I am published! Cool Beans!

I am excited to share with you the story of our journey from practice owners to volunteer veterinarians. I recently submitted this article to the West Coast Veterinary Journal and had my story published. Very exciting for me (I know, it is pretty small potatoes but pretty cool to see my words in print)! Hope you enjoy and please feel free to share!

I cannot figure out how to attach a link to the original article as the West Coast Veterinary Journal a private publication for members of the Society of BC Veterinarians. I am sure there is a way but my old brain isn’t so good with this shit.  Anyway, below the jpeg image of the article, I have posted my original submission which will be much easier to read, I hope!

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Will Spay for Food

The life you have led, doesn’t need to be the only life you have

                                                -Anna Quindlen

Knowing it is time for a change is easy if you listen to your heart. Actually setting the wheels in motion to make that change, is the hard part. For most of us, it is fear that holds us back. Fear of failure, fear of judgment, fear of disappointment. It is far too easy to listen to that voice in your head, the one ruled by fear, instead of taking a chance and seeing where life can lead you if you are willing to make a change.

I love to travel and in 2011, had the opportunity, together with my then 11 year old daughter, to volunteer for 4 days with the Mexi-Can Veterinary Project in Jaltemba Bay, Mexico. This was my first international sterilization project and it planted a seed.  But how do you marry a career in private veterinary practice and raising a family with a desire to see the world? It isn’t always easy, especially if you live in a rural community and are married to another veterinarian with whom you own a practice. Our solution was to book locums and drag our kids around the world on family ”adventures”. Eventually, those children grew and left to pursue their own adventures, leaving us at home, running our business and a just a little envious of the exciting journeys they were about to embark upon. Perhaps this was the catalyst we needed.

In 2017 we decided it was time. Time to see where life might lead two middle-aged, vets if they were willing to sell their practice, embrace the unknown and embark on a new journey. Prior to the sale of our practice we had started to explore the world of international volunteerism and found, not only was there a huge need worldwide for veterinary volunteers, but we were we well suited to this type of work. We would return from each project energized, with a renewed passion for our chosen profession. To date, we have worked with the Equitarian Initiative, World Vets, the Canadian Animal Assistance Team and the Maun Animal Welfare Society, the Spanky Project and currently Carriacou Animal Hospital. These projects have taken us to Costa Rica, Ecuador, Botswana, Cuba and Grenada.

So what inspires successful practice owners to give it all up, to live on the road and work for free? It would be easy to stay home, keep doing what is comfortable and experience the world through yearly vacations and the discovery channel. In many ways, it would also be the safe path, but by doing so we would miss out on so many life changing experiences. And perhaps more importantly, we would miss out on meeting the remarkable human beings who have opened their homes and shared their lives with us. 

In Costa Rica, I worked with a group of dedicated equine veterinarians. Their goal “to sustainably improve working equid health by harnessing the passion and expertise of volunteer veterinarians”, appealed to me. Despite that fact that it had been 20 years since I had done any work with horses, the Equitarian Initiative volunteers accepted me, a small animal vet, without reservation. Perhaps, in part, because I provided some comic relief! I recall one spry, older gentleman who arrived with his very elderly horse for the free clinic explaining why his horse was so important to him. During certain times of the year, the river flooded, cutting off his access to town. His horse, however, could still cross the river allowing him to get to church on Sundays and maintain his contact with the community. The love he shared with his equine companion was just as strong as any we Canadians share with our pampered pets!

Working with World Vets in Ecuador, I marveled as over the course of a week a group of individuals with unique personalities, backgrounds and a wide range of ages became fast friends. The small town we were working in was well aware of our presence. Early each morning, as we boarded a bus to head to the campaign, local people would run up, dogs in tow and ask if we could take their pets to be sterilized. We would each grab a pet, bring it on the bus and head off with a few extra surgeries for the day. If you are traveling solo, volunteering with World Vets provides you with an instant group of like minded traveling companions, accommodation and the chance to experience a new culture while providing veterinary care in a unique part of the world.

In Cuba, we joined forces with the Spanky Project, founded by Canadian, Terry Shewchuck and named after his beloved dog. The Spanky Project arose from Terry’s love of Cuba and a desire to improve the lives of the dogs and cats he met during his travels. This group of passionate people works with the University of Havana veterinary school and local Cuban veterinarians to exchange ideas, provide much needed materials and medications and most importantly mentorship to the Cuban veterinary community.  Working with the students and enjoying the energy and enthusiasm they brought to the project was very rewarding. Many students commented that they would learn more about small animal anesthesia, surgery and recovery during the Spanky Project than they would in the university curriculum. Some of the Cuban veterinarians volunteering this year had participated in past campaigns as students themselves.  After being mentored by Spanky volunteers, they were back to give their time, improve their anesthesia and surgical skills and help mentor a new group of students during the 2018 campaign.  A great example of international collaboration and sustainability.

