Viva Mexico, Viva Mazunte Project!

The world is full of people who want to make a difference. People who are idealistic, people with drive and focus, people with a specific skill set, people with a mission, people with positive energy.  The problem is getting all of these people working as a team where they are willing to set their own ego aside, in order to collaborate and work together, towards a common goal. Those of you working in the veterinary industry can probably relate to how difficult this is in “our world”. Dysfunctional teams seem to be the norm rather than the exception and when you find a team that truly embraces and lives the meaning of the word team, (ie. they’ve got each other’s backs and build each other up daily) hang on for dear life and count your blessings that you found your tribe. 

It may behoove the veterinary profession to take a look at the work of companies like Google. Much of the work carried out at Google is done by teams (sound familiar) and researchers at google have taken the time to look at the secret of effective teams. Project Aristotle, a code name based on Aristotle’s quote “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts” was Googles attempt to answer the question “What makes an effective team?”  The results shouldn’t surprise us and yet I see our profession still struggling to get this right. Without getting into a long winded discussion about what constitutes a team, (an interdependent work group that plans, solves problems and needs each other to get shit done) and what constitutes effective (depends on the situation but lets just say its getting the shit done that your team leader wants you to get done in an efficient, cost effective and timely fashion) what did Google’s Project Aristotle learn?  After accounting for bias and other variables as well as conducting hundreds of double blind interviews, what came through loud and clear was this. What made a difference to team effectiveness was less about who was on the team and more about how the team worked together. Sorry all you smarty pants but just because your team is full of people with a high IQ, it does not necessarily have a positive correlation with positive outcomes and an effective team. In order of importance, here are the things that had the biggest positive impact on team performance:

1. Psycological safety: This refers to the individuals perception of the consequences of taking and interpersonal risk. In lay terms it is feeling safe to speak up without fear of consequences. Do your team mates have your back and create a safe space for dissenting opinions without fear of belittling, punishment or embarrassment.

2.  Dependability: Members reliably complete work on time with no shirking of responsibility.

3.  Structure and Clarity:  Individuals understand their role on the team and have a           clear understanding of expectations and consequences.

4.  Meaning:  Finding a sense of purpose in either the work itself or the outcome.

5.  Impact: The subjective judgement that your work is making a difference.

Finally I would like to add my own 2 cents, for what it is worth:

6.  Appreciation: Team members need to feel their work is not only meaningful and impactful but also appreciated. A heartfelt thank you goes a long way, whether from the team leader, team mates or the public you serve.

A veterinary volunteer projects is a special type of team. In order to meet its goals, it has to find a way satisfy all these positive predictive factors in a very short period of time. Add to this the fact that volunteers come from a widely diverse set of experiences, backgrounds and represent a wide range of personality types. Finally consider that many volunteers are experiencing various levels of culture shock and personal discomfort as they are visiting a new country where weather, food and cultural conditions may be vastly different from “home”. Considering all of this, it amazes me that any veterinary project can strive to meet the criteria of effective teams as laid out by Google’s Project Aristotle, and yet the Mazunte Project succeeds in doing just that.  (See “Adventure Awaits: Reflections on Hobbits, Home and Veterinary Volunteerism” for more tips on what to look for in a volunteer project abroad.) 

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Dr. Pierre DePorre, Dr. Emery Engers and 4th year students from MSU: Melissa, Pedro, Jamie and Jill

The maze of international animal welfare or veterinary spay and neuter projects is a bit of a rabbit hole. Once you enter the warren, it can take you to places and experiences you never imagined. Rob and I first heard out about the Mazunte Project over a year ago, and started firing off emails in an attempt to learn more about this cool project and see if we could “charm” our way onto it! Our efforts put us in touch with an amazing human being, Rich Rodger, someone I am now proud to call a friend and who I aspire to emulate in the years remaining to me. In a roundabout way, Rich along with a small group of passionate people including Hugh Davis and Nancy Fantom (my team leaders in 2019) organized the first sterilization project back in  2000. Over the past 19 years, the Mazunte Project has grown from that small team of 9 people to approximately 50 volunteers in 2019. What started as a small grass roots organization has grown to include not only a team of dedicated volunteers (mostly from Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Michigan) but also a team of students and mentors from Michigan State University, and most recently a collaboration with La Universidad Autonoma Benito Juarez de Oaxaca (UABJO), the veterinary school in Oaxaca. Add a couple of Canadians and you have a true cross border collaboration. Pretty cool indeed!  Note: plans are underway to interview Rich and write a blog on the history and his experiences over 19 years of organizing the Mazunte Project.

