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Meet your new favorite humans: This couple dedicates their life to helping disabled dogs get back on their proverbial paws

If you’ve ever had mobility issues you know how much it affects everything you do, from getting around to using the toilet. For dogs, this can be a death sentence because crippled dogs often get abandoned due to the mounting medical bills and additional responsibility they require. Thankfully, Forever Wheelchair, a non-profit founded by Oscar Fernando Ruiz Bonilla (Fernando) was formed to address this problem.

Just a few short years ago Fernando was living in Colombia and taking care of dozens of dogs he’d rescued from the streets. He’d spent the last four years working in a hospital when his contract finished and he needed to find a new employment opportunity. It was at this crossroads when a call came that took him in an unexpected direction. “In 2016 my sister got pregnant and she already had two kids, so it was quite complicated for her to take care of the kids, so she asked me to come to Vietnam to help her for a couple of months because she was having so many problems with her pregnancy. She was really sick; at risk of losing the baby,” said Fernando on why he moved to Vietnam. Fortunately, his sister delivered a healthy baby, yet Fernando decided to stay to assist her and to remain close to his family. His biggest obstacle in Vietnam was that he couldn’t speak English, so he began to practice regularly. After about a year he became more acclimated to Vietnam and conversational in English. It was then that he gravitated back toward his love of helping animals.

Unfortunately, the moment that turned Fernando’s love of dogs into his vocation is rooted in a horrible incident, but one which gave him the determination to be a greater force for good—a protector of dogs who needed help. As he explained, “In 2017 someone killed my dog. I had a Labrador that I was training to become a guide dog for the blind, but unluckily when she was eight months old someone threw poison into my yard, and into many other families’ yards. On that day, on Street 4 in Thao Dien, at least nine dogs and some cats died. There were a couple of months that were very sad, and in that moment, I don’t know why, someone contacted me and asked if I could take care of this handicapped dog. They said maybe it will help you to heal.”

He hesitated initially, knowing how much care is required for a disabled dog, but after an encouraging conversation with a friend from back home, he decided to adopt it. “This was the moment when I learned how to help handicapped dogs. Before I would care for dogs, like cleaning them, but now I had to make a wheelchair.”

He helped the dog, which he named Moto after his love of motorbikes, treating Moto’s skin problems and by building a rudimentary wheelchair. But Fernando decided that maybe he could do more for Moto; maybe he could help rehabilitate him. “So I read a lot about orthopedics and massage and physiotherapy and I made many different kinds of wheelchairs for him to assist this process, and now he can walk. He walks funny, but he can walk. And now this year he is learning to climb the stairs.”

During the period it took to rehabilitate Moto, Fernando built more than 10 different wheelchair prototypes while also finding inspiration from Moto’s progress. “When Moto walked I felt like, wow, I can do this. Then a person who saw the videos I posted on Facebook asked me to help them with another handicapped dog.

From there he built new, improved wheelchairs using better materials like PVC pipes and aluminum that were more durable and flexible, and wrapping them with foam to make the dogs more comfortable and minimize chafing. As he improved his knowledge and expertise more pet-owners reached out to him for help. “I started to help more people and more people were contacting me, mostly because of what I posted on Facebook. I heard from dog lovers and shelters. I would go to the shelters to take measurements of the puppies and to see what the problem was. I learned more about orthopedics and physiotherapy, but I’m no doctor.”

Fernando, along with his girlfriend Joy, now travels all over Vietnam building customized wheelchairs for dogs (and cats, too) along with providing physiotherapy under his charity Forever Wheelchair. When people have the resources to pay, he accepts it, and when they don’t, they find a way. “We ask that if a family or shelter has no money, to send us videos of the dog so that we can show it to try and raise money to cover the cost of the materials,” said Fernando.

The wheelchairs range in price, anywhere from VND3 million and up, depending on the problem with the dog and its size. While it used to take longer, Fernando can finish building a typical wheelchair in one day. However, these days much of his time is focused on the rehabilitation aspect. “Some of the dogs adapt very easily. You put them in the wheelchair and, vroom, they run, but some of them cannot. They feel scared or they were abused so they get aggressive or they cannot control their bowels. Beyond the personality or reaction of the dog, every handicapped dog has a different problem; a twisted spine or broken legs or hip problems, so every dog needs something different.”

Forever Wheelchair is doing great work helping disabled dogs and Fernando wants to encourage people about the benefits of adopting disabled dogs because they are often overlooked. “Try adopting a handicapped dog, especially if you have kids. The kids will have fun, but it will help teach them a higher level of responsibility and care, and also a higher level of love. Then in the future, if mamma or papa were to become handicapped or feeble, those kids will be psychologically prepared to take care of them and know how to do the job properly.”

To donate, volunteer and more info on Forever Wheelchair, visit www.facebook.com/foreverwheelchair

Images by Vy Lam

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