Botswana and the Maun Animal Welfare Society (MAWS) holds a very special place in our hearts. Rob volunteered with MAWS, through the Canadian Animal Assistance Team, in April and in November we both signed up for a 6 week commitment. Through their dedicated clinic located in Maun, as well as remote outreach clinics, MAWS provides free veterinary services to low income villagers across Botswana. Living in the MAWS cottage we woke early to enjoy a chorus of birds and cicadas as we prepared for the long day ahead. Working with very limited resources and supplies we sterilized and vaccinated animals until we were ready to drop. It took us back to our early years building our own practice and we came home each night, exhausted but happier than we had been in years.

The stories of how these animals arrive in our care humble us. We are reminded again and again of the resiliency of our patients and their will to survive, thrive and be happy.  There was “old girl”, who came to us after having boiling water thrown on her back for stealing eggs. During her stay at MAWS, we saw her fearfulness disappear and her sweet, gentle nature emerge. And little pup, who stayed with us after surgical repair of a preputial injury and within days was bossing around the adult dogs. Often amputation is a practical and life saving option in countries with little resources and nonexistent surgical aftercare. I fell in love with one amputee from a cattle outpost who had lost her paw after being caught in a snare. She arrived in skeletal condition but still running happily on the stump of her infected metatarsals! A proper amputation gave her the gift of a pain free life. Their affectionate nature and joyful exuberance in the face of such a harsh existence is both heartwarming and heartbreaking, in equal measures.

In a small village in Botswana, we met a young boy of 12 years who arrived at the outreach clinic with his dog and another small child in his care. He asked if he could stay with his dog during the surgery because, in his words “My dog is a good dog, but he is afraid and will be comforted by my presence”.  We advised him this was just fine and as we sedated and started surgery on his much loved dog Rob began to talk to him. The boy intently watched Rob preform and an ovariohysterectomy and explain what he was doing. When Rob paused, the boy looked at him and thoughtfully said, “So sir, I can see that what you are doing here helps the dogs and people of Botswana and for that we are grateful, but what I am wondering is how this benefits you”. Rob had a great response and said the benefits to us were not something you could see or touch, like money. He said that we loved visiting Botswana and think it is a very special place. We love the wild animals and by sterilizing the dogs and vaccinating them we were helping to keep both the dogs and the wildlife healthier. I could see the boy was both a little surprised but also proud that we loved his country and wanted to help. They then talked about the idea of “paying it forward” and Rob said that we were lucky to be in a situation where we could help the people and dogs of Botswana. He then said to the boy, “Perhaps someday you will remember us and how we helped your dog and this will remind you to help someone too. By paying it forward, each of us can do our part to make the world a better place”.

With any volunteer project there are also frustrations. At the end of a long day, we have asked ourselves what it is about this work that draws us in an keeps us coming back for more. The days are long, hard and we usually come home hot, tired and smelling of urine. We are practicing veterinary medicine with the most basic of tools to service the neediest population of pets. We often feel at a loss when it comes to making a diagnosis and we try our best to help and not harm. Our patients bleed easily and profusely during surgery, our clamps don’t clamp our suture is sometimes on a spool requiring our old eyes to thread needles all day and our scissors are as dull as the ones you buy for a first grader.  Yet we make do, we struggle, we laugh and at the end of the day it feels good to be “dog” tired and know we did some good today. If we are honest, we started this journey for selfish reasons, looking for adventure and escape from the stresses of practice ownership. But it became so much more. How do you tell someone how good it feels to help an animal in need and to see the relief and thanks on the faces of those you help? How do you explain the amazing ability to make friends and deep connections with a community that will last a lifetime in just a few days or weeks?

As a middle class Canadian, I live a life of privilege, compared to the vast majority of the world’s population. Working as a volunteer veterinarian has driven home this point and also made me realize how very little I need to be happy. I have discovered that what often appears straightforward on the surface, is actually very complicated. As a volunteer, it is important to critically consider the impact you have on a culture and the long term ramifications of your actions. This work has challenged me to be more resourceful, open minded and adaptable. But perhaps, most of all, it has taught me that there really is more good than bad in the world (despite what the media may lead you to believe) and if you travel with an open mind, an open heart and a big smile you will be amazed at where it will take you.

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Where the heck is Carriacou?

Since March 26, Rob and I have been hanging out on a chill little island in the Caribbean. In exchange for a free bed, we are offering up our veterinary skills to the Carriacou Animal Hospital, the only veterinary service on the island of Carriacou. Let me tell you this gig is one sweet deal! While Rob and I live at the hospital and are available for walk in appointments and emergencies, the relaxed pace, instant social life and beautiful turquoise sea just a few steps away is ample reward for the work we provide.

