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.

It’s complicated…

During our time in Botswana we have sterilized 413 dogs and cats, vaccinated 441 animals, preformed 3 limb amputations, several minor surgeries and one blood transfusion over a period of 25 working days. While these numbers look good on paper, and  of course it feels good to do something rather than nothing (For the love of dog), it still feels like a drop in the ocean, so overwhelming is the need. Despite this, I suspect some of you might also be asking yourself the obvious question:  “why travel abroad to provide free veterinary care when there are plenty of animals in need in your own , backyard?” My response?  It’s complicated.

Although many of you know me as a veterinary practice owner and hospital manager, I was not always “the boss” and during my years in the profession I have had the opportunity to work as both an associate veterinarian (employed vet) and a locum veterinarian (relief vet). I have experienced different management styles and a variety of working conditions, from a militant, fear based approach to controlling employees, to the extreme hands off approach where the “monkeys run the circus”. I have worked with vets who will never say no and whose sense of self worth is dangerously linked to the need to be loved by every client. I have watched teams suffer low pay and burnout because the practice owner gave away services leaving them unable to compensate the team fairly and invest in the practice infrastructure. And as a young veterinarian, I have considered leaving the profession due to abuse and a lack of mentorship and support.

We purchased our own practice partially out of need (a baby was arriving in a month and we needed an income) but also out of a desire to provide a stable and positive workplace for our staff.  The reality is, a veterinary practice is a small business. It needs to be profitable, your team deserves competitive salaries, benefits, to feel valued and be treated with respect. This does not happen on its own.  It takes effort and has an associated cost.  Profitability in a veterinary practice allows a practice owner to take care of their team as well as maintain software, invest in new equipment and improve the quality of care your pet receives. Unfortunately, some in our profession and the public at large, think the word “profit” somehow makes us a less noble profession. “Don’t you do it for the love of the animals? Shame on you that you want to make a good living too!” What they fail to see is the link between the profitability of a veterinary practice and the level of job satisfaction and happiness of the employees working in that practice.

Over the years we have often discussed the 80:20 rule with our team, the law of the vital few or as it is properly termed, the Pareto principle. Named after an Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto, who who observed that 80% of income in Italy was received by 20% of the Italian population, this principle can be applied in a wide range of situations from management practices to lifestyle choices. At its core, the Pareto principles states that most of the results in any situation are determined by a small number of causes. 80% of the result come from 20% of the causes. Or, for example, 80% of your profits come from 20% of your clients or at home you spend 80% of your time in just 20% of the your rooms or despite having 35 apps on your smart phone, you use 20% of them, 80% of the time.   I love this principle and it’s wide reaching applications but for the point of this article, lets focus on the Pareto principle’s as it applies to client complaints in veterinary practice. Although it may not feel like it some days, the truth is, a small number of your clients are unhappy, complain and make your life as a vet unrewarding and stressful.  The majority of clients are great to deal with, appreciative and are the reason we love our jobs as veterinarians.  As long as you recognize the 80:20 rule, it’s all good.  The problem develops when you start to believe the comments from the 20% and base your management decisions on the complaints of this vocal minority.  For some, your fees will never be low enough, your clinic never clean enough, your hours never accommodating enough and your caring and compassion never altruistic enough.

I have been told “you don’t care, you’re only in it for the money” more times than I care to recall and while I understand the emotions behind this response, it is the most unoriginal way to berate your vet.  Trust me, if we were just in it for the money, we would not be veterinarians.  So the question still remains, how do you manage a successful and profitable practice while still giving back to the community?  How do you choose which clients deserve a discount or charity and which do not? Just because a veterinary practice is profitable, does not mean they do not give back to their clients and community. Often the discounts, free exams, free treatments and rehoming of pets and donations to local charities is not advertised and goes unnoticed by the public.  In fact, profitable practices are often able to give far more.

