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All creatures, great & small

SHANGHAI has become a lot more animal-friendly, but then there are still people who treat pets like personal decorations. Sam Riley talks to a vet.

For Englishman James Holder, a life spent helping animals began in rather inauspicious circumstances.

One of Shanghai's few expat veterinarians, Holder still remembers seeing his first surgical procedure when he was just 14 while undertaking work experience at his local vet clinic in Norfolk, eastern England.

"It was my first day there and they were castrating a mastiff. It was a big dog, it must have weighed at least 45 kilograms," he recalls. "The sterility of the room and the smell (hit me). I stood up against the wall but slowly slid down. The veterinary surgeon said, 'okay, you'd better leave'."

But the young Holder was not to be discouraged and it was shortly after, while accompanying a vet on a trip to an abattoir, that he realized he wanted a career as a vet.

"There was blood, guts and milk and there was me in my wellies (Wellington boots) and I thought it was great because I was helping to find out what was going on," he says.

Holder's current life as an expat in Shanghai continues a pattern that dominated his upbringing. His father was a pilot and was regularly posted abroad.

"Between the ages of seven and 14, I experienced four cultures as vastly different as England, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Germany," he says.

Holder attended boarding school in England and says he took every opportunity to work at the veterinary practice in his holidays and spare time.

He went on to complete his veterinarian studies at University of Bristol in west England. In 1998, he joined a practice in the small town of Droitwich, south of Birmingham.

The mixed-practice saw both domestic pets and agricultural animals, causing the young vet to regularly test his theoretical knowledge and sometimes reach for the textbook.

"It was very James Herriot-like, people would come in with all kinds of things from their pet pig, foxes, swans, hampsters to the standard dog, goat, sheep and dairy cow," Holder says.

While saying he enjoys treating all animals, Holder says he has a natural affinity with dogs because he has owned them all his life. During his time in Droitwich he also gained "a love for the peaceful nature of the dairy cow."

After two years, Holder moved on to a busy London small animal practice where he says he learned to "love and appreciate cats."

With his student debts paid off and another two years under his belt in London, Holder started hatching plans to travel abroad.

These plans included working with elephants in Sri Lanka for three months.

But an ex-girlfriend's suggestion that he give China a try landed him in Shanghai in October 2002 for a three-month stint. The elephants of Sri Lanka never saw Holder again because he settled in Shanghai permanently, marrying his West Australian wife Melanie and having two children - Daisy, 3, and George, 18 months.

In the Paw Veterinary Clinic where he works in Shanghai's Changning District, Holder sees mainly small animals. Unlike his British animal clientele, these include more reptiles, like tortoises.

In the more than six years he has been in Shanghai, Holder has seen a dramatic shift in attitudes toward animal welfare.

"It is just the beginning but over the last five to six years things have changed an massive amount, with clients getting more serious about their animals and driving vets to get more serious about doing their job," he says.

Holder says the legislation, social attitudes and the legal precedents for the protection of animals took more than 80 years to become established in developed countries like the United States and Britain, while China is developing its own systems rapidly.

While Holder has witnessed positive changes in how Chinese people treat animals, he says expats need to consider carefully if they are in a position to own an animal.

He warns that foreigners wanting to own a pet in China should look past the "cute and cuddly factor" and plan for a 15-year commitment to the animal they plan to take on.

He says it is not in the best interests of an animal to be passed on to different owners because people discover that it is very hard and expensive to take an animal back to their home country.

"I tell people unless they have a substantial slush fund to consider very carefully owning an animal because it could cost at much as 10,000 yuan (US$1,463) to take a dog back to your home country," he says. "It will also have to spend a long time in a kennel in quarantine so you have to consider the breed, size and temperament of a dog and whether that is suited to your circumstances."

Holder has become personally involved in improving the plight of animals in Shanghai as the medical director of Second Chance Animal Aid Shanghai.

The organization is committed to protecting and improving the health and welfare of animals through education, health-care and advocacy. SCAA also aims to find stable long-term foster homes for animals as an alternative approach to traditional shelters.

As well as volunteering at the non-profit organization, Holder is a keen member of the Hairy Crabs rugby team, playing at fullback.

While admitting to not being as fleet-footed as when he arrived in Shanghai, Holder still plays up to two games most Saturdays. Along with anchoring the Hairy Crabs' backline, Holder is also occasionally called on for his professional expertise, particularly his suturing skills.

James Holder

Nationality: English


Profession: Veterinary surgeon


Description of self:

Honest, open, passionate.

Favorite place: The rugby pitch at the Shanghai Rugby Football Club.

Strangest sight:

A poodle painted in seven different colors. I have owned dogs all my life, but this is just bizarre.

Worse experience: Losing a patient that I couldn't save here but that I might have been able to save under different circumstances back home.Motto for life: Every experience is good because you can learn from it.

How to improve Shanghai:

Animal health and welfare legislation. More tolerance, with people remembering that they are guests here, but a little more tolerance from everybody would be good.

Advice to newcomers:

Plan, plan, plan. Read as much as you can, talk to as many people as you can, find out as much about what Shanghai was and what it is becoming. And re-evaluate your expectations every three months because they change quickly.


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