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Kathy (director of Carriacou Animal Hospital) and Nadine (Head Veterinarian)

So where the heck is Carriacou? Located in the South eastern Caribbean Sea and one of the Grenadine islands, Carriacou is a two hour ferry ride north east of Grenada. 

The population of the island is listed as 8000 but locals suggest this may be inflated by seasonal visitors and a more realistic number may be 6000. In either case, at just 13 square miles, it’s a pretty small place and to our delight, has a very authentic Caribbean vibe. It is a place that seams stuck in time, with friendly locals, small shops and restaurants with glimpses of  beautiful white sand beaches and a turquoise Caribbean Sea from every vantage point.

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Rough seas on the ferry from Grenada to Carriacou
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The ferry landing and our first glimpse of Hillsborough Carriacou

So what does a typical day at Carriacou Animal Hospital look like?  Most days we awaken early to the frenzied sound of the hospital’s yard dogs barking at the passing garbage truck. We lounge under our mosquito net and listen to the ocean waves as we plan our morning.  Coffee is the first priority, then while one of us attends to the animals in our care, the other begins emptying garbages, sweeping and cleaning the cabin before our clients and patients arrive. We clean kennels, wash wounds, give medications and make sure all our charges have had some exercise and some love before we head to the beach to relax for a bit with toes buried in the soft sand and our morning coffee in hand.

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The hospital officially opens at 8:30 am, but clients trickle in at any time of day, often as they are passing by and remember they need advice or medication. In Carriacou, appointments and surgeries are rarely planned very far in advance. After all, this is the Caribbean, relax man and go with the flow! The amazing and upbeat Lorraine, arrives at 8:30 and starts to organize our day. She manages to juggle phone calls, client requests, finding lost files and confused volunteers with a laugh and smile. Clients are called a day ahead to schedule elective surgeries but our days rarely go as planned. Carriacou is a small place and it is often while out in the community that the founder of Carriacou Animal Hospital, Kathy or Nadine, the head veterinarian, will be met by local people asking “Are you the vets? I have a dog that needs to be cut.” The local term for sterilization, either a spay or neuter surgery, is to have your dog “cut”.  They will take a name, phone number and try to find out where the dog lives and then set up a time for surgery, usually as soon as possible.

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Our patients arrive in all sorts of “carriers”.  This little guy had a small eyelid injury from a dog bite. He healed up and did great.

 

Some days our surgeries arrive at the hospital between 8:30 and 9:00 am and we get an early start, but often the clinic team needs to travel and pick up our patients at home. Many locals rely on public transportation and cannot take animals on the bus. After following the winding roads up hillsides and into small communities, we now have to catching our patients. While most dogs are friendly, they have not all been socialized to strangers and this can take a good part of our morning. We sedate them onsite and arrive back at the clinic ready to start surgery. 

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Rob preforms a cat spay

During most of our time at Carriacou Animal Hospital we did not have a veterinary technician/nurse, but instead had 3 veterinarians, myself, Rob and Dr. Nadine. One of us would assist the “surgeon” for the day while the other would see appointments that dropped in, wash surgical instruments and attend to laundry.  As patients recover through the afternoon we write up charts and finish with instrument sterilization and cleaning. Sometimes there are emergency calls about animals which had been “bumped”, the local term for being hit by a vehicle and sadly, a common occurrence on the island. Other days we see walk in appointments or attend to scheduled house calls to check on patients or treat animals whose owners have no transportation.

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Children showing us their puppy while checking on another dog with heartworm that lives with this family.

 

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Puppies – Our favorite house call patients!

By mid to late afternoon our patients are awake and ready to be delivered home, to their thankful owners. Now its time to relax and cool off in the turquoise sea, that is literally steps away, while we watch the most spectacular sunsets.

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Similar to veterinary hospitals around the world, everyday brings something new through the doors of Carriacou Animal Hospital. For me, this variety, is one of the things I love most about my chosen profession; life as a vet is never dull and there is always something new to learn! Our patients are usually covered in fleas and ticks and heartworm infection is extremely common here. 

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This client brought his dog in for a check up and tick treatment. Check out the ticks in his ears in the photo below.
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Wow, he will feel so much better after his treatment!

Educating clients about preventative treatments and their importance is a routine part of every client visit. Tick Fever is extremely common on Carriacou and can present with a variety of symptoms. Interestingly enough, we have found the amount of bleeding during surgery seems to be less severe than with our erhlicia infested patients in Botswana. Nutritional advice is also much needed on the island. Locals commonly feed puppies bread and milk. Dog food, while available, is expensive and not commonly used.  Part of our job is educating people about the importance of nutrition and protein in a puppies diet.  Sometimes the smallest changes and advice can have a huge impact on the health of the local dog population.

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These three puppies were all from the same litter but the small one lives with a different family member and has only been fed bread and milk. Note the difference in size and health.