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Veterinarians often believe they need to be all things to all pet owners.  Inconsistency and trying to please everyone is a dangerous path, especially when you recall that 20% of people will be unhappy with your service regardless of your best efforts.  Human nature is interesting and I have worked in practices where fees were waived for clients who could not afford veterinary care and this “free care” now becomes the expectation on future visits. The challenge is to find a way to help meet the patients needs, within the owner’s budget rather than just giving a handout.  For the health of our profession, we need to educate people that pet ownership is not your right, but a privilege. A privilege that comes with a cost. Handouts can quickly become a future expectation and I have more than once, witnessed a client once grateful for a discounted or free service quickly turn nasty once the handout was discontinued.  Allowing this situation to develop in your veterinary hospital affects the culture of your practice and things can quickly spiral out of your control, resulting in a team suffering from burnout and compassion fatigue fuelled by negativity, demanding clients and a lack of profits.

The idea of giving a hand up instead of a hand out can also be applied to volunteering with a project abroad. I have spent time pondering this question: by providing free veterinary care in a developing country are we actually helping or are we devaluing the service of local veterinarians and the sustainability of the project? Are we teaching the local people that we will take care of them for free and in doing so, taking work away from a local veterinarian?  It is a question I struggle with but the reality is, in many of the countries we visit, the veterinary education and training is vastly different than a veterinary education in countries like North America, the UK, Europe, Australia and New Zealand. Veterinarians in many countries are either not qualified or not interested in spay and neuter programs and the yet in these areas the need for these programs is great.

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Outreach clinic in Shakawe Botswana for MAWS

For many the world is black and white and the answers to these questions are obvious.  How simple things would be if this were true for myself. Instead, I see the world in shifting shades of grey and I find the answers are often elusive. All I can do is try to leave my judgement at home, ask questions and hopefully find my own answers in the many shades of grey.

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. 

Never trust a fart and other travel tales

It is midday in a crowed market place in downtown La Paz, Baja California Sur when I realize what started as a feeling of being “slightly off” this morning is quickly turning into a tsunami in my bowels.  The smell of meat in the open air butcher shop is not helping my condition. I swat away the flies buzzing around both the hanging sides of beef and my head and suddenly, it hits me.  I need a bathroom and I need it NOW! I am too embarrassed to say what happened next, but I am sure you can guess.  As the saying goes, shit happens!

It was 1994 when two prairie farm kids decided to take two months off work and travel from Alberta, Canada to the tip of Baja California on motorcycles.  As kids, our family holidays consisted mostly of camping trips, ski holidays and trips to the big city of Calgary for back to school shopping.  International travel, was either outside the family budget or outside the family comfort zone.  Looking back, it no longer seems like such an epic adventure, but what we did not realize, is how pivotal that trip would be in our evolution both professionally and personally.  As veterinarians, leaving a mixed animal practice for two months to travel, was not done and, in hindsight, it was the first nail in the coffin of our failing partnership.  Leaving that prairie partnership, while terrifying, became the first step towards creating a life that was the right fit for us, rather than trying to make ourselves fit into the life we thought we should live.  From crashing my bike on a winding, mountain road in the northern California redwoods to stripping down to our swim suits so we could wash ALL our clothes in a small town laundromat, while the locals laughed at the crazy gringos, that trip left me wanting more. it changed the way I viewed myself, how I viewed the world and the way I viewed travel.

