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From teacher to trailblazer

Abstract

Nalinika Obeyesekere was recently awarded the World Small Animal Veterinary Association’s inaugural award for companion animal welfare in recognition of her contribution to raising standards of veterinary care in Sri Lanka.

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I was born in Sri Lanka but moved to the USA with my parents when I was 11. Later on I studied wildlife biology and management at the University of California (UC) Davis.

I was always determined to return to Sri Lanka, particularly because I felt that advantaged individuals should come back to the country to contribute towards its development. There were already so many talented people in the USA – I knew I could make a more valuable contribution at home, especially with my knowledge of wildlife.

I arrived back in Sri Lanka in 1985 and worked with wildlife for two years; with the National Aquatic Research Agency (as a volunteer at the Department of Wildlife Conservation) and at Colombo zoo. I soon became frustrated – we had so many ambitious plans, but bureaucracy always got in the way and I’m not blessed with diplomatic skills or patience.

Roger Payne, a global leader in dolphin research, offered me a great opportunity to study for a PhD in Argentina. I was very tempted as I love working with cetaceans. However, a vet and family friend, Hector C. Perera, was determined that I should become a vet and bombarded me with information. In the end, his advice, combined with my desire to live in Sri Lanka, shaped my decision. I qualified at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine, University of Peradeniya.

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Studying at home was quite an experience – I had to call my lecturers ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ and, in this and many other ways, the contrast to the informality of UC Davis could not have been more stark. It wasn’t an easy experience, but it did at least help me to reintegrate culturally, and gave me a different perspective on education.

As advanced studies in companion animal medicine were not (and are still not) available in Sri Lanka, I subsequently undertook the online master’s degree in small animal medicine offered by Murdoch University in Australia. I still regret that this wonderful programme has subsequently been discontinued. It offered such an invaluable opportunity for vets with little access to advanced training in our region.

In 1992 I got a job at the University of Peradeniya. I’m from a family of professors and love to teach, so it seemed a natural fit. However, I soon found that I was hitting the familiar problems with bureaucracy and I just wasn’t able to make the changes I felt were badly needed. It wasn’t for me.

On leaving academia, I opened a companion animal practice, Pet Vet Clinic, in Colombo with two colleagues – Janaki Collure and Vipuli Kulasekera – in 1996.

When we first opened, everyone (including my family) thought we were crazy. Why had I left a prestigious job at the university to open a private vet practice – particularly with two other women? Surely, we wouldn’t be able to work together for long, and how would three women manage a business on our own? All this did was make us more determined to succeed.

Pet Vet Clinic was the first multivet small animal practice in Colombo and is a trailblazer

Pet Vet Clinic was the first multivet small animal practice in Colombo. It was, and continues to be, a trailblazer although now there are many similar practices.

From having three vets when we started, we now employ 10 vets among a staff of 30, and have many of the facilities you might expect to see in a modern veterinary practice.

The lead taken by Pet Vet Clinic has undoubtedly improved overall levels of companion animal veterinary care in Sri Lanka and I’m very proud of what we have achieved.

We also offer internships for Sri Lankan veterinary students and externships for students from international universities, including the UK and the USA. We strongly believe that cross-border interactions are essential to improve the quality of veterinary practise in general.

Helping to develop the profession in our country was one of our primary goals. As more and more vets joined Pet Vet Clinic and wanted to develop their learning, we felt it was important to bring more structured CPD to Sri Lanka. With this in mind we joined with like-minded colleagues to set up the Society of Companion Animal Practitioners (SCAP) in 2003 and now run regular CPD events.

SCAP then joined the World Small Animal Veterinary Association (WSAVA) in order to participate in its global community of companion animal vets and to benefit from the excellent CPD it offers to countries in which companion animal practice is still emerging.

Social responsibility

Although we have already achieved a great deal in Sri Lanka, in reality we are just at the beginning of our journey. Our profession still needs help to reach the same level as developed countries to be afforded the respect it deserves, comparable to other professions.

Rabies remains a serious problem in Sri Lanka and we are determined to help to eradicate it. In 2003, we established the Blue Paw Trust (BPT) as the corporate social responsibility arm of Pet Vet Clinic.

Through BPT we offer a professional perspective, effectively balancing the needs of both human and animal health and welfare. Although animal welfare starts with how we treat animals, when people are afraid of getting rabies, it is often compromised.

While we promote care and respect for animals, we also regularly lead or participate in rabies control programmes and promote the country’s National Rabies Eradication Plan.

Delivering a dream

Research proves that we need animals to support our own physical and mental wellbeing, yet our cities refuse to take this into account. Here, we have ‘no pets’ signs everywhere, including in most parks.

It’s my dream to create a space in Colombo that promotes and nurtures the human-animal bond

It’s my dream to create a space in Colombo that promotes and nurtures the human-animal bond. At its heart will be a clinical institute and veterinary hospital that meet international standards. It will be built to a sustainable model and will be a hub for international collaboration. I’m working on delivering my dream while I continue my work at Pet Vet Clinic, BPT and SCAP.

Life keeps me busy and I still have a low frustration tolerance. I always want things to improve faster. I was honoured to receive WSAVA’s Award for Companion Animal Welfare in September and look forward to continuing to play an active role within this global association. Bringing about change is what motivates and excites me and clearly I have plenty still to do!

WSAVA awards

The WSAVA is calling for nominations for its 2019 Awards. They are:

  • The WSAVA International Award for Scientific Achievement

  • The WSAVA-Hill’s Next Generation Award

  • The WSAVA Companion Animal Welfare Award

Find out more at https://www.wsava.org/About/Awards

The closing date is 31 December 2018.

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