Injuries, accidental and deliberate are also common in the local dog population. Burns, gunshot wounds and fractures (sometimes secondary to malnutrition and often the result of trauma) are just a few of the cases we have treated.

The local dog population is a mix of breeds with the average size adult dog weighing between 10 to 20 kg. Mixed breed Pit Bulls are popular with the islands young men and occasionally we see pups that look like they have some type of herding breed in there background.

Being the only veterinary service on the island of Carriacou, we also get calls to treat the occasional sheep or goat. One sheep arrived for emergency wound care after being attacked by the neighbours pit bull. Another little orphaned lamb came in to treat an abscessed hoof. In general, however, livestock concerns are referred to the local agriculture veterinary department.

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Rob reliving his days as a mixed animal vet!

While the hospital was started to provide veterinary care to the local population and their pets, as a way to give back and provide a desperately needed service, Carriacou Animal Hospital also provides care to the local expat population.  Export permits are commonly needed as well as routine preventative care for pets that are lucky enough to spend part of the year in the Caribbean with their owners.

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Sancho arrives at the hospital via the sea
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Sancho gets a checkup from Rob

Founded in 2012, Carriacou Animal Hospital is an independent non-profit veterinary hospital. The hospital does not receive public funding and is staffed entirely by volunteer veterinarians and veterinary technicians/nurses. Volunteers often fundraise at home, prior to their trip to Carriacou, bringing with them much needed medications and supplies. Minimal fees are charged in order to cover the cost of delivering this much needed service. However, the hospital’s main goal is to provide care for the animals in most need, often those whose owners cannot afford treatment.  Clients are NEVER turned away due to lack of financial resources and patients are treated, without question or judgement, with the goal of alleviating distress and suffering and providing the necessary care for each individual patient. Check out their website at www.carriacouanimalclinic.com to learn more or donate to this wonderful project. You can also follow Carriacou Animal Hospital on Facebook: www.facebook.com/CarriacouAnimalHospital.

While it is easy to tell you about our work days, the patients we see and the fun activities we have experienced in Carriacou, it is harder to put into words the cultural experience of volunteering as a veterinarian on this small island. Carriacou is not what I  pictured when envisioning the Caribbean. It has a small town feel, it is not yet a “hot” tourist destination and on most beaches you will them completely to yourself. There are no all inclusive resorts and the restaurants, for the most part, are small and locally owned.

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The “road” we cycled along to a small beach with great snorkeling.  

 

While the local people are friendly and welcoming, there is no doubt that you are an outsider. I find it interesting that there are several unique “communities” that coexist in Carriacou and between these “communities” there is a wide range of values and of course wealth. After spending the day doing house visits to families living in abject poverty we would often return to the hospital and see super yachts anchored just off shore. I am talking yachts that are towing at least one speed boat as well as 3 jet skis and rent for $800 000 USD per week! The yachting community and other expats who spend part of their year living in the Caribbean, while not all are of the uber-wealthy super yacht set, are definitely part of the “haves” of the world (as are we). There are also the local Carriacou families who were born here but moved away as children or young adults, often to Britain, to be called back to the simple way of life and family values that tied them to the islands. Finally there are the locals who have grown up on the island and never left. They may be fisherman, tradesmen, running a small business and raising their families here on the island, proud of their home and heritage.  For the most part, all co-exist peacefully on this beautiful island, but the disparity in wealth is ever present and more obvious given the small size of Carriacou.

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The Coral Ocean Super Yacht which was anchored just off shore

 

 

Since hitting the road in November, I have tried to be an observer and record what I see, letting the experience of being in the moment and using the skills I have acquired, guide me. I am sure as time passes and I process these experiences I will find a more articulate way to express what I have learned. Right now, I feel extreme gratitude for all the blessings I have in my life, my health, my family and most of all, the one over which I really had no control; my good fortune in the genetic lottery of life.  How very luck to be born into a middle class family in Canada with the intelligence, drive and opportunity at my disposal. Seeing families living in poverty unlike what many of us can imagine, drives this gratitude home. How to help those less fortunate, whether at home or abroad, living in the cycle of poverty and despair, is so complicated it leaves me feeling quite helpless. Over the last 6 months, the problem of the worlds overconsumption as become more real to me. The amount of garbage and waste we find in the country side and the ocean, coupled with over packaging and lack of recycling is disheartening to say the least. Living out of a backpack, makes it easier to reduce consumption and consumerism but the real test will be finding ways to continue this positive change upon our return home. This journey has made me more mindful of my own consumption as well as questioning my western values and lifestyle.

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Garbage littering a green space in Havana Cuba

 

In 10 days we will leave Carriacou and start a new journey in a new part of the world. We will take with us two new friendships and the knowledge that we will be back again to work with this amazing charily in November.Stay tuned for more adventures and more ramblings from a mind unleashed in the weeks to come. And yes, I will be feeling very guilty about my carbon footprint when I get on that plane.  

