So here’s the thing; it is really flipping hot here. Hot and humid. Rivers of sweat sliding off my face and traveling down my body on a journey to some unknown ocean, hot. Why isn’t there a call for volunteer vets in Iceland?
So here’s the other thing; apparently there are about 3000 different species of mosquitos worldwide and scientific studies (the number of bites counted in one square inch of my exposed ankles) prove that all 3000 species are to be found in Carriacou.
So here’s the final thing; despite the heat and the mosquitos, it is good to be back volunteering. We arrived in Carriacou, a small island off the coast of Grenada about a week ago. Rob and I spent about 7 weeks here in April and May of 2018 (see Where the Heck is Carriacou) and are back for another 6 weeks working with this special project. When we were here in the spring, it was very dry and water on the island was scarce. Livestock, plants, and people were feeling the effects of low rainfall and water shortage. Now we are catching the end of the hurricane (rainy) season and the island is lush, green and cisterns are full.
We have been very busy since our arrival on the island, treating the usual array of skin diseases and parasites. Performing sterilization surgeries and health checks as well as 3 eye enucleations. We have had a number of poisoning cases (a common occurrence on the island), tick fever cases and the frustrating but ever-present cases of neglect or abuse. So many of the problems we see arise from lack of education and pet overpopulation. We are working to improve the condition of the animals and in turn the health of both the wildlife and humans who are impacted by diseases in our domestic pets. Some days are difficult and it can be too easy to judge the actions of others based on our own cultural mores. The goal of traveling and working with an open mind can be easily forgotten and my personal rule of “seeking first to understand” tossed aside.
Cultural relativism is the idea that a person’s beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person’s own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another cultures’ mores, values. Right and wrong are culture-specific and the ability to understand a culture on its own terms rather than using the standards of your own culture can be very beneficial when doing this kind of work. Sorta like what your mom always said, “don’t judge others until you’ve walked a mile in their shoes”.
This is a very simplified explanation of cultural relativism, a concept which is actually a very complex. Working and living in Carriacou however, brings this concept to mind daily as I interact with the friendly kayaks (what people from Carriacou call themselves), the expat population who now call Carriacou home, the tourists visiting the island and the other volunteers. I am hardly the person to get into a philosophical debate about this topic but I will say it can be hard to reconcile my own personal beliefs on animal welfare and sustainable veterinary volunteerism with that of the expat and tourist population. I feel it is important that foreign volunteers remember this is not their home and not their culture. Respect for the local people and their way of life is imperative to the success of the project. We are here to support the veterinary needs of the island dogs and cats based on what is culturally relevant for Carriacou. This may look quite different than how we care for our own dogs and cats at home but without sensitivity and respect for cultural differences, the project will be doomed from the start. How do you react when someone treats you in either a patronizing way or simply tells you your ideas have no merit and are wrong? For most of us, this attitude ends the conversation and becomes a huge roadblock to progress and change.
Let me give you an example. You live in Canada, or the USA or the UK or perhaps France (you get the idea, you are from a culture of privilege). You travel to a little island in the Caribbean (or Malaysia, or Malawi) for a much needed holiday and a chance to see a new part of the world. You get off the plane, it is hot, muggy and you are immediately hit with new sounds, smells and find yourself in a world remarkably different than where you came from. There is a period of adjustment and some culture shock, which you may or may not have anticipated. As you walk to dinner at a fine restaurant the guidebook recommended, you pass several “street” dogs who are in various states of poor health. Thin to the point of emaciated, perhaps limping, perhaps they look mangy. But the dogs seem so sweet and so friendly and as you eat your expensive meal (by local standards) you think about those hungry dogs. You want to help but how? You give one a pet as you leave the restaurant and the poor thing follows you back to your hotel. He is waiting outside the next morning and greets you with hopeful eyes. You save a little of your breakfast and bring it home for him and by the end of your holiday, you’ve fallen in love and want to take him back to Canada, or the USA, or the UK or perhaps France.
So what’s the big deal and is there anything wrong with this scenario? On one hand, it happens all the time and for that individual dog, should you manage to work out the paperwork and red tape to adopt the sweet creature and give it a life of luxury, where is the harm? I am not saying this is wrong, I am just suggesting that people need to look at the bigger picture. That dog most likely had an owner and it is quite possible the owner does love their dog but does not have the financial resources or knowledge to provide better care. Most likely in this culture dogs are not kept in fenced yards and wander and find food where they can. If you had not fed him, he probably would have gone home. When you “rescue” one dog you need to realize it will be quickly replaced by another who will soon be leading the same life as the animal you rescued. While you can feel good about what you did and you can take comfort knowing that you made a difference for one animal, don’t fool yourself into thinking this is really making a difference to the local dog population. In fact, you may have damaged the relationship between the “locals” and the veterinary volunteers working in that country. Your skin is the same color as theirs, you came and basically stole a dog. How will this action be perceived? Perhaps the local population will doubt the intentions of the veterinary project working in that community? Your actions may contribute to a feeling of distrust between the local people and the volunteers. “They say they are here to help us and our animals but how can we trust them if they allow our dogs to be stolen?” Obviously, I am making a point here and trying to give an example of how our actions, however well-intentioned, may actually create more harm than good. Making a difference is hard work. It is complicated. It means being culturally sensitive, carefully considering the consequences of your actions and ideally, being in it for the long haul. Perhaps, most importantly, it means leaving your judgment and moral superiority at home.
I wonder if I am becoming jaded because I now cringe whenever I hear or see this quote “Saving one animal will not change the world, but the world will change for that one animal”. I understand the sentiment and agree that it is better to do something than to stand by and do nothing but I also think we need to explore the ramifications of our actions and be sure we are basing them on not only what is best for ONE animal, but also what is best for the entire POPULATION. Remaining idealistic is hard when faced with so much suffering. If I can be honest with you, I struggle to know if our volunteerism over the last few years is just a self-centered quest for meaning or if it actually makes a difference. But then, on a good day, I remind myself and truly believe that it is the small acts of kindness that accumulate and end up making the world a better place. Perhaps I just have too much time for self-reflection?
When in doubt default to kindness.