Dr. Chris Brown, one of the stars of Bondi Vet, was recently in Beijing to film segments for his show at the International Center for Veterinary Services (ICVS). Bondi Vet follows Dr. Chris and his colleague Dr. Lisa Chimes as they treat animals both out of veterinary practice in Sydney’s Bondi Beach and across Australia. Before coming to Beijing, Dr. Chris traveled to Chengdu to meet pandas. Over the weekend, we spoke to him between takes about his time at ICVS and pet culture in China.
Tell us briefly what you’ve been up to in the past few days.
I’ve had a couple of days that have been very much out of the ordinary for me. I normally work as a vet in Sydney by the beach in Bondi, and treat dogs, cats, cows, horses, kangaroos, koalas, and all sorts of Australian animals. The last few days, I’ve been working in a vet clinic in Beijing treating everything from hamsters to snails to turtles – all sorts of very Chinese pets that have absolutely had my head spinning. But I’ve loved every second.
Absolutely, yeah. A lovely couple were very concerned about their son’s snails that had shells that were cracking. We were able to diagnose a calcium deficiency in the snails and turned those little snails’ lives around.
I think that’s the cutest thing I’ve heard all weekend.
You don’t get told about that in vet school, so for me to be able to encounter that situation and try to make it better – it really reminds me of the fact that no matter what the pet looks like, to someone it is everything. So if you can make that everything somehow better, then it means the world to these people. It’s great.
Why did Bondi Vet want to come to China?
We’re always looking for different challenges and to be able to show people what pets people have all around the world. The idea of coming to China was floated and I had the opportunity to do some work with some pandas. So really, it was very easy to say “yes” in the end because those are not opportunities that come along very often.
Did Mary [Peng from ICVS] find you guys directly?
We actually had a researcher who was looking for vet clinics to be based out of. We spoke to a few people and everyone kept saying that ICVS were the go-to guys in Beijing when it came to pets. It was a very beautiful thing – very collaborative – and we were looking to help each other out. I learned about Chinese pets and I was able to teach them a few things about the animals we have in Australia.
What have you enjoyed the most so far?
Just the cultural moments where you understand something about their world and they learn something about yours. I was able to come across all these animals that I was never able to treat before. In Australia, you’re not even allowed to have hamsters so I got to see my first hamster. People come to China to see pandas; I was just excited to see a hamster.
What have you learned that surprised you?
Probably a lot more Mandarin than I ever knew before. [Laughs] I think the fact that, even though Beijing is such a big city that has 20 million people, even in amongst all the congestion, there are pets there – and there’s lots of them. I think China has the biggest pet population in the world, so there’s a lot of animals and there’s an interest in having all sorts of new animals. For me to be able to come in and help out all sorts of creatures, that’s been a real honor for me.
I imagine you and Mary have been talking about the stray problem here and how the municipal government tries to counter that by having dogs registered.
Absolutely. In Australia, many of us have big dogs; in Beijing there are restrictions around what size dog you can have and where you can have them. I’ve been able to see the capture and release program they have here with stray cats, which is fascinating and very different from what we have back home. There’s often no right or wrong way, just a matter of seeing what works in a particular area.
What differences have you observed in pet culture compared to Australia?
To be honest, not as many as I thought. In Australia the types of pets are very different, but that’s determined by the location, situation, and culture. But all the pets have a name and brighten up someone’s life, and all the owners call concerned when they’re not well. The vets step in and try to make that situation better.
You’ve already told us the snail story. Can you share another experience that you found particularly interesting here?
We had an Australian who just moved to Beijing with a big bull mastiff, around 50 kilos. The funny thing is that he noticed that his dog – who’s called Baby Girl – was scaring a lot of Chinese people. When they see his dog on the street they’ll run away or try to get away from it. This was causing a lot of distress to him but also to the dog, who was starting to get a complex about this. It was starting to create this fear that she’d never felt before.
Normally, I deal with animal behavior situations but this was more of a human behavior situation we were trying to fix. The solution we came up with – and this was incredibly successful – was to get an outfit for this bull mastiff and dress her up like a panda. All of a sudden this dog is the absolute center of everyone’s universe. When it walked in the street, everyone wanted to get to know it.
From what you’ve seen so far, what conclusions can you draw about the state of animal welfare here?
There are obviously still some challenges, but we’re talking about a culture that is rapidly maturing and developing, and a country that is growing at an incredible rate. The pets aren’t getting left behind; in fact, people seem to be embracing animals more and more as time goes on. Sure, there are things that do need to improve, but as people realize the joy that pets can bring, the idea of looking after a pet and giving it the love it needs, I think that’s only going to become a bigger part of Chinese culture.
This interview has been edited for length.