A wet nose pokes out from behind red metal mesh. The magi board stuck on the doorframe tells us the curious white Pomeranian peeking out at visitors is called Spoon. What began as a cautious security check morphs into a chorus of confused barking and simultaneous tail wagging as Spoon is soon joined by her [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Air Force shapes animal care culture

Now in its fourth year of operation Sky Pet provides a state-of-the-art veterinary service

Handled with care: ‘Spoon’ the Pomeranian gets some attention. Pix by Indika Handuwala

A wet nose pokes out from behind red metal mesh. The magi board stuck on the doorframe tells us the curious white Pomeranian peeking out at visitors is called Spoon. What began as a cautious security check morphs into a chorus of confused barking and simultaneous tail wagging as Spoon is soon joined by her neighbours, Ada, Jelly, Flushi and Chloe. Not very accustomed to company other than their owners, the dogs’ welcome is understandable since they are currently boarded with Sky Pet – the veterinary service run by the Sri Lanka Air Force.

We walk through a series of immaculately clean corridors through the ground floor of the Air Force property in Borella to get to the individual kennels and cat boarding facility. The kennels for healthy and recovering dogs have been popular since Sky Pet’s advent in 2011. Set up under the former Commander of the Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Harsha Abeywickrama, their doors have since been open to civilians and their pets.

Custom-made wheels for an injured dog

“What we found is that the interest in pet care among animal lovers was on a steady rise,” says Chief Veterinary Officer, Wing Commander Erandika Gunawardane who has been on board since Sky Pet’s inception. “We initially thought setting up in Wanathamulla might not be a good choice,” he admits. But their efforts to “standardise the vet practice” and pet care culture of the island have been in great demand. Support from higher officials including the subsequent Commanders of the Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Kolitha Gunatilleke and Air Marshal Gagan Bulathsinghala has enabled them to invest in state-of-the-art technology. Microbiological testing capacity and digital X- Ray machines are equipment that “even universities don’t have”, he shares.

Other hospitals within the Colombo city limits are also stocked with modern technology, Wing Commander Gunawardane concedes, but many are out of reach of the average Sri Lankan pet-owner. Providing services at subsidised prices has, he feels, helped with their popularity. “Consultations are usually free,” he shares. “Since we are paid by the state, the Clinic is able to provide top notch service at a reasonable cost. If one was to board a large dog in the capable hands of the staff at Sky Pet which includes feeding, cleaning and exercise “It costs Rs.800 per day.”

Designed to put both pet and owner at ease, the Wing Commander says that “quality of service” remains uncompromised. He says discipline within the Air Force extends to this Clinic, “Air-Force rules apply here as well.” A team of eight vets, work round the clock to keep Sky Pet efficiently run.

Wing Commander Erandika Gunawardane

Although serpents are common around the country, anti-venom treatment for animals is unfortunately not. “We are the only animal hospital which has anti-venom to treat snake-bites,” says Flight Lieutenant Ruwan Naullage, one of the Veterinary surgeons at the facility. He says animals, mostly dogs are rushed-in “at around two or three in the morning” suffering from the results of potentially deadly encounters with snakes. Around four to five such cases have been cared for daily in the special care unit which is essentially a pet emergency-room of sorts.

Flight Lieutenant Ruwan Naullage

The day our visit was scheduled, Dr. Naullage had a cat’s mandible fracture to repair surgically. With Sky Pet for the past two years, he says orthopedic procedures are also commonly required. Much expertise was also harnessed by the team following a landmark spinal surgery they performed on a deer. Not the usual type of animal the Clinic caters to, the occasional farm visits aside, it’s generally domesticated dogs, cats, birds and other house pets that the vets see every day.

It comes as a pleasant surprise to learn Sky Pet caters to immobile dogs with canine wheels. The main cause for loss of mobility in Sri Lanka, Dr. Naullage says, is road accidents. Custom created for each dog, depending on its particular needs, the locally crafted set of wheels will set you back about Rs 10,000 which is still less than an imported version which could easily shoot up to five times more. Animals aren’t just fitted with these contraptions he says. Always thinking of long term recovery over short term treatment “We normally give them physiotherapy and other therapies” before they leave, he says.

S.M.P.B. Dikshan

There has also been a prowling climb in the interest dog -owners show in understanding their pups. This has led to the creation of yet another service – dog training. For senior dog handler and trainer S.M.P.B. Dikshan, there is much more to training than the basic “sit” and “stay”. A senior handler in the service, he remembers 1985, the year that specialised dog training was introduced to the Sri Lanka Air Force. The 11 handlers who operate the Sky Pet training facility are all Air Force trained. The skills they teach however lean more toward obedience and guarding- obviously more suited for a domestic environment. “We start training when the dogs are about 6 to 8 months” he explains.

The trainers prefer to conduct training at home once or twice a week and insist that the dog owner be present during training. “That way, once our part is done, the owner can continue training the animal,” he adds. The senior handler’s zeal for his line of work is evident. The task of training a dog goes beyond basic commands. For him, each dog needs to be taught differently, depending on breed and temperament. Breeds like Shepherds, Labradors and Spaniels known for intelligence and their reputation of being family dogs are easier to handle, whereas the likes of Rottweilers and Dobermans require a different approach.

Wing Commander Erandika Gunawardane (centre) and his team at Sky Pet

Spoon is still reserved when we meet again in the facility’s grooming area. Grooming, washing and even dental hygiene services are now part of Sky Pet’s holistic approach to pet care. A mobile service operating within a 30 mile radius around Colombo makes for efficient and accessible as much as affordable pet care.

This October marks the fourth year of operation for Sky Pet. The last few years have seen unimaginable rescues and surgeries and countless animal lives saved due to their vision for high quality pet care. The clinic even treats animals from the other forces. Constantly looking to better their standards, their vets and trainers keep abreast of the latest innovations in veterinary science, and are given every opportunity to further their studies and training. Today they even see pets and their owners coming from as far as Ratnapura and Galle.

When they first started they had a goal- to allow every pet owner an equal opportunity to have affordable pet care on par with international standards. “Sometimes people think this shouldn’t be an objective of the Air Force” the Wing Commander says. “But we have the resources to do it. So we do.” For anxious pet owners theirs is a service beyond words.

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