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Fast forward several years. We own our own practice, now have two small children and have finally managed to book a locum for a glorious two week holiday. We decide, it is time to have an adventure. The plan is for Rob to drive our Toyota truck, loaded with camping gear and supplies to San Diego.  I will stay and work for a few extra days, then the kids and I will drive 2 1/2  hours to Spokane, Washington (the nearest major airport) and fly to join Rob. From San Diego we will head south to Baja to recreate that epic trip, this time with two children in tow.  Finally the exciting day arrives.  Rob has made it to San Diego, enjoying 2 days of driving and blissful solitude along the way. The kids and I are on our way to the airport.  Suddenly a moment of inattention leaves me standing on the side of the road beside a crumpled car with two small, nicely shaken children.  A short ambulance ride and set of X-rays later and we determined to be intact and are discharged from the hospital . We once again I find myself standing beside the side of the road, holding a small pack filled with snacks and activities for the airplane as well as the hands of two small, nicely shaken children.  It is at this point my son, James looks at me and asks “Mom, what are we going to do now?”. I bend down, lean in and say in a cheery mom voice “Well, we are all okay and so we are going on this holiday.  I guess we will just have to hitch hike “.  Unknown to me, the driver who towed our car into town overheard us and quickly realized I was not kidding.  He kindly took pity on us and offered a ride.  It was an unfortunate start to what turned into an amazing trip.  From learning to do the stingray shuffle on the beach at Baja Conception to petting gray whales in their calving grounds at the Bay of San Ignacio, it introduced us to the joys of traveling with children. Seeing the world through their eyes, sharing adventures as a family and expanding their world, was for me, worth every episode of “shit happens”.

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The reasons for travel are as unique as the individuals who decide to take a journey. For us, travel was always a way to escape the pressures of our hectic life. To escape the internet, school pressures and just be together as a family.  An opportunity to realize the world over, humans wants and needs are the same and happiness is not necessarily dependent on money or status.  Then life moves along and the reasons change. Now there is no stress awaiting us upon return and the experience or journey becomes more important. We have discovered that having a community to connect with enriches the experience and working with organizations like the Maun Animal Welfare Society has allowed us to meet amazing people, interact with the local community and get a better sense of what life here is really like.  Tomorrow we head to the community of Shakawe a village in the northwest corner of Botswana where we will do daily outreach clinics over the next week. It will be hot, dirty and hard work but also a fun adventure, a chance to make new connections, see a new part of this country and, of course, to see what “shit happens”!

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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.

 

Puppies, Parasites and Penises

I can feel the sweat running down my back as I keep pace with the Black Keys pounding out of our little speaker and close the last spay of the day. I am hot, sweaty, most likely covered in ticks and bone tired but still… this is fun!

We left behind a foot of snow, one week ago to arrive in Botswana during the hottest season of the year. Just before we arrived daily temperatures were above 40 degrees and the landscape is dry and brown. Thankfully we have brought the rains with us and in the last week, evening showers that have magically turned the brown bushes green and brought some blessed relief from the heat. As I sit on our deck and listen the to the call of the hornbills and the cicadas chirping, it feels like we have been here far longer than a week.  We arrived in the capital of Botswana and our first order of business was to visit the Botswana Council of Veterinary Surgeons in order to swear our professional oath and become licensed to practice veterinary medicine in Botswana. A lovely couple Brian and Marilyn Garcin put us up for the night and we were well entertained with a private showing of Brian’s amazing art.  http://www.southafricanartists.com/artists/brian-garcin-6049

Wild dogs by Brian Garcin

From Gabarone, we flew on to Maun, a town of approximately 60,000. Maun is a busy hub for the numerous safari companies in Botswana, given is proximity to the Okavango Delta, and our home base for the next 7 weeks. We were met at the airport by one of the Maun Animal Welfare Society’s (MAWS) volunteers and transported through town and down a sandy track to a small cottage where we will live during our time here.  After dropping our packs, we headed off to check out the veterinary clinic where we were greeted by Gladys, a veterinary nurse from Austrailia who is also vounteering with MAWS. Friendly, confident and practical, we could quickly see it would be a great team.  We were disappointed to learn that she arrived 2 weeks before us and had been managing multiple challenging cases, on her own and was leaving in just another week! Poor timing for all of us, as a trained veterinary nurse or techinican makes surgery days flow more smoothly and we quickly learned that Gladys is a rockstar!

