhelmed, holding this little life in his hands.

“It was a moment of intense connection,” he says. “It’s such a privilege to interact with another being and be in service to it.”

Brian is one of three vets at the clinic in Cape Town’s Khayelitsha township.

The clinic’s inspiring tale began in the early 1990s when resident Joe Manchu ventured out with a trolley, going door-to-door, washing and feeding dogs and cats, and helping residents look after their pets.

The service transformed from a trolley to a shipping container in a field of sand when the clinic opened officially in 1996. It didn’t have electricity or running water.

Mr Joe, as he’s affectionately known, called the clinic Mdzananda, which means “mange” in isiXhosa, because so many animals suffered from the skin disease.

“Ananda” is also “extreme happiness” in Buddhism, and the clinic has treated mange and brought extreme happiness to owners and their pets.

Two-and-a half decades later, Mr Joe has retired, but often visits the clinic, which has transformed from a shipping container into a well-equipped hospital with an operating theatre, animal ambulance, mobile clinics, and a shelter for strays.

There are 25 staff members offering care and kindness to more than 1000 animals each month, and the clinic continues to expand.

“It’s one of the only facilities in Khayelitsha that offers people an option for getting their animals cared for,” explains Brian.

“It’s an incredibly under-serviced area and it often feels like a field hospital in a war zone. Suddenly animals arrive all at once and someone yells, ‘Incoming!’. It’s a crazy, challenging, high-pressure environment, but I love it.”

Brian would take his work home with him, but he already has four dogs of his own, who sleep in his bed.

Brian’s relationship with the clinic began in 1997 when, as a fresh graduate, he did a locum. After a stint in private practice, he returned in 2010 because he wanted to be part of something meaningful.

The Mdzananda vets are the last line of treatment.

“Owners can’t afford to take their pets to specialists, so if we don’t fix the problem, it’s not going to get fixed, which means we have to be innovative with what little we have to make a big difference.”

Brian says the shelter has helped change community members’ attitudes to animals.

“When I started, animals were predominantly there for protection. People had vicious dogs outside their homes to stop burglaries, but now dogs are part of the family and sleep in their owners’ beds.”

Brian has noticed strong bonds develop between humans and their pets. Of the animals they see, 70 percent are dogs, and the rest are cats, along with the odd pig and goat.

The clinic isn’t free, but fees are low, and no one is turned away.

Brian says dogs offer love regardless of one’s life circumstances and that relationship serves as psychological support in communities where life is hard as nails.

“People hustle to survive in Khayelitsha. Children are often left alone because parents leave early to look for work or to travel to work and a dog becomes a powerful source of emotional support and sanity for that child.”

Brian has seen what pets can do for their owners, and he’s also witnessed what owners can do for their pets.

A dog came in with a badly broken pelvis and couldn’t stand.

“He was in pain and we were going to euthanise him. We phoned the owners to tell them to come say goodbye. When they got to the clinic, the dog ran to them. Seeing his owners was enough to get him back on his feet. When you see how a dog loves his owner so much, he’s prepared to overcome incredible pain to be with them, that’s truly life-affirming.”

The dog’s love for his owner saved his life. After a long period of cage resting and physio, he went home.

The “dog spirit” constantly amazes Brian.

“A dog comes in with a mangled leg and you have to amputate. The next day he’s running around on three legs, wagging his tail as if nothing has happened. They don’t complain, they just accept, ‘Oh, this is my condition now.’ That tenacity of spirit and their ability to survive … they’re just remarkable. Dogs have a lot to teach us,” he says.

Jonathan Ancer

Change expert, Jonathan Ancer, believes that the big change equals big opportunity.

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