Words: Andrea Abbott
hino poaching, a two-headed calf, rabies, a horse trapped in a swimming pool, a narrow escape from an angry chimp, a charlatan ‘healer’ – these are just some of the experiences in the everyday life of author and vet extraordinaire, Dr Mike Hardwich.
It’s a job that requires well-honed skills, grit, stamina, ingenuity and a sense of humour – qualities the memoirs reveals Mike to possess in large doses. Another attribute that shines through the narrative is the author’s endless compassion for the animals that come into his life. No matter the size or species, Mike goes beyond the call of duty to bring relief to suffering creatures.
“About 80 per cent of South African pets have no access to veterinary care,” he tells me, when I meet him at his surgery in Hillcrest, KwaZulu-Natal. “With this comes the uncontrolled breeding of unwanted puppies and, to a lesser extent, kittens.” Most of us will have experienced the heart-wrenching sight of emaciated, mange-ridden dogs eking out a pathetic existence in poverty-stricken areas. Welfare societies do what they can to help but, as Mike says, “Often their focus is diverted because of other needs, and their organisations are costly to run.”
Sterilisation is without doubt the most effective intervention but Mike learnt that, in the case of KZN, animal welfare groups were managing to sterilise fewer than 100 animals each month. “In real terms the impact is minimal,” he says. There had to be more that could be done and he and his kennel manager, Eric Zungu, came up with an excellent plan.
“We fetch dogs and sometimes cats, up to 20 at a time, from underprivileged areas where we pay elderly people to gather them at central points,” Mike explains. “We bring them to the surgery and, using the best medical procedures, sterilise, vaccinate, deworm and, where necessary, treat them for mange and then return them to their owners that day.” It’s done in Mike and his staff’s own time, and when there is capacity in the hospital so that no patients are compromised. “It means the hospital is constantly in use.”
My visit is during one such ‘spare time’ session. The hospital resembles a production line. Scrawny look-alike dogs in various stages of consciousness are either being sedated before their operations, or recovering afterwards. Some are panic-stricken, but little do they know that every dog has his (best) day and this is it. All are treated for ticks and fleas, and for each there is a vaccination book detailing the treatment given. The practice phone number is also provided in the event of problems.
Incredibly, there is no cost to the owners who, Mike assures me, are immensely grateful and very fond of their pets. “Many have a much deeper love for their pets than we credit them with,” he says. Mike has used considerable funds of his own to foot the bill. “We’ve pared down the cost to R400 per animal.” At the time of this interview, about 650 needy animals had passed through his surgery. With many thousands waiting in the metaphorical queue, Mike’s aim is to extend the reach, involving other vets too. “But we can only do as much as our finances will allow.”
Which brings us back to Mike’s memoirs. His first was The Lion and the Lamb and a third – The Tiger and the Tortoise – is scheduled for publication later this year. All proceeds from his books go to the Mike Hardwich Foundation, an NPO he established to reach out to pets in underprivileged areas. May his memoirs be runaway bestsellers.