My life five years ago is unrecognisable from the one I lead now.
Back then, I was a vet working with small animals in my native Newcastle, and living with my professional rugby player boyfriend, Alex.
At 25, I had the career of my dreams, a nice house, a nice car, and no money worries. Life was good.
I have wanted to be a vet ever since I was a little girl, one of five kids growing up in Barnard Castle, County Durham.
My dad’s family were farmers and I was surrounded by animals, although my first true love was Finn, a brown and white spaniel, who was an abandoned puppy I adopted when I was doing work experience at a vet aged 16. Finn slept in my bed and I adored him.
It was Finn who ignited my strong connection with dogs.
After qualifying from Nottingham University, I relocated back up north for work and moved in with Alex. We’d been together since I was 14, he was my soul mate and best friend rolled into one. But things started to go downhill when we lived together.
On the outside, we had everything, a seemingly enviable and glamorous lifestyle. But I’d come home tired and stressed, and he’d be exhausted from playing rugby full time. It was like the fun was over and we needed to shake things up.
We booked a trip to Sri Lanka in May 2014. The holiday was supposed to repair our relationship, but we ended up splitting up at the airport before we even got there!
We still went as friends, though, and the country blew me away. The beaches, sunshine, friendly locals and surfing were heavenly. The only problem for me – and it was a huge problem – was the street dogs.
They were everywhere! The healthy ones seemed happy enough roaming the streets, but all too often they were mange-ridden or injured. Their soulful eyes followed me as if asking for help.
One dog that particularly got to me I called Tom. He was so friendly and trusting. He had a nasty gash under his eye, which would have been simply treated in the UK with a few stitches.
I knew that in a tropical climate it would soon be infested with maggots. I didn’t have any of my veterinary kit with me, but I couldn’t leave him like that, so I decided I’d pay for a Sri Lankan vet to treat him.
I asked several, but despite me offering to pay, none would agree to treat a street dog, because they weren’t viewed as worthy, which shocked me and I didn’t know what to do.
Back home, I couldn’t get poor Tom out of my mind. I started Googling Sri Lankan charities that helped street dogs – my worry was those that I could find had been set up by well-meaning individuals as opposed to vets.
I wasn’t sure their ethics and way of working would align with mine. I was desperate to make a real difference.
With Alex and I now split, it would have been easy to move out and carry on with my nice comfortable life, but I realised there was nothing tying me down now. Why not go to Sri Lanka and start treating these animals?
I had some savings, I thought I could survive for a year, help some dogs, and then come home. So I spoke to my wonderful manager at the surgery, Nick, about my plan.
He was so supportive and even gave £10,000 from the company to help me get started. What a boss!
Online, I found a woman called Otara Gunewardene, who’d set up an organisation called Embark, based in the capital Colombo, which helped street dogs.
She explained the most useful thing a vet could do was neutering and vaccination, which made total sense to me and I decided to make those the focus of my charity, which I called WECare Worldwide.
I tied up the loose ends of my life, sold my car and booked my flight for October 2014. Along with my clothes, I packed surgical kits, bandaging and Manuka honey, which can help with wound management. My family came to wave me off at the airport, and I was excited rather than daunted.
Landing in Colombo, in the heat and with the tuk tuks and bustle was a thrill, but I headed straight for Talalla, a beautiful beach town in the south where I’d met Tom, the dog with the poorly eye whose photo I had kept with me to remember my mission.
I stayed at a surfing retreat initially, where I’d previously made friends from my holiday with Alex.
One of the first dogs I treated was Joy, who had been bitten by another dog and whose wound was crawling with maggots. I tweezed them all out, cleaned her up, and bandaged her. No one had ever seen a bandaged dog before!
It was a drop in the ocean, but I felt so happy to have achieved something when she went back onto the street, now wagging her tail.
Making the charity a success became my focus. As well as treating the dogs, I taught myself how to build a website, how to fundraise, generate publicity, and all the other things you never think about. I also learned how to speak Sinhalese, and soon understood when locals called me a crazy white dog lady!
I worked and worked. I went from having one tuk tuk driver to now employing 17 members of staff, including five vets, three nurses and several trainees. In the blink of an eye I’d been in the country a year, then two – and now over five years have passed. Sri Lanka is my home.
Since my first patient, maggoty Joy, we have helped around 12,000 street dogs – from puppies bitten by poisonous snakes, to dogs who have eaten food laced with explosives. I’ve had to amputate mutts’ legs who’ve been run over, and treat STDs, yes, dogs get them too.
I am frequently bitten by dogs, including some with rabies, so I’ve needed jabs that have sometimes made me sick. I’ve contracted mange, as well as ringworm, which isn’t nice. I’ve suffered abuse from locals who think I am mad. But it’s all been worth it.
Twice a year I come back to the UK for fundraising, and I’ll go to the dentist, hairdresser and get my legs waxed at the same time. My priorities have changed. I haven’t used a hair dryer or worn make-up during the day for years.
I eat fish, rice, and veggies, but I miss proper chocolate, Wotsits, and cheese, which you can’t get here. Surfing is my therapy, I try to go every day.
In 2018 I was thrilled to win Vet of the Year. I came back to Britain for Amanda Holden to present me with a Daily Mirror Animal Hero Award. Alesha Dixon and Laura Whitmore were lovely.
Then last year, I featured on C5’s Ben Fogle’s Lives In The Wild. His dad is a vet and Ben was so supportive and kind.
My life now is a far cry from the one I had in Newcastle. I live in a simple beach bungalow, with a lean-to kitchen, camping hob and sadly, rats. One room has air conditioning, but it’s expensive to use and I try and live frugally.
I have adopted five dogs – I couldn’t resist! – called Mali, Benji, Stitch, Lottie, and Tilly. But I’ve had to toughen up, or I would have taken them all in. I am ready to meet someone now, but I’m not desperate to have kids, I’ve got the dogs. There are enough people on the planet, but I would consider adoption.
I’d like to expand our charity across Sri Lanka and open clinics in other parts of Asia. People have described me as selfless, but I love what I do and get to spend time with animals every day. I get as much back from these dogs as I give them, I feel so lucky.
– Janey The Vet by Janey Lowes is out on 19 March (£14.99, Michael O’Mara) available to pre-order now. Donations welcome by CLICKING HERE
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