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Tails of the city

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Mui Wo resident Esslin Terrighena is stepping into some big animal-welfare shoes with Team for Animals in Lantau South (TAILS). But, as Elizabeth Kerr discovers, her volunteer work is a natural extension of her normal working day

It’s around lunchtime and the day is already getting away from Dr Esslin Terrighena. Slipping out from her Jardine House office after an urgent, last-minute consultation, she plops down in one of the armchairs in the lobby-level Starbucks. Her practice is an ideal eight minutes from the ferry to Mui Wo, where she currently lives with two dogs (of the exclusive ‘mongrel’ variety) and a rotating cast of fosters, including the sole survivor of a litter of abandoned kittens.

A chartered psychologist at Mind Balance (www.mind-balance.org), Esslin spends her time helping people deal with trauma and, like so many of her breed, she’s a pulsating ball of bright, light healing energy – and full of fun. “Are you a Star Trek or a Star Wars person?” she asks, debating the age-old notion that one can’t be both, and conceding, “I’m a Star Trek person, I just can’t do the other one.” At one point she launches in to a detailed breakdown of the idiocy of The Core. She digs a bad movie as much as the rest of us. She’s wearing bright turquoise pants.

Offering therapy to clients
A native of Germany, Esslin spent some time in the UK and Australia before landing at the University of Hong Kong (HKU). It was a combination of travel and study that compelled her to relocate to Hong Kong in 2013. “I’m a traveller – that’s one of my main passions, which makes this lockdown so difficult right now – and I wanted to be based in Asia for a while; it was my next destination. HKU had a really good doctorate opportunity I was interested in,” she recalls.

That PhD was in affective neuropsychology, a branch of psychology that specialises in how the brain processes emotions, including trauma, anxiety and depression. “Growing up, I always had a keen interest in the human mind and behaviour. Having witnessed first-hand how untreated mental-health issues can impact entire family systems over multiple generations, I cannot emphasise the importance of psychotherapy enough,” she says. “My aim foremost is helping people to learn to genuinely trust and value themselves with their strengths and also their weaknesses. I have found over the years that making an active effort in understanding, normalising and accepting the world from another person’s perspective can release so much misplaced anxiety, self-loathing  and emotional pain. This is why I do what I do.”

Esslin has been practicing in Hong Kong since 2017, and admits that being a mental-health professional in the SAR is a bit of a challenge. Afterall, ours is a city that prefers to sweep mental health issues under the rug rather than confront them – and provide care for those in need. “There is a lot of stigma, so a lot of people don’t want to admit they have a problem, or they realise they have a problem but they don’t want to make the time to deal with it. It’s hard work,” she says.

That said, Hong Kong is currently experiencing a moment of undeniable trauma and, according to Esslin, “A lot more people are experiencing mental-health issues. Suddenly they’re battling depression. I’d like to think we’ll all come out of this with more empathy.”

Helping four-legged friends
Empathy has stretched to animals too. Worldwide, animal shelters and rescues have reported a spike in adoptions as people struggle with loneliness, or have simply finally found the time to put into pet ownership. Animal welfare is, perhaps unsurprisingly, also near and dear to Esslin’s heart. She adopted her first dog while still living on Hong Kong Island as a student. She wanted all the conveniences of the city, but when the dog showed a fondness for the beach, she thought, “What kind of life am I providing for her?”

Hence the move to Mui Wo three years ago. Mui Wo is still pretty small and it didn’t take long for Esslin to meet then neighbour Jacqui Green of PALS (Protection of Animals
Lantau South) and get involved with the local animal-welfare community. When Jacqui left two years ago, and PALS disbanded, there was a gap, which someone had to fill. “For some reason, people would call me and tell me there was a dog abandoned here, or a cat there,” Esslin says. “And I would think, ‘What do you want me to do about it?” Recognising a need for PALS’ service, I had to figure something out.”

And so it was that Team for Animals in Lantau South (TAILS, www.tailslantau.org) was born 18 months ago. “Our aim is helping abandoned, homeless, neglected, abused and injured dogs and cats around South Lantau,” Esslin says. “We do our best to provide medical care, nurture and rehoming for our rescue animals, and we also offer education to encourage responsible animal handling and care.”

Freshly armed with charitable status that will help with actual fundraising, TAILS is ably stepping in where PALS left off. “I look back at Jacqui and the couple of other people who helped run PALS and I don’t know how they did it,” Esslin marvels, happy to admit she needs all the help she’s managed to accumulate. “As the founder of TAILS, I have recruited a strong team to handle the day-to-day work, and contribute to our management and growth. This is how TAILS was always intended to be built – it’s a team, not
a one-person show.”

TAILS’ all-volunteer staff includes foster and adoption coordinator Cindy Bouw, Carina Milligan in marketing, social-media coordinator Vannesa Yeung, veterinary nurse Aiko Fujioka Henderson and hands-on rescue workers Andrew McDonald and Cary Shakeshaft-Nicholson. “This is not about me,” Esslin stresses. “It’s healthier for a society and a community if an organisation is a ‘something’ rather than a ‘somebody.’ There’s more opportunity to grow and help more animals if we have a team doing different things.

“The team is super committed to handling the different parts that make an animal rescue run,” Esslin adds. “Most of us have full-time jobs, and this comes with its limitations, for instance availability and response rate etc., but it shows that we truly care enough to give up our free time for these wonderful animals.”

Fostering and adoption
TAILS has no physical premises for the dogs and cats in its care, relying instead on a foster system. All fosters are required to commit to fostering for a minimum of two weeks, and to bringing the animals to the vet and to adoption days. Animals are not fostered or rehomed on a ‘first come, first serve’ basis, and not all adoption applications are successful. TAILS’ priority is to find the right match that will be in the best interest of both the animal and the family.

“There’s been an adoption spike in Hong Kong this year because people have suddenly had time to settle the animals in, and there have also been more people looking to foster. But we do have to say no on occasion,” Esslin says.

“Sometimes it’s unreasonable when people offer to foster for a week because the kids need something to play with. Not all puppies, in particular, can handle that much instability. Occasionally we’ll get pushback, and asked why we say no. But we do know how to do this. We’re grateful for our fosters because we wouldn’t be able to do what we do without them, but it’s not entertainment.” She pauses for a moment. “However, we do need more volunteers, and more people to provide these animals with forever homes.”

TAILS adoption days are held twice a month on a Saturday, from 12pm to 3pm, in front of the China Bear in Mui Wo. The adoption fee is HK$1,500 per dog and HK$1,000 per cat. Anyone who is 21 and over can adopt a pet, provided they are able to provide a safe, stable home, in which the animal will get a lot of attention and love.

The link between pet ownership and mental health has been debated for decades, and Esslin for one believes caring for a pet makes us happier. Interestingly too, she’s done work with animal behaviour and engagement, and sees potential in adapting techniques she uses in her psychology practice for traumatised animals. Helping animals with
trauma is what Esslin’s about. You can’t really say she ‘wears two hats’ or juggles two passions, rather her volunteer work is an extension of what she does for a living.
She’s there to help us – her two-legged clients and four-legged friends – overcome suffering and live our best lives.

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