“To err is human, to forgive canine – unknown”
After two weeks volunteering with the Maun Animal Welfare Society (MAWS), I feel my jaded heart melting thanks to the amazing dogs of Botswana. While they come in all sizes and various shades of brown, white, tan and brindle, the best way to picture these sweet canines is to close your eyes and imagine Santa’s little helper, the cartoon dog from the Simpsons. They come to us in various states of condition, but the most common is painfully thin, often with pendulous nipples from nursing multiple litters and sometimes with unexplained injuries and wounds. They arrive at the clinic somewhat timid and fearful but amazingly, after what they have survived, with gentle care, food and a safe haven, they quickly warm up to us. After a few days we see their natural resiliency take over and we get to know their individual personalities. The weary old girl who just wants a soft bed and kind word, the mischievous puppy determined to be the boss of every dog (and human) at MAWS and the fun-loving pest, constantly under foot and in our way.
A warning: the photos in this post may be upsetting to some readers. Please know my goal is not to shock but to simply report on our experience working as veterinarians in Maun, Botswana. It is easy to pass judgement and assume such things would never happen in another country, like Canada, for example. Sadly, this is not true, and my own dog Stella, is a living example of the ignorance and mistreatment that can lead to suffering of animals the world over. When volunteering abroad as a professional, it is all to easy to assume “we know better”, however the reality is if we leave our judgements at home, we can learn something new and come away richer for the experience. I can guarantee there is no way we could sterilize 26 animals in 7 hours the way we do it at home!
This blog is dedicated to the dogs of Maun, you’ve won my heart. You have taken me back to the beginning, why I was called to this profession and why I do what I do, to care for these creatures who share our lives. I have been a vet for 26.5 years and worked in veterinary hospitals since the age of 16 when I got my first “real” job at our families veterinary clinic. That’s 34 years of puppy kisses, stinky messes, happy outcomes and sad goodbyes. A long journey from a wide-eyed teenager so very determined to become a veterinarian to a retired practice owner spaying dogs in the bush in Botswana. While I marvel at where those years went, what I find even more amazing is how I did it for 26+ years.
Veterinarians are a funny bunch and the reasons why we choose this profession are as unique as the individuals themselves. What seems like an amazing career is currently suffering from the highest rate of compassion fatigue, burnout and suicide of any profession in both North America and other parts of the world. The selection process to gain acceptance into veterinary school rewards those who are competitive and independent. Huge amounts of medical, surgical and scientific information are forced into our brains during our 6 to 8 years of training with little thought to the art of dealing with our true clients, the human at the end of the leash. We are given little instruction in the art of business and human resource management, needed to run a small business (news flash, veterinarians are not just doctors they are entrepreneurs). Add to this a lack of mentorship, high student debt, low salaries, huge client expectations/demands and online reputation slander and the multiple factors associated with veterinary burnout and depression become, if not clear, at least understandable. And yet, some of us thrive, laugh, build an amazing career and find ways to cope. Family, an amazing partner (who just happens to be a vet too), strong friendships and an optimistic nature were my salvation. But those who know me, know that over the last few years, it wore me down. Dealing with business matters, mentoring and training a team (even great people don’t just become a team without leadership) and difficult clients blinded me to the “fun side” of being a vet. The medicine, the good outcomes, helping make someone’s day a little brighter and the furry, four-legged beasts who called me to this professional were all getting a little lost in all the “other stuff” that running a practice entailed.
Since arrival we have sterilized so many animals, I have now lost count. They come in with gums so pale pink, they are closer to white. We give anesthetic agents I would shudder to use at home, and yet our patients bounce back and recover despite my concerns. These dogs are tough! We have a lovely old lady hanging out at the clinic after being found with the most horrifying burn along her entire back. Apparently she was stealing eggs and someone threw boiling water on her. She is starting to trust us, is turning out to be a sweet and gentle girl and is going to recover.
She has little concern about the scar she will carry for the rest of her life and just wants to be loved. We have another young girl awaiting surgery to amputate a limb who has been walking about on a stump of a hind leg with no pads, toes and a horribly infected leg. How this happened, apparently no one knows, but she patiently lets us examine her painful limb with no attempts to snap or bite.
So here I sit, on a little deck in Botswana, listening to the call of the cicadas, doves and various other evening creatures whose names I do not know and I feel the joy of being a vet creeping back. What I am doing here is so basic compared to the level of care the pets in our old practice received. No fancy cosmetic surgeries for stenotic nares, no diagnosis of autoimmune anemias or chemotherapy treatments to give a client a few more good months with a beloved companion. Are we making a difference? We hope so as it is the only skill I have to offer. Does it really matter? We’d like to think it does but the need is so overwhelming, it truly is hard to say. On a World Vets trip last winter, a group of volunteers sat around debating exactly this question. Are we actually making a difference when we come to a foreign country to sterilize and vaccinate dogs and cats or are we simply feeding our own ego? Volunteers threw out their opinions but the one that stayed with me came from a veterinary student, Emily, who said something to the effect of “for those animals you helped today, it made a difference and isn’t it better to do something than to do nothing?”.
Even if it is something small, in a world in need of so much more, sometimes a small thing is all you can do. Thank you dogs for forgiving us our humanness.