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Local dogs playing in the ocean

The Spanky Project

Okay, let me start with a disclaimer. No spanking occurred during this volunteer project. Very serious stuff only folks, sorry to disappoint! Founded by the kind and humble Terry Shewchuck and named after his dog, Spanky, the project was started about 15 years ago and has recently become a non-profit charity, growing to involve a chapter in the USA coordinated by the delightful Audrey (sorry Audrey, I never did learn your last name, my bad!). Terry’s love of Cuba, its people and a desire to improve the lives of the furry four legged Cubans was the catalyst for  the Spanky Project. While planning our cycling trip, I stumbled on their Canadian and American Facebook pages while looking for volunteer veterinary projects in Cuba. A few emails later and we were part of the February 2018 campaign.

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We arrived in Havana a few days early in order to change our visas from “tourist” to “working” and discovered Terry had taken care of everything for us. Our new visas allowed us to stay in Cuba until May 1, 2018 which was a huge bonus as a tourist visa is only valid for 30 days and our planned departure in late March meant we would have overstayed our welcome.

Travelling through Cuba 5 years ago, I fell in love with Havana. Sadly, the love affair is over. Perhaps revisiting a place you loved isn’t a good idea. You go with high expectations but it is never the same the second time around.  It leaves you wondering, what changed? Did the city really change that much? Or perhaps it is you who changed? Havana still has the crumbling beauty I found so intriguing, but on this visit the touts seemed more ferocious, people less friendly and old Havana more touristy. However, we found a warm and welcoming home at the lovely Casa Mirador la Colina. We were blown away by the our kind and gracious host, Aymee, who always greeted our return with a genuine “how was your day?” and a warm embrace. When Rob’s bicycle seat was stolen, our first day in Havana, she found us a new seat (not an easy feat in Cuba)! If you are in Havana, I would strongly recommend Case Mirador la Colina as a safe refuge from the city.

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Fishing along the Malecon in the evening light

We were excited to start working with the Spanky Project. Each veterinary project we have volunteered with has its own unique set of challenges and rewards. For our first day, a mass vaccination campaign and parasite treatment regime had been arranged in Old Havana. The project works closely with and has the support of several Cuban animal welfare groups as well as local veterinarians. Approximately 135 animals received rabies vaccinations, topical flea and tick medication and internal parasite treatment. The day proceeded smoothly and we were excited to find Cuban pet owners well educated and knowledgable about their pets health. One pet owner inquired as to what topical external parasite treatment we were using, as her dog had reacted poorly to Fipronil in the past.  Another told us her dog had had a treatment of ivermectin one month ago and wondered if another treatment would be okay.

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We were also excited to be working with veterinarians from the local area. The collaboration and support of the local veterinary community in Cuba is a unique part of the Spanky project and one of the reasons we wanted to work with them. As volunteers, we are always sensitive to the long term impact a project has on both the local pet population, pet owners and also the local veterinary community. Hopefully, a project has both a positive impact to reduce pet overpopulation, improve animal welfare and educate the local community on the benefits of sterilization, vaccination and animal welfare. A good project also considers the impact their actions have on the local veterinary community. For example by offering free sterilization programs are we also taking away the bread and butter of a local veterinarian? A truly great project attempts to engage and train local people who can benefit from these new found skills and sustain the work you started, long after you leave. It is my belief that all volunteer organizations should have a long term view that considers the sustainability question. Kind of like like running a great veterinary practice. Hire quality people, support them, train them and nurture them until you become redundant and can walk away, knowing your legacy will continue without you. Perhaps this is an idealistic view but it was exciting to see the Spanky Project considering the end goal. In addition to practicing veterinarians from Havana, there were also veterinarians from Matanzas, Cardenas and one assistant from as far away as Guantanamo participating on this campaign. Students from the University of Havana rotated through the different areas of our temporary hospital, including admission, pre surgical examination, anesthesia, surgery and recovery. Students were keen to take advantage of the opportunity the Spanky Project offered them and they allows bring a great energy to any project. Many students commented that this was where they would learn how to spay and neuter small animals and that they were learning more here than in the university classroom. Several students who participated in past campaigns, were nurtured by the Spanky volunteers and have now graduated as Doctors and Doctoras were back to volunteer with the 2018 campaign. That, I believe, fulfills the goal of sustainability.