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Rob preforming surgery in a small village as the sun sets

Over the past 19 years, visiting small villages up and down the Pacific Coast of Oaxaca, this group has made not only a positive impact on the health of local dogs but by reducing dog overpopulation in the region, it has also reduced dog predation of sea turtle eggs and hatchlings and is slowly changing attitudes towards animal welfare and conservation in the region. Rich and other volunteers described to me the packs of dogs that used to be found on the beaches and nesting grounds of Golfino (Olive Ridley), Black (Green), Hawksbill and Leatherback sea turtles in the early years of the project.  Unsterilized dogs, reproduce quickly and too many dogs leads to hungry animals competing for food.  Beaches full of turtle eggs turn into a food source for the local dogs. In addition, for many years the local people of the Oaxaca region harvested turtles and eggs for food and export.  In 1991, the Mexican Government banned the harvesting of turtles and eggs and in 1994 the Turtle Center was established with the goal to provide education, protection and research for the local sea turtle population. One of the key players at Palmarito Turtle Conservation is Dr. Marcelino Lopes-Reyes.  A veterinarian of boundless energy and passion for animals. He has been a driving force behind turtle conservation in the area, patrolling beaches, relocating nests, finding villages for our teams to visit and encouraging local people to sterilize their dogs. In 2019 the Mazunte Project visited 30 villages and the final count of dogs (and cats) sterilized up and down the Oaxaca coast came in at 744. Considering the conditions we are working in and the fact that teams had 5 days to come together and form a successful MASH unit, it is beyond impressive. Even more impressive to me, was the comaraderie and positive energy of this group. Bitching, complaining and big egos have no place on effective teams. There seemed to be an underlying understanding that we were here to get a job done and have fun doing it!

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Dr. Hugh Davis preforming a cat neuter with Dr. Marcelino Lopes-Reyes observing

After spending two weeks working with the Mazunte Project, it is obvious their work is having an impact. On arrival I was impressed with the healthy (even fat in some cases) appearance of the local dog population, not only in the tourist areas of Mazunte, San Augustinillo and Zipolite but also in most of the small rural villages we visited. With time and education, attitudes towards animal welfare are changing. I was very fortunate to visit several of the more remote beaches and see turtle nesting grounds as well as witness a mass hatching of Olive Ridley turtles following a recent Arribada. A small group of volunteers were up early and headed off to see if we could help a few more hatchings make it to the ocean. During the 3.5 hours we were on the beach I saw one pack, of 5 dogs, roving the beach and digging up turtle eggs.  Given the number of dogs on this beach 20 years ago, this is a huge reduction. 

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Collecting hatchlings in my hat to protect them from birds that storm the beach as the sun rises

 

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As a species, humans have been too successful. Our growth and our greed are destroying the planet. It is what successful organisms do but it is at the expense of so many other species. On my more pessimistic days I feel overwhelmed and wonder how “Mother Nature” has any hope against us? But then, I wake up, look around and see how much beauty we still have left and know we cannot let it go without a fight. It is awe inspiring to see these cute little guys, emerge from the sand and struggle against all odds to complete an ancient journey. A journey deeply embedded in their genetic code which we as humans struggle to understand. I was told for every 100 turtle hatchlings, only 2 make it back to nest again on the same beach. The odds are stacked against them and still they don’t give up. We need to follow their example. Go outside, look around and find what inspires you, what leaves you awestruck and fight for it in some small way. After seeing what a small group of passionate people have created and the impact it has had I am inspired that we can still make a difference. Thank you Mazunte Project, don’t give up.

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If you want to help the turtles of the Oaxaca Coast visit www.palmaritoseaturtlerescue.org

Every dollar you give goes directly to turtle conservation, not administration costs. Dr. Marcelino needs a new ATVs to patrol the beaches at night and protect nests as the old one they are using is finally beyond repair. Every dollar you give, will be put to good use. You don’t have to be a veterinarian or veterinary technician to help. Every dollar you give helps as much, or more than the time we have given to this project. Every dollar is appreciated.

