While still a Swiss-French high school student four years ago, I always knew that I wanted to do something with animals. On graduation, I managed to obtain a five-week summer field internship with the help of Global Geneva with a safari camp in Ruaha National Park in Tanzania. (See Charlène’s article). Volunteerships are important to young people starting out, because it not only gives you invaluable experience, but also ideas for what you might want to do later in life. With COVID-19, this is something that has become much more difficult to do today, but with the right motivation – and support – it is still possible.

This article is part of Global Geneva’s ‘Youth Writes’ initiative encouraging young people to write and to share their experiences, but also to better understand the role of quality journalism. Youth Writes in 2020 is supported by Switzerland’s Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing and Literature.

At Ruaha, I met lots of people from all over the world; tourism linked to wildlife is extremely important for sustaining effective conservation because it helps giving local people jobs. (See Keith Somerville article on wildlife and pandemics). Some of those visiting the park were veterinarians doing a wildlife field study project. I then realized that what I really wanted to do was to fight for animal rights and to protect wildlife.

The easiest way to accomplish this dream, I decided, was to study veterinary medicine, even if it is one the hardest subjects to get into because there are so few places, not just in Switzerland but Europe. After much perseverance, including having to learn German (the only veterinary courses available in Switzerland are in German), I managed to pass my veterinary entrance exams – the highly selective Numerus Clausus – and was accepted by the University of Bern.

Once there, as a second-year veterinary student, I heard about the Jane Goodall Challenge, which is part of the Jane Goodall Institute (JGI), a non-profit foundation based in the UK which seeks to inspire and develop the vision of Dr. Jane Goodall, the renowned British primatologist. As part of her research, she focused for many years on the lives and habits of chimpanzees. The Challenge represents a global call for social projects linked to environmental issues and to encourage “real change” in the service of humanity, wildlife and the planet.

Swiss-French veterinary student Charlène Thiry presenting VetHopes to fellow students. (Photo: VetHopes)

Undertaking something of value for the community

For me, Jane Goodall, had always been one of my heroes. Immediately inspired by this challenge, I formed a group of fellow veterinary students – all motivated to do something on a voluntary basis – in the spring of 2019. We decided to create a project and participate in the Challenge, notably using our veterinary learning as a means of contributing something to the community.

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More specifically, our goal was to become one of the three projects to be selected by the Jane Goodall Challenge with the hopes of meeting her in person. To our amazement and joy, our project, Vethopes, was one of those chosen. The other two were Der Nature auf der Spur (On the Traces of Nature) by three pupils from a high school in the Swiss town of Baden and Wonder Fauna by four young people representing the “Roots and Shoots” group with Geneva’s Bioparc. (See contest winners)

Together with the other winners, we were asked to present a power point of our project to Dr Goodall at the November 2019 Digital Event in Baden, which is near Zurich, where she had been invited to give the keynote speech. Becoming a Jane Goodall Challenge laureate did not bring us funding from her foundation, but it did help us to believe in our project. One of the JGI’s many activities is working closely with schools and universities.

Determining what our group should did not come easily. Initially, we tried to decide how we could formulate our work. Not only did we want to respond to the needs of the Challenge, but we also wanted to create something that was useful for the local community. We grappled with various ideas about how young and inexperienced but also eager-to-learn veterinary students could provide voluntary assistance.

It was then that – very quickly – Prof. Franck Forterre, a neurosurgeon and chief of the small animal clinic at the University of Bern, came to our aid. He, too, had long contemplated a project that would involve free veterinary care for pets owned by people, many of them homeless, living in precarious conditions. It was from this collaboration that the idea of Vethopes (VETerinary Education for the Treatment of HOmeless PEts by Students) was born.

VetHope winners with Dr. Jane Goodall (3rd from Left) at the Digital Event in Baden, Switzerland, in November, 2019. (Photo: VetHope)

Offering a service that would benefit destitute or homeless people

Vethopes’ goal is to provide weekly medical and surgical care to numerous dogs and cats, which would normally be denied any form of help because their owners cannot afford to pay the high costs of veterinary care. To gain access to this community, we started working in collaboration with the Verein für Kirchliche Gassenarbeit – Pfarrer Siebert Stiftung (Society for Church Alleywork as part of the Pastor Siebert Foundation), a Bern-based non-profit association that concerns itself with destitute or homeless people.

For direct funding support of our voluntary initiative, however, we approached companies such as Royal Canin, Covetrus and Epona. In parallel, Vethopes seeks to combine its assistance as part of our student training by providing practical help under the supervision of qualified professionals. In this manner, we can offer pet care as part of our own learning.

Since its creation, our project has already achieved a lot. When we travelled to Baden to present our initiative to Dr. Goodall, she stressed the “enormous moral and educational value” of Vethopes. In an interview with the Swiss-German daily, Tages Anzeiger, she said: “One group suggested that veterinary students could help provide free medical treatment to the animals of homeless people…This approach was completely new for me and when you think that homeless people also love their animals, I found this human aspect of the project particularly important.”

In December, 2019, as part of a Christmas initiative, we distributed free-of-charge bags of food financed by Royal Canin to homeless people with animals in the Bern region. We had other plans for 2020, but unfortunately we had to temporarily suspend our activities because of the coronavirus. However, we have now managed to gradually establish ourselves little by little. The University of Bern has also allowed us to use their facilities for our small animal clinic.

Once a week, we provide consultations or surgical care to pets with the help of final year veterinary students under Prof. Forterre’s supervision as well as other instructors or veterinarians from the clinic. We also regularly offer food packages for pets at the end of our consultations. Until now, our contact with their owners (lots of whom are homeless) has proven exceptionally successful. People seem genuinely grateful that we can help them. And it is good for us, too. One major achievement which could guarantee the future of the project as part of the University of Bern is that Vethopes has now been integrated within its curriculum enabling any student in the future to join and gain practical experience at the same time.

The nice thing about establishing Vethopes is the help we received from Prof. Forterre, who believed in our motivation and really showed us how to move ahead with the project. We hope to expand our action, so that we can provide free care to further pets in need, maybe by working in the future with more foundations. We also feel that Vethopes can serve as a model for further student social and environmental projects, whether linked to their studies or not. Sure, one can encounter managerial or start-up difficulties, but if the motivation is there, you can do it. So maybe this can help inspire other young people, just as Dr. Jane Goodall inspired us.

Freshly graduated from a high school in France, Charlène Thiry wrote for Global Geneva about her Tanzanian experience in 2017. She now lives in Switzerland as a third year veterinary student at the University of Bern. She wrote this article for Global Geneva Group’s Youth Writes initiative helping young people to improve their writing skills, but also to better understand the need and role of quality journalism in reporting about what is happening to our planet.

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