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The University of Havana
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Dr. Micheal from Toronto discussing sterile technique with the students
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Surgical Suite

Despite all of these positives there is still one big elephant in the room. With an educated pet owning population and well trained local veterinarians, open to collaboration why is it so rare to see sterilized dogs and cats on our travels throughout Cuba? Why is overpopulation still a problem? In every town we have visited, in every casa we stay, it is extremely rare to see a sterilized animal. Overpopulation is evident across the country and one casa owner, a biology professor in Holguin, told us she had a very hard time finding a veterinarian who was willing to spay her cat. As in most countries, you need to talk to people and look beneath the surface to find the reasons. Despite an excellent education system, the veterinary training here has a different focus than in countries like Canada. Culturally there is still some resistance and misunderstanding about the benefits of sterilization. Without Bob Barker telling everyone to “remember to spay and neuter your pets”, the message just has not gotten through to the average Cuban pet parent. In addition, a surgery we consider routine, is far from routine if you have never had the opportunity to actually preform a spay before you graduate from veterinary school. This leaves the average Cuban veterinarian somewhat uncomfortable with offering this service. But perhaps the biggest problem is the reliable availability of the anesthetic agents and medications needed to practice veterinary medicine in Cuba. As with everything here, there are two markets, the usual marketplace (whose shelves, while better than several years ago, are still essentially bare) and the black market. Again it isn’t always a matter of being able to afford consumer goods, the goods simply are not available unless you “know a guy”. Talking to a few of the Cuban veterinarians working on the project, they confirmed this and commented that the farmacia shelves for humans are dangerously lacking and for veterinarians it is even more difficult.

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A little street puppy with mange

Obviously the Spanky Project is doing its part to help with exposing students, veterinarians and the pet owning population to anesthesia, surgical technique and postoperative care of veterinary patients. As more veterinarians are able to reliably preform and offer sterilization services pet owners will see the benefits in healthier pets that live longer and suffer less injuries and illnesses, lessening the need for a “Cuban Bob Barker”!  As for the problems with bare pharmacy shelves we can only hope that time will improve the situation.

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Spanky Project – working together for the animals

The best part of working with the Spanky Project, however, was without a doubt the amazing group of passionate and dedicated volunteers from both Canada and the USA.  Terry, Audrey, Micheal, Michelle, Byron, Stephanie, Gordana, Joe and Jamie. As well as all the amazing Cuban volunteers we met Gusto, Claudia and Katcha to name just three (okay, I admit it, I can’t remember the other names!). You took us in, made us feel welcome and at home and even let us do a few surgeries!  Here is hoping we meet again, can share another Mojito and our passion for Cuba, its pets and the people that make it so special!

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Hasta luego Amigos,

Elaine and Rob

Final disclaimer, there may have been several mojitos consumed during the making of this blog…I cannot be held responsible for the opinions held by a slightly inebriated version of myself.

The Little Street Dog that Could

This morning we were up early to beat the heat and make our way out of Santiago de Cuba and cycle on towards Bayamo.  We pushed our bikes up calle Jose Seco, a pedestrian only street and across the busy intersection towards Plaza de Marte.  I noticed a young dog trotting ahead of us as we walked along, with a lolling tongue and happy grin on his face.  He was in good shape, muscular and fit and, compared to many of the dogs we had encountered in the Santiago, appeared to be in excellent health. Traffic was already heavy and as a result we decided to walk the bikes to the next major intersection before starting to ride.  As we crossed streets and weaved between pedestrians and people pushing bicycles, I would see the little street dog pop up between us, ducking and weaving along the sidewalk and street, keeping time with the two of us. Each time he trotted beside me, I picked up a foul odor and noticed his neck and backed were streaked with something rotten he had obviously rolled in earlier that morning. I said to him “hey stinky dog, where are you headed” and he looked at me with a goofy grin as if to say “you tell me?”

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I figured he’d abandon us once we started to ride.  When we reached the Avenida de los Libertadores, it was time to get riding. Rob hopped on his bike and started off in the lead.  I laughed as stinky dog jumped down from the sidewalk with a spring in his step, let out 3 happy yelps and sprinted off behind Rob. The traffic for Cuba was heavy with taxis, motorcycles and buses taking people to work.  Our route out of the city towards the carretera central (highway) that would take us over the Sierra Maestra mountains and towards Bayamo, took as through a traffic circle, stop signs, left turns and across major intersections.  I watched and held my breath repeatedly, as Stinky Dog navigated traffic like a seasoned pro, keeping pace with our bicycles and showing no signs of fatigue.   

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Finally, stopping to check our map we decided we needed to end this game.  We yelled at him “go home Stinky Dog!” And waved our arms. “vamos amigo”.  He would turn, walk a few steps the other direction and then as we rode off quickly, we would find him back with us again, happily following along, within a few hundred meters.  Finally, giving up, we decided to ignore him, hoping he would tire of the chase.  We wound our way out of the hilly city of Santiago, up and down hills before finally leaving the city and traffic behind. Stinky dog stuck to us like glue.  He stayed behind Rob but every now and then, if I fell too far behind, he would turn and look for me to make sure I was still riding.  As we stopped for a rest, I told Rob that it looked like he had found himself a great mountain biking dog.  Rob just laughed and said, “I’ve already told him the first thing I’m going to do to him is to cut off those balls!” I laughed and replied that he didn’t seem to concerned about Rob’s threat.