Adventure awaits – Reflections on Hobbits, Home, and Veterinary Volunteerism

It’s a dangerous business Frodo, going out of your door… You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. – Bilbo Baggins

This morning as I sip a foul cup that passes for coffee, I realize it has been just over a year since we stepped off the hamster wheel and made some big changes in our lives. We have just finished a 5-week volunteer gig in the Caribbean and in a few days will swap our swimsuits for ski gear as we head home to Rossland, BC the most perfect place to spend Christmas. While I would like to think my gypsy heart would be happy to wander indefinitely, it knows that home is there, waiting quietly for my return. A little town, nestled in the mountains of BC and where my mind goes when I hear the word home. How lucky I am to have a home and to have it waiting patiently for me at the end of each journey.

Each time I return I am greeted by friends and acquaintances that make me feel like a minor celebrity and I realize the decision to step off the hamster wheel early is often misunderstood.  I try not to cringe as I hear the question “how are you enjoying your retirement?” I really need to stop explaining that we are not retired, just making a change in our career and lifestyle goals because, why does it matter?  To walk away from financial success in order to do more of the things I love, to give back in some small way and to explore new career options has been one of the best decisions of my life but it is not easy for everyone to understand. To be honest, learning how to live more simply and on less is a challenge and one I am still figuring out. We all think we need just a little more and we all spend to the limit (or beyond) our income. It isn’t an easy pattern to “unlearn”.

While home calls, waiting to wrap me in the warmth of its familiar embrace, the road continues to beckon, luring me with the thrill of the unknown. Since 2017 I have had the good fortune to spend approximately 20 weeks working as a volunteer vet on projects in 5 different countries and new opportunities await in 2019. I would be lying to say there have not been challenges. Challenging conditions, bureaucratic red tape, exhausting flights, and difficult people. Once hooked, working as a volunteer vet becomes like an addiction. Despite the dirt, the poverty, the overwhelmingly sad cases, I am a junkie waiting for my next fix, my next project.

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This year, I am looking at veterinary volunteering with new eyes and with the hope of making international volunteer work more accessible to other veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Despite the personal rewards and experience gained, the cost of travel and finding time to volunteer is a huge deterrent for many veterinarians and veterinary technicians. Previous blogs have described the benefits of volunteer work (I am Published, Cool beans! and For the Love of Dog) as well as what makes for a great volunteer experience (Try the Goat) but what about the project itself? How do potential veterinarians and veterinary technicians choose from among the many projects in need of their expertise? How can you be sure you are making a difference and also have a fun, positive experience? The answer to this question is complex but can be broken down into two parts. First, taking an honest look at the reasons you want to go on a volunteer trip and second considering the project, its leadership, and goals.

If you have never dipped your toe in the world of veterinary volunteerism, it is difficult to know what to expect and how you will react to challenging conditions. Picture yourself working in a hot, dirty, smell environment with cockroaches in the dog food bin. Consider your ability to practice veterinary medicine with limited tools and supplies. Will you laugh with delight to find drugs and suture only 2 years out of date instead of 6? How do you feel making a treatment decision using only a stethoscope and thermometer as your diagnostic tools? Are you adaptable to using unfamiliar drugs (what has been donated), unfamiliar anesthesia (what is available) and unfamiliar suture (always check its strength before using)? Finally, how will you react to the overwhelming need and neglect (by our Western standards) of so many of the animals in these countries? Can you work within the local cultural context and leave your judgment at home? My blog “Try the Goat” is an attempt to give volunteers some tips on having a great experience but as also a reminder that you need to be honest with yourself and decide if international work is right for you. If you need life’s little luxuries to be happy or if what you really need is a holiday, you may end up disappointed. If you see the world in black and white and cannot practice medicine without structure, familiarity and the organizational hierarchy of modern veterinary hospital, you may find this type of work stressful and anxiety-inducing. Finally, if seeing emaciated, neglected animals, and experiencing different cultural values associated with pet ownership is going to leave you either deeply enraged or deeply depressed, you may want to rethink your participation in an international veterinary project.

