Try the Goat

As I watch the sun set over the Caribbean it seems remarkable that 6 weeks have passed since our arrival on the beautiful island of Carriacou. In just 5 days, we we start on a long journey to Eastern Europe with the end goal being some family time and to visit our daughter who is a student at the United World College in Mostar, Bosnia. For the next month we will not be doing any veterinary volunteer projects and just enjoying some travel time and family time. While we will enjoy just being vagabonds and on our own schedule for the next 8 weeks, volunteering as veterinarians has been an amazing experience. It has given purpose to our travels and improved our surgical skills, adaptability and resourcefulness as veterinarians. These are benefits I had expected when I started down this road of international volunteerism, but there is one benefit that I had not fully anticipated. Volunteering abroad has provided us with an instant community of interesting, passionate and dedicated people from around the world, with whom we have formed lasting and meaningful friendships. To all you exceptional humans, whose we’ve met over the past 16 months, thank you. Getting to know you, sharing our stories, sharing a meal and occasionally sharing too many rum punches has made the last year a truly amazing journey. It has gotten me thinking about what makes for an exceptional veterinary volunteer experience and also what makes an exceptional volunteer.

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In the last year and a half we have worked with a large number of volunteers. People from around the world, with different backgrounds, nationalities, ages and experience levels.  Compassion and a love of animals is the common ground that unites us and brings this diverse group of people together on a project. While I can only truly speak to my own experience, I feel some volunteers return home transformed and empowered while for others the experience is less fulfilling. Like so many things in life, the benefits you receive are directly related to the effort you are willing to put in. So once you have decided to dip your toes in the world of veterinary volunteerism (or really any type of volunteer work), how can you ensure you will have the best experience possible?

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When you pack your bags, don’t forget to pack a great attitude. If you walk around with a storm cloud over your head at your practice back home, leave the attitude there please.  This is a working holiday, after all, so leave your worries at home and consider it an opportunity to make a fresh start.

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Be ready to work hard and pitch in wherever you are needed. This means forget about your job description at home and be willing to clean kennels, wash instruments, answer phones and sweep floors, even if you are a vet!  Really?  Yes, really.

Shut your mouth and open your mind. Forget about how you do things “back home”, listen to the project directors, follow the protocols and accept that things are done differently for good reason. Costs and availability of medications varies greatly from country to country and project to project. Stop and consider the Project leaders and directors. These people have often put in countless hours of their own time not to mention countless dollars from their own pockets, in order to get the veterinary project launched. They have a very personal stake in the project. When you show up and immediately start complaining about the type of suture available, the anesthetic protocols the expired drugs on their hospital shelves you have just successfully alienated the very people that gave you this opportunity. Good work!

If you have a big ego, please stay home. Seriously, there are enough big egos and competitive attitudes in our veterinary practices at home, let’s not bring them along on volunteer trips. Egos are the enemy of teamwork. A big egos does not endear you to your coworkers, and most importantly it gets in the way of reaching the project goals.

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Talk with the local people not at them. Engage and interact with the community you are working in and try to leave your preconceived ideas of a country or culture at home. This can be harder to do than you may think. We are all programmed to believe our way of thinking is correct and to want to change a local populations way of thinking to more closely match your own.

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Remember your manners. Be respectful of local people, the charity organizers and the other volunteers. Say good morning, smile and don’t forget to say thank you. Nothing will give you a bad reputation, as a volunteer, faster than rudeness and an ungrateful attitude. Have fun but remember you are working in a small community of people, both the volunteer community and the local community.  Your behaviour can impact not only you but can also affect the reputation of the project. Remember you are an ambassador for more than just yourself.

Finally, remember to bring a sense of adventure, have fun and be willing to trying something new. Never eaten goat? Now is your chance. Always wanted to snorkel with sharks? Say yes to that unexpected invitation. Things rarely go as planned on volunteer trips, electricity goes out, patients wake up in the middle of surgery and you may find yourself forced to improvise and try things you would never consider in your practice at home.  Just go with it, stay cool and don’t sweat the small stuff. Odds are you will be amazed that, in the end, it all turns out okay. 

 

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Since selling our veterinary practice in November, we have discovered a new world of opportunities and experiences as veterinarians. A huge thank you to everyone who has made these past 8 months so remarkable: Maun Animal Welfare Society, the Spanky Project, Carriacou Animal Hospital and all the people we have met along the way. You accepted us without hesitation, made us feel welcome and gave us the opportunity to be part of something bigger than ourselves. Thanks to you, we now have friends around the world and networks to new adventures in the years to come.  Following our travels in the Balkans we will be returning to Canada for 4 months to work as locum veterinarians. Our journey as volunteer veterinarians, however, has just began as we have several new projects, as well as a return to some of our favorites, lined up for the end of 2018 and 2019.

Stay tuned and until then remember to try the goat!

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.