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By now we were about 12 km outside of Santiago and unsure what to do with Stinky Dog.  He seemed quite happy and showed no signs of tiring, despite the increasing heat and our faster pace. As we cycled along and puzzled over our dilemma we suddenly found ourselves in the midst of a cycle race.  Police sirens blared and pointed for us to pull off the road while groups of cyclists, clad in colourful spandex, blasted past us.  During a lull in the chaos we made our move and were back on the road, quickly making a left turn off the highway to make our way to the village of El Cobre and the Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Cobre. Apparently the multiple bikes confused Stinky Dog and as we looked back, he was no longer with us. I suspect he continued on, happily racing after the road riders, enjoying the freedom of the open road and the joy of just running for the fun of it!

The 4 km detour was well worth it.  As we weaved along a hilly road, lush with tropical vegetation, we would catch glimpses of the beautiful Basilica high on the hill ahead of us. I stopped to pull out my iPhone to take a photo and suddenly my heart stopped.  My phone (camera) was gone.  Having had it to take a photo of Stinky Dog at our last stop, I knew I had lost it somewhere in the last 8km. 8km of mostly rough downhill riding, which meant 8kms of uphill riding in the heat. We turned around and started retracing our steps, in the hopes it was still lying along the road and not in someones pocket. We started back and lady luck or perhaps it was La Virgen de la Caridad (Our Lady of Charity) whose shrine is housed in the Basilica, blessed us.  Regardless, there on the side of the road, 200m back was my perfectly intact phone.  Rob let out a cheer and after tucking it safely inside my pack, we started back towards the Basilica.

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As we road towards the Virgen’s shrine, Rob suddenly stopped at a rode side stand and bought a $2 CUC bouquet of flowers.  I gave him a quizzical look. “I know I am a scientist and also an atheist, but I somehow feel we need to make an offering to Our Lady of Charity” he said.  “It’s a lot cheaper than a new phone!”  I laughed, tucked the flowers along side my panniers and decided I would not only give thanks but also ask for the Lady’s blessing.

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Rob watched the bikes as I went into the cathedral, truly remarkable and one of the most sacred pilgrimage sites and shrines in Cuba.  Sweaty and likely quite smelly, I walked in with other pilgrims, there to make an offering to La Virgen or Cachita, as she is also known.  I placed my flowers at the shrine along with a favourite photo of James, Hannah and our dog Maisy, which I carry in my wallet and taken when they were all quiet young.  I asked the virgin to protect our kids, to keep them safe and then, under my breath I also asked her to watch over Stinky Dog, the little street dog from Santiago.

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La Virgen de la Caridad, Cachita as she is known locally or Our Lady of Charity is a religious icon to almost all Cuban women.  In Santeria, the virgin is syncretized with the beautiful orisha, Ochun Yoruba, goddess of love and dancing. Legend dictates that the virgin was discovered during a violent storm, by 3 fisherman floating on a board in the Bay of Nipe in 1612. Fearing their lives would end, they pulled out the board and found inscribed on it the words “I am the Virgin of Charity”. As the storm subsided and their lives were spared, they assumed a miracle had been granted and a legend was born.

Over the years, many have offered gifts to the Virgin. Ernest Hemingway decided to leave the 23 karat gold medal he won for the Nobel Prize in Literature, in 1954 “to the Cuban People” and rather than hand it over the the Batista regime, left it to the Catholic Church where it was temporarily held in the Basilica.

In 1957 Lina Ruz left a small guerrilla figurine at the feet of the virgin to pray for the safety of her two sons, Fidal and Raul Castro Ruz, then fighting in the Sierra Maestra.  Was it fate that saw the two Castro brothers living into their senior years or was it the spirit of El Cobre?

Will Spay for Food

Rob and I have just returned from an amazing week doing outreach clinics in the Shakawe region of Botswana.  Shakawe is a village located in the northwest corner of Botswana close to Namibia and Angola. The panhandle or head waters of the Okavango delta is next door and the small community, 375 km from Maun, is without access to veterinary care. 

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We loaded up our rental 4WD truck with all the gear necessary for setting up a mobile spay and neuter clinic and headed north on what passes for a highway to the village of Shakawe. Fortunately traffic on this road is light, as it is littered with massive potholes often requiring us to take advantage of our 4WD and use the ditch, instead of the highway, as we navigated around the axle bending holes.  Our host for the week was the lovely Ansie, who put us up at the Crocovango Crocodile farm’s research station. A shady camp with sturdy tents, a kitchen and outdoor showers made for a perfect retreat after a day of hard work. Each morning we would head to a different community in the region and set up our clinic at the local kgotla.  A kgotla is a traditional meeting house for the community and our host, Ansie, had made arrangements with the local chiefs to use their kgotla for our mobile hospital.  Most days the chief would arrive as we were setting up and greet us.  By the end of the week I almost had the traditional handshake down, generating a few laughs as I fumbled to do it properly!  For all but one of our clinics, we had shelter from sun and rain and worked inside a small building or under an overhang beside the building. One day our hospital was organized under the shade of a large tree.  I think this was my favourite site however, more than once, sterility was breached by blowing leaves and crawling bugs.

