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Making a difference
  1. Hayley Walter


Hayley Walters worked in mixed practice for 10 years but then realised she wanted to make more of a difference to animals' lives. She joined Animals Asia, and began a new career in animal welfare. This year, she won the ‘Vet Nurse of the Year’ category in the Ceva Animal Welfare Awards

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I STARTED veterinary nursing 19 years ago. I was 18 years old, ridiculously passionate about animals, and had just finished my BTec National Diploma in Animal Care. Like most teenage animal-lovers, I wanted to work with animals – in any capacity, I didn't care – I just knew that animals made me happy. Despite the warning of one of my lecturers not to become a VN as ‘all you'll be doing is cleaning’, I went on to train and work in a wonderful practice in Derbyshire.

Monitoring anaesthesia in a newly arrived bile farm bear, which is undergoing its initial health check; the bile staining can be seen on its abdomen

I spent 10 years there, working in a mixed animal practice where the VNs were used to their full potential in both small and large animal work and, consequently, we gained a vast array of skills. But I wanted more out of life. I wanted to have exciting experiences and get out of the small town I felt I had outgrown.

I started to look at opportunities to volunteer overseas with gorillas or elephants, but the charities charged too much to work for them even for a week or two.

Then I saw an advert in VN Times that would change my life forever. It was about the size of a postage stamp, and it simply read ‘Vet nurse volunteers needed to work with rescued bears in China’, and a website address. The charity was Animals Asia and the website left me shocked and saddened. It showed beautiful Asiatic black bears individually crammed into coffin-sized metal cages, unable to stand up or even to turn around.

Kept in darkness and with metal pipes inserted into their gall bladders and sticking out of their abdomens, these were bile farm bears; bears that are confined for their entire life, having their bile consciously extracted for use in traditional Chinese medicine. It is legal and there are an estimated 10,000 bears across China living in conditions of malnourishment, dehydration, chronic pain, restriction and fear. Suddenly it wasn't about how animals could make me happy or what would be exciting, it was about how I could help and make a difference as a VN.

‘Suddenly, it wasn't about how

animals could make me happy, it

was about how I could help and

make a difference as a VN’

After my initial three-month stint volunteering for Animals Asia I knew where my heart and passion lay – it was in welfare. Two batches of bile farm bears arrived while I was there. Scared, mistrusting, underweight and with open weeping abdominal fistulas, their skin was burned by the bile that had leaked out of them for so many years. I remember one bear clearly, a female called Sally, who would squeak with excitement when we brought her food. During her initial sedation and health check it was revealed that she had had so many ‘surgeries’ to create the fistula through which the bile could be extracted that the skin under her armpits had scarred and contracted so much that she was unable to lift her arms above her head.

As a volunteer, my job was to feed and water the bears every day, clean out their hospital cages and provide environmental enrichment for them three times a day. Once they were fit enough for surgery we would scrub in with the vet to help with the cholecystectomies, which could take anything up to eight hours as there were often years worth of adhesions to break down. It was incredible seeing how quickly these frightened bears, who had known nothing but pain from humans, began to trust us. They had many physical problems but also were mentally affected from their years in a solitary, unstimulating, cramping environment, and most of the bears would head sway or pace while still in their hospital cages.

Once they had recovered from surgery and been quarantined they would be released into semi-natural enclosures. This was always the most emotional day for me and tears would roll freely down my face seeing them tentatively walk on grass for the first time.

Problem solving

I worked as a paid VN for Animals Asia for three years after my initial volunteer stint. Problem solving was frequently a daily task as we were never able to physically handle our patients. How do you induce and maintain anaesthesia in a 220 kg bear? How do you worm 180 bears on the same day with a wormer that is not designed to be palatable for bears? What do you do if a bear injures another bear in the middle of an enclosure? How do you treat surgical pain effectively in a country that has a restriction on the use of opioids?

I also learned a lot about working in developing countries as I spent time at the charity's other bear sanctuary in Vietnam, handrearing illegally trafficked bear cubs. And I learned a lot about mass dog rescue in China. At one point, we had to take care of over 140 dogs intercepted from the dog meat trade, and on another occasion, we had more than 100 dogs to look after when their owners were made homeless during the Sichuan earthquake of 2008. At the time, the government was threatening a cull of all dogs in refugee camps. It was a huge learning experience for a VN from Derbyshire, and after leaving China I used to wish there was ‘another China’ where I could put the knowledge and skills I'd acquired to use.

And it happened. When I saw an advert for a welfare and anaesthesia nurse at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies in Edinburgh, I knew this was a job where I could still make a difference to animals' lives and put my knowledge to good use.

Many overseas vet schools still use live animals to teach their students a range of skills, from blood sampling and suturing to lateral wall resections

Using a model dog head to teach jugular blood sampling in China

I work two days a week in the Jeanne Marchig International Centre for Animal Welfare Education and three days a week in the anaesthesia department of the university's Hospital for Small Animals. My welfare role involves teaching veterinary students and lecturers in vet schools in developing countries. With my colleagues, Natalie Waran and Heather Bacon, we teach animal welfare, pain recognition, anaesthesia, in-patient needs, behaviour and basic nursing care, as well as clinical and surgical skills using models and manikins as an alternative to live teaching animals. Many vet schools around the world still use live animals to teach their students a range of skills, from blood sampling and suturing to lateral wall resections and fixing deliberately fractured legs. Little regard may be paid to the animal's welfare during the procedure or to its living conditions afterwards. This results in students being conflicted between their desire to learn and their compassion for animals that led them to want to be a vet in the first place. It also creates a divide in the perception of value of an animal's life with client-owned animals being deemed being of more worth than a teaching animal.

In my anaesthesia role I teach final-year vet students how to induce and maintain anaesthesia and how to recognise the difference between nociception and light anaesthesia. Great importance is placed on pre-emptive analgesia, being able to confidently pain score an animal and create an appropriate analgesia plan for an animal that isn't simply a tick box exercise. Teaching the next generation of vets is hugely important in terms of improving welfare. If we don't teach them what the most modern research has taught us, then we have failed to improve the welfare of their future patients. We must always try to make a difference.

CEVA award

Winning the CEVA award has been positive in many different ways. It has given me credibility in countries where the role of the VN is not well understood. I was recently invited to speak in Croatia on animal welfare in veterinary education as a result of the award. It has highlighted veterinary nursing in the media as I was featured in a local Edinburgh newspaper, and it has also raised the profile of the international work I do as a member of the BSAVA's International Affairs Committee. As the first VN to serve on this committee, I want to use this opportunity to highlight the problems to the WSAVA about the lack of nursing training in developing countries and the unnecessary use of live animals in veterinary education.

‘I would encourage anyone to

nominate someone you think

is deserving of an award. We

do this job for the love of it,

but being acknowledged by

your own profession definitely

gives you a boost’

I would encourage anyone reading this to nominate someone who they think is deserving of this award. We do this job for the love of it, but being acknowledged by your own profession definitely gives you a boost.

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