IMG_2522Our home away from home

We started work the next day, Saturday November 11, with a morning of sterilizations, hospitalized patients to check and learning the ropes.  In the afternoon Rob and I were called out to a property to check a group of sick dogs for a local family and experienced how many people in Botswana live.  To give you some idea, just know the cabin above is truly a palace by local standards.  Picture a sandy yard, about the size of an average Canadian yard, with one or two small buildings the size of a large garden shed made out of cinder blocks or bricks and mud, with an open air doorway and tin roof. Then add to that picture, a few straggly, brown trees 4 to 6 barefoot kids, plastic bottles and garbage laying about, 6 to 8 skinny dogs and several adults of different generations sitting in the shade or laying under trees on old mattresses. Rob and I did our best to examine the sick dogs, but we were up against some challenges. All of the dogs were very thin and not eating, but one of the dogs, the owners favorite, has been coughing. The owner tells us that last year he had a dog with similar signs and he died.  We have a stethoscope and thermometer, that’s it…. so what’s your diagnosis?  What is your treatment?  Distemper is common in dogs here and thankfully it did not look like distemper, but the list of possible diseases is long including everything from parasites, like lungworm or heartworm, to infectious diseases and even cancer.  We have no laboratory facilities, not even a microscope and any diagnostic work we can do is extremely limitied. We do what we can, which is basically vaccinate, deworm and prescribe doxycycline (the dogs are covered in ticks, anemic and most have chronic erhlicia infections). We cross our fingers and hope it helps. Sterilization, deworming and vaccinations are the most important contributions we can make. Reducing the pet population, reducing the parasite load, and controlling preventable diseases is vitally important here and helps keep the human community healthier and safer (roaming dog packs can attack livestock and people) as well as reducing the risk of rabies and distemper in susceptible wildlife populations.

IMG_2536Property where we did a house call

As I finish writing this post, it is now Wednesday evening, November 15 and we have completed our first four days with MAWS.  The number of animals sterilized is as follows: Saturday 12, Monday 22, Tuesday 21 and Wednesday 21 for a grand total of 76 in 4 days.  We will be working in the Maun clinic for two more days, then on Saturday and Sunday we will head off into the bush to do a mobile spay and neuter clinic in a more remote rural area without access to veterinary care. In addition to sterilizations we have also examined and treated animals brought in for various reasons. Injuries from being hit by vehicles are common, as are thin, anorexic and vaguely ill animals. The most interesting cases include a puppy who was bitten by a scorpion (so far recovering well) and another pup who had suffered an injury to his prepuce (sheath) which allowed his penis to prolapse out to the side. The wound was quite old and scarred down but we were able to close things up nicely. Rob says if anyone needs some cosmetic surgery on your we we, he can hook you up with a cracker jack surgeon!

Recovery room, getting ready for surgery and Puppy kisses

To finish off this post, I am going to leave you with some insider information on Botswana. Questions your dying to ask but were afraid of the answer:

  1.  Enjoy your one ply toilet paper, even two ply is just a distant dream you spoiled princess.
  2. If you are a vegetarian, be prepared to eat chicken because apparently it is not really meat.
  3. Your bathing suit is actually a “costume” – to all those Rosslanders who love a good costume theme party, just head to the local pool and your good to go.
  4. Don’t drive at night, the donkeys are out and seem to prefer the middle of the road.
  5. Stay left, look right, in Botswana you drive on the left side of the road.  Rob, our fearless driver of “Trevor” (the old truck available for our use), has almost got it down. Thankfully the roads are not to busy! My high pitched yelps help to alert him when he reverts to his Canadian right side of the road driving habit.
  6. Beware the miniture ants, they can consume one hundred times their body weight overnight. Christmas bugs are everywhere. Their main goal seems to be to buzz into me, fall onto the floor and die. Because we are lazy slobs, we let them lay about and by evening a swarm of teeny, tiny ants has gathered about their bug carcasses as if preforming some strange memorial rites and by morning, bug body and ants have disappeared. We are concerned that before the 7 weeks are up, they will one night run out of bugs and devour us in our sleep.
  7. Acuna matata is really thing – everyone we have so far, has been friendly, helpful interested in us and interesting to us.  What a great start to this adventure. Don’t worry, be happy. Botswana is not Canada, but isn’t that the point?

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