INTERVIEW: Exotic Vet Dr Tiger “We Need More Ethics In This World”

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We recently had the great opportunity to sit down with Dr Katriona Bradley, better known as Dr Tiger, a veterinarian who co-founded the Tai Wai Small Animal & Exotic Hospital in 1997, which has since expanded in 2016 to an additional location, Island Exotics, in Sai Ying Pun. In this interview, we had a fascinating discussion with Dr Tiger about all things related to animals, from the moral reasoning for keeping exotic animals as pets to whether we should have pets at all. Read on to dive deep into the mind of one of the leading exotic vets in the city, and her thoughts on what we all ought to be doing to take better care of the animals in our world. 

GQ: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us, Dr Tiger! Just to introduce you to our readers, could you talk a bit about your work as a vet for exotic animals? 

KB: At the moment, I work partly clinically but mostly in management. We have 10 vets between the two clinics. I see animals here in both branches, in Tai Wai where we see both domestic and non-traditional pets, and here, in our Island location in Sai Ying Pun where we see exotics only. 

GQ: What made you go into this line of work, specifically to care for exotic animals here in Hong Kong? 

KB: I think when I grew up I was fascinated by wild animals. I used to watch Born Free and things like that. When I was training at vet school, I did consider becoming a zoo vet, but that would be really difficult to get into. I then randomly came to Hong Kong to visit a friend, and started working here. After a few years, myself and that friend decided to set up our own clinic. We both were interested and loved exotic animals, so we opened that door. 

GQ: What kinds of concerns do you have about keeping exotic animals as pets? 

KB: Well there are two huge issues that we have with exotic pets. Firstly, their physical needs are not being met – things like their diet, temperature, lack of UV light. We see a lot of issues like this as a result of incorrect husbandry. Secondly, these animals aren’t being bred or their trade is unsustainable. This means that either they are being taken directly from the wild, or the already depleting stock for the bred species is being taken from the wild. 

GQ: Do the same concerns apply for common housepets such as cats and dogs?

KB: Of course, the wild trapping part doesn’t. But we still see incorrect husbandry with common house pets like dogs and cats. In Hong Kong, we mostly get the feeding part right, but we continue to see cases where dogs aren’t being taken outside enough or are kept in small cages when their owner goes to work. I struggle a lot with these issues.

GQ: In Hong Kong, many animals – both exotic and common pets – have to be transported for miles from their natural habitats or they are bred regionally. What are your thoughts on this? 

KB: I’m not a supporter of pedigrees for multiple reasons. I used to work for the SPCA, and 20 years ago I went to a dog farm that had been abandoned by the people producing the animals. It was one of the most horrific experiences of my life, seeing dog barely alive in cages, having to kill the ones that were unsavable and pick out the ones we could save. For some breeders, it’s purely business. I’m not saying all breeders – I’ve met some myself who are very committed and involved in the process – but for many others, it’s all about the money. So I would really encourage everyone to rescue and adopt.

GQ: What are your thoughts on zoos? And how might your opinion on them differ from sanctuaries or rehabilitation centres?

KB: Well there are some zoos that do cover the latter. The zoo world in the western hemisphere, for example, is improving. I know some vets working in zoos and there is a lot of thought going into trying to make the animals’ lives as good as they can. There are some changes now too – certain animals such as polar bears are rarely being kept anymore. But in other zoos, many in China and Southeast Asia or dolphinariums and the like, profit is the only motive. And that is something very ugly for animals, and for humans too. We need more ethics in this world. 

GQ: Do many people in Hong Kong who own exotic pets have vast knowledge about how to care for them? Is the change in habitat ever a big issue posed to the health and wellbeing of these animals? 

KB: So here in our clinics, many people who do come are people who want to invest time and money into animals. It’s already a skewed sample group, since it’s a big effort to find a vet, phone up and make an appointment, then take their animals in. Even so, with this very small subsection, a significant portion of people still don’t know what they are doing. So it makes me think about what about the people who don’t take their pets to the vet? They’re even more likely to not know what they are doing and how to correctly care for exotics. 