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Rob, a small animal vet, stepping outside his comfort zone and performing a Cesarean on a sheep. Large animal medicine, just like riding a bike…

If after reading this you are still excited about offering your skills to a volunteer project, the next step is choosing a great project to join. Do a google search of “veterinary volunteer projects” and you will be overwhelmed with options. Start by narrowing the search to a certain region or part of the world, talk to colleagues who have volunteered and finally consider these key considerations when evaluating your participation in a specific project.

1. Does the project has a clear mission and clearly defined goals (ideally in writing) that guide the decisions of both the project leaders and the volunteers. Read these goals and make sure your ethics align with those of the project leaders. For example, on some projects, sick animals will not be treated unless the owner agrees to sterilization. Are there clear medical protocols and are expectations for volunteers clearly communicated? Clearly defined goals provide a uniform and consistent message to the local community and provide the most efficient and productive use of volunteers energy, resources and time.

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Elaine is pretty happy to effectively sterilize 9 animals with just one surgery.  Meeting project goals and preventing 8 more puppies to hit the street.

2. Is there evidence of accountability? Nonprofit organizations, just like small businesses, need to be accountable to their volunteers and donors. Can the project document how donations are used? Do the organizers make efforts to track and evaluate the impact of the project on the local community and whether it is meeting its goals? Is the board willing to critically evaluate its’ impact and implement changes when it starts to veer off track? This can be a difficult thing for volunteers to evaluate but it worth your consideration. Full disclosure, when I began volunteering, I did not consider accountability. I wanted to escape, travel and experience veterinary medicine in a foreign country. These projects can be costly, you are likely using up your holiday time and you may also be giving up income or time with family in order to participate. With so many organizations looking for volunteers, consider your options and choose wisely.

3. Does the volunteer project respect the local culture and look for ways to become sustainable without outside support? This my friends is a lofty goal and I realize I am naive to expect long-term sustainability without foreign support, but it excites me when I see local community members supporting the project, being employed or trained by project leaders and ultimately becoming advocates for the project within their community.  Consider if there is an education component to the project (is there a school program), are there local supporters who help with the logistics and organization of the project and do they work alongside the foreign volunteers and project leaders to deliver education, sterilization, and medical care? Is there a spirit of collaboration with the local animal care community or are local organizations displaced and disrespected?

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4. Finally, is the project a fun, collaborative and positive experience for volunteers? Do volunteers feel respected, comfortable to ask questions and voice concerns without fear of being judged or shut down? Does leadership support a collaborative approach and foster an environment of improvement and learning? Do volunteers feel appreciated and supported? Are all volunteers, regardless of their experience, age or role on the project treated consistently with equal respect and perks? After leading a team for 20 years, I can confidently say, it is lonely at the top. Your team doesn’t care about your needs or how hard you work and nor should they. You took on this role and while it isn’t easy to stay positive and not let your personal biases influence your behavior and actions, at the end of the day, it is your responsibility. Before signing on to a project, talk to past volunteers about their experience, and be sure the time and money you spend in order to offer your skills we are rewarded with appreciation and respect.

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After 5 months of working as a veterinary volunteer I am fully aware that I have the easiest job, just show up and work hard. I appreciate the countless hours of work that goes into organizing these projects. From bringing together leaders and volunteers with different backgrounds and personalities, to engaging the support of the local community. From fundraising and bringing the required drugs and supplies across international borders to staying focused and positive in the face of daily roadblocks that can be overwhelming. It requires a phenomenal work ethic, passion, and perseverance that often goes unrecognized and sometimes unappreciated.  I tip my hat to all of you, the leaders with whom I have had the privilege of volunteering over the past 2 years.

So after all this thoughtful advice, my final comment is simple. Know yourself, do your homework and then stop overthinking it. Put on your pack, tuck in some lembas bread and open the door of your safe little hobbit hole. Step outside by placing one foot in front of the other as you walk through the Shire and into the great beyond. Adventure awaits, not for the strong or the brave, but for those with an open mind and a curious heart.

Home is behind, the world ahead, And there are many paths to tread through shadows to the edge of night, Until the stars are all alight. Then world behind and home ahead, We’ll wander back and home to bed. Mist and twilight, cloud and shade, Away shall fade! Away shall fade! – J.R. Tolkien