A Pig Called Julian

Based in Hoi An, the Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization (VAWO) is on a mission. They're trying to improve the standard of care for animals in this country. Words by Jon Aspin


Have you ever taped a bird’s wings back together after it kamikaze’d into your freshly cleaned front windows? Have you befriended a thirsty possum? Or gone home with a gecko in your top pocket? If so, you might love animals, which is great, because we do too.


We also know someone else who does, a lot. Her name is Emma Bolton, and by a lot I mean she currently lives in a house with 42 rescued cats. 42. That’s a big bag of kitty litter, and it doesn’t stop there. Also splitting bills with her are seven dogs, four chickens, three ducks, a pig called Julian and one extremely understanding Vietnamese man — a man Emma met within three months of being here six years ago, a man she now calls her fiancé.


Notwithstanding happy nuptials, the situation is not her ideal one. That, she explains, would be when she doesn’t have to do this job at all — as manager and co-founder of the Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization (VAWO), the animal rescue and veterinary clinic in Hoi An she set up two years ago with her friend Catherine Besch.


Completely self-funded, they were both inspired into action by some early experiences taking on stray cats. These included Emma’s first, a mother of five kittens that was stolen to the meat trade — yes, cats are on the menu here too.





When we catch up over Skype, Emma has competition for the mic — I can hear her extended brood. However this doesn’t stop her from some fast-paced words about everything her growing cadre of animal activists have been up to. It’s their mission to not only rescue and repatriate lost kittens, but to educate, lobby for change and improve the standard of care for animals in this country.


Emma explained that the volume of animals they’ve taken in, mostly cats from tourists and expats who find them dumped along the road, has left the organisation without any room to give. “We’re overcrowded, we’ve got too many,” she says.


This immediate need for space has seen them target a much bigger property, but without funding for an appropriate fence, they’re stuck in the current situation. The logic goes that with a bigger space — and a cat café also planned — more people will be able to come to the house, learn about responsible pet care, and adopt more pets. This is the ultimate goal, she explains, and the primary focus of their current fundraising effort.


Vets Without Borders


Another part of the VAWO programme sees volunteer vets come from around the world. At present they’ve got two, working mostly with locals to cure sick pets, teaching them how to properly care for their animals. It’s a service that generates huge word of mouth, Emma says, as news spreads fast of foreign animal doctors working in the area.


It’s the need for education and awareness that also saw the VAWO team take part in the recent International Say No to Dog Meat Day. Emma has lost multiple dogs and cats to the mysterious trucks and often violent men on bikes who swoop in during the night, stealing people’s pets for slaughter.


Ultimately, she says, it will take a change in the law for this to stop, and that’s what the march on Apr. 4 was about. Cycling through town, handing out fliers to restaurants and their diners, holding up banners, VAWO represented Vietnam on a global stage and were happy to add their presence to the international voice against the dog trade. And Emma was happy to see so many young Vietnamese get behind it.


But that’s a long game, she admits, with implications beyond the rank and file. Right now, she has a fence to build, quite literally, a clinic to keep running and a café to plan for. On top of that, she’s got the twice-daily cleans she performs for her beloveds, feeding, hand-rearing new arrivals — coupled with a day job selling clothes and a night job taking care of fundraising. If, as Mahatma Ghandi once said, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated,” Vietnam has a huge ally in Emma Bolton and her team at VAWO.


To support Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization’s fence fund, go to or visit


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