“What makes you wake up early in the morning?” asks veterinarian Dr. Nielsen Donato while strolling through his animal sanctuary. “It’s not work. It’s something that you’re excited about.”
When people think of veterinarians, they usually think of them tending to household pets, like cats and dogs. But Doc Nielsen isn’t a regular vet. He’s the managing partner and chief surgeon at Vets In Practice (VIP), which caters to not-your-usual pets, and he also has a background in Avian and Exotic Medicine.
But what makes him so special is his unbridled care for virtually any kind of animal, be it crawling, flying, galloping, or slithering.
Doc Nielsen’s passion started when he was around three years old. One of his favorite childhood memories was being excited about going to church just so he could see the yellow chicks and ducklings being sold by vendors outside.
Today, Doc Nielsen helps run the Laguna Wildlife Park & Rescue Center, which sits within his family’s property in Pansol. This non-profit organization houses around 100 species of farm animals and wildlife, including domestic and neglected pets, as well as exotic animals that were rescued from illegal sellers and dangerous living conditions. The wildlife park has everything from chickens and goats to monkeys and a serval cat, which he tends to with the help of his staff. It’s also backed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), which assists in acquiring and transporting animals to the park.
The veterinarian calls the park his “happy place,” which he visits as early as 5 am to see all of the animals and listen to the different sounds that envelope the whole park. “When I’m walking here in the morning or afternoon, it relaxes me. Nalilimutan ko yung mga stress, that’s why I call it my ‘haven,’” says Doc Nielsen.
“We support the animals with our own resources,” Doc Nielsen says as he shows the many enclosures in the park that the animals call home. He also provides them with nutritious food and medicine to keep them healthy while they’re living in the park.
He doesn’t do this alone. Apart from the staff he works with, Doc Nielsen’s family also helps. His kids, Cedric and Nina, are studying veterinary medicine, so they’re well on their way to following in their dad’s footsteps.
While giving a tour of the park, Doc Nielsen stops to feed and pet the animals he passes by. One of them is a bearcat (binturong), a nocturnal mammal with cat-like features that’s endemic to Palawan. Doc Nielsen explains that the bearcats were transported to the park with the help of DENR, and they are raised until they’re ready to be released back into the wild.
“I promised that if I ever breed any endemic wildlife animal in the park, my goal is to help repopulate their species and bring them back to their natural habitat,” he says. He also takes time to assess animals who might need medical attention and treat them right away to prevent infections.
It’s not always easy for Doc Nielsen to let go of animals, especially those that have been used to being around humans. Many of the monkeys, for example, lived in crowded areas and were treated as pets in their past lives. Releasing them back into the wild would be a safety risk for them because a troop of wild monkeys might hurt them.
This is why he and his staff ensure that animals like these get the care they need so they can live a long and healthy life. The wildlife sanctuary is their safe haven until they are ready to be released in a protected space.
Whether it’s at his clinic in the city or the wildlife park in Laguna, Doc Nielsen is always ready to offer his expertise and care to all types of species, no matter how scary they may seem.
“I always dreamed of being someone like [British veterinary surgeon] James Harriot. I’ve always wanted to treat dogs and cats, and farm animals as big as horses, goats, and sheep,” he said. “There weren’t exotic animals to treat yet [when I was just starting out.] Now, I’m lucky because I get to treat more exotic animals, as well as farm animals, in my clinic and the park.”