GQ: So in your opinion, can we ever truly care for exotic animals as well as they would naturally be in the wild?

KB: I think in some ways, we can care for them in a better way. Nature is not necessarily the happy and lovely place that we imagine. Take African greys for example. A pair of these birds in the African continent, laying their eggs. Each animal needs to replicate itself once for a stable population, and they do so a couple times. So there are a vast number of eggs, hatchlings and babies being left to die because of starvation or getting their foot trapped in a branch or being eaten by an eagle or a disease. We have to remember that there is a lot of suffering for wild animals as well

So if an animal is really lucky – whether it is a wild exotic animal or a dog, cat or rabbit – that is being born into a good environment and taken care of by a responsible human who takes care of your needs. And you have a companion, you have enrichment, then it can be even better. Not many animals in the wild can have that lifestyle. So the answer is yes, there are cases, though that is a tiny minority.

GQ: There is no doubt about the joy that animals bring to our lives. But aside from this, what is the moral basis to own any animal as a pet? 

KB: That is definitely something people argue about quite regularly. My personal belief is that I don’t use animals for food or for fashion, but I do keep pets. I won’t buy them, I rescue them. 

But then again, if we follow that argument to the end, after a point there would be no animals in the end up for adoption because there wouldn’t be the production of animals. Would I then think that it is acceptable to breed dogs for human entertainment? That’s what it is really, isn’t it? I have my dogs for companionship and entertainment. But maybe that’s something special about the interaction between dogs and humans that has developed over the years, the way the wild dog approached humans over time. In a way, dogs have chosen us. So let’s say I’m happier with dogs than with many of the other species in terms of being kept as pets when we follow this line of reasoning along. 

GQ: That leads us on quite perfectly to my next question: Do you think that we can ever move towards a world where all exotic animals are left back in the wild, to live in their natural habitats?

KB: No, I don’t think so. Human beings as a whole haven’t really been capable of much moral reasoning. There are sitll children dying of hunger, there are still things like women being sex trafficked, so don’t tell me we will as a whole start treating animals well. So many people continue to eat meat. 

As nice as the idea is, I don’t believe that we can get there. We should talk about it, and hopefully we can make 10% of people think twice, and remind them not to impulse buy, to think clearly about what we’re doing in terms of whether we are capable of giving animals the physical and emotional husbandry they need. 

GQ: In a popular book on animals by John Bradshaw called The Animals Among Us, he writes that “pets are, to a certain extent, imaginary constructions” – what are your thoughts on this?

KB: I guess I disagree. I don’t think that they are imaginary constructions, but I certainly think a lot of people mislead themselves about how their animal loves them. It’s sometimes an extension of our own ego, wanting the adoration from your pet, and telling yourself that the animal that comes to you but they’ve just learned their feeding time or want a scratch or two. We love them, but they might not necessarily feel that same kind of love. 

GQ: Bottom line – why is it permissible for people to keep pets? 

KB: I never think we should take an animal from the wild for pets. I think that it is only sometimes acceptable to take an animal from the wild if it is going to be part of a breeding program to rescue the species’ population. This is difficult, coming from someone who basically runs a business that profits off people who own pets, but at the end of the day we always try our hardest to run our business with ethics in mind, first and foremost.

GQ: If there is one thing you could convince all Hong Kong people to adopt in their approach to pets, what would it be?

KB: It would be to try and think about things from the animal’s point of view instead of their own. Think about the needs of the animal, whether that will be in the form of proper accommodation, or diet, and emotional needs. In Hong Kong, we have to think about space too as a part of the animals’ emotional and physical wellbeing. 

GQ: Final question – team rice or team noodles?

KB: What do you mean- not team potatoes? Definitely potatoes! 


Lead image courtesy of Katriona Bradley / Tai Wai Small Animal & Exotic Hospital.


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