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. 

map_of_botswana

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.

IMG_3403

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.

IMG_3056

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”.

IMG_3101

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?

IMG_3356

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!

IMG_2598
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.

IMG_2670

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.