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We started the days early and were up by 6 am and on the road by 7 am to set up for the day.  Most days, locals from the village would start to arrive with their pets around 8 am. By far the majority of dogs were brought in by local children, as their parents were at work.  The children would arrive with dogs of various colours and sizes and we would give them a number and proceed to weigh their pet. Each day had the atmosphere of a “special event” starting with the fun of weighing the dogs and continuing as the children gathered around the surgical tables to watch us operate. On one of the slower mornings, our veterinary assistant Kenny, had the children weigh their own dogs which was met with a lot of laughter and smiles.

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The children would stay all day waiting for their dog (or cat) to be awake and ready to transport home. Many of them walked several miles with their pets to attend the free clinic. For the most part they were shy and quiet, always respectful and very patient, spending the day in whatever shade they could find, while they waited.

While in Shakawe we met a young boy of 12 years who arrived at the outreach clinic by himself with his dog and another small child in his care. He advised us he wanted to stay with his dog and told us “he is afraid but he is a good dog and will be comforted by my presence”.  We advised him this was just fine and as we sedated the dog and started surgery, Rob started to talk to him.  Because my surgery table was only a few feet away from Rob’s, I had the pleasure of listening in on their conversation. What I heard will stay with me always and pretty much sums up what we are doing here in Botswana. First, he told Rob that the young boy in his care was his 3 year old cousin who, by the way, he loved very much.  He closely watched his dog’s surgery and then looked at Rob and thoughtfully said “So sir, I can see that what you are doing here helps the dogs and people of Botswana and for that we are grateful, but what I am wondering is how this benefits you”. Rob had a great response and told him the benefits to us were not something you could see, not money or pula. He said that we loved visiting Botswana and we think it is a special place. We love the wild life and that by sterilizing the dogs and vaccinating them we are helping to keep both the dogs and also the wild animals healthier. I could see the boy was both a little surprised but also proud that we loved his country and wanted to help.  They then talked about the idea of “paying it forward” and that we were lucky to be in a situation that we could help the people and dogs of Botswana and that perhaps someday he would be able to remember us helping his dog and it would remind him to help someone too.  By “paying it forward” each of us can do our part to make the world a better place. The conversation ended with me asking him what he wanted to do when he was an adult.  He thought about this and said “I do not know what I want to do, ma’am, but I know I somehow want to make history”.

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Over a beer last night, we asked ourselves what it is about Botswana and MAWS that draws us here.  The days are long, hard and we come home hot, tired and smelling of urine. We are practicing veterinary medicine with the most basic of tools to service the most needy population of pets. We often feel at a loss when it comes to making a diagnosis and we try our best to help and not harm.  Our patients bleed easily and profusely during surgery, our clamps don’t clamp our suture is on a spool requiring our old eyes to thread needles all day and our scissors are as dull as the ones you buy for a first grader.  Yet we make do, we struggle, we laugh and at the end of the day it feels good to go home bone tired and feeling like we did some good today. It feels good to sit outside as the day cools to night and listen to the sounds of Botswana.  In so many ways it takes us back to life on the Canadian Prairies, big sky and big sunsets and our roots as rural veterinarians.

If I am honest, I came to Botswana for purely selfish reasons, a chance to begin this new stage of our life with an adventure and a chance to get back in the bush with the elephants, antelope, zebra and giraffes. Volunteering with MAWS was a means to a selfish end, I regret to admit. A free place to stay in exchange for some veterinary care. But in the end it became so much more.  How do you tell someone how good it feels to help an animal in need and to see the relief and thanks on the faces of those you help? How do you explain the amazing ability to make friends and deep connections with a community that will last a lifetime in just 6 short weeks? How do you thank  that same  community that took you in, accepted you without reservation and made you feel as if you are now a part of something bigger?

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Our 7 weeks in Botswana is coming to the end and while I know we will return, it is still hard to leave.  And as I sit here tonight, putting thoughts to paper,  I think of that boy and his question “I was wondering, how this benefits you?” How do I answer this? How do I put what is in my heart into words? For me, it has always been easier to give than to receive. Independent, stubborn and raised to stand on my own two feet, asking for and accepting help is something that is difficult for me.  So tonight, as we approach this season of giving, I choose to just graciously accept the joy and happiness that  Botswana has given me and simply be grateful to “feel” how this benefits me. 

For the love of dog

“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!

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A local man sitting with his dog while she recovers from surgery

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.

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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.