Sketchbook: Adventures in Volunteering with Animal Clinics

An illustrated travel journal about helping out at a spay/neuter clinic in Puerto Rico.
By Sara Varon, January 2019

At the beginning of June, I was lucky to be one of the many volunteers to take part in the Humane Society of the United States' "Spayathon for Puerto Rico."

The spayathon, a pretty amazing initiative, plans to spay / neuter 20,000 dogs and cats in Puerto Rico, where stray animals have been a problem for a long time. Since Hurricane Maria, strays on the island have increased to unprecedented numbers, posing health problems for both animals and people.

This was the first of four one-week clinics, each taking place in multiple locations around the island. The clinics are run by 22 partner organizations, with different groups at each location. I volunteered at the Ceiba location through the Sato Project, which rescues abused and abandoned dogs mostly in the Yabucoa region. Sato Project did most of the administration portion of the clinic, and veterinary care was provided by Helping Paws Across Borders, which runs spay / neuter clinics in foreign countries where dogs and cat populations are uncontrolled and where veterinary care may be unaffordable or unavailable.

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It was a busy week, over the seven days of the clinic, 899 dogs and cats were spayed / neutered at the Ceiba location! Seven vets performed on average, a total of 128 surgeries per day.

In addition to the surgery, pets also received antibiotics, vaccines, a bag of food, flea and tick medications for dogs-- many of whom sorely needed it --and a leash and collar, all at no charge to owners. A lot of pets had never been to the vet before most were unvaccinated. Some were abandoned pets or strays recently taken in.

The vets really went above and beyond. A few tumors were discovered and removed during spay surgery. Somebody brought in a dog in labor whose puppies were too big to come out. The mom was rescued but her puppies couldn't be saved.

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The animal handlers were unbelievably graceful. Not all patients were happy to be there, but the vet techs and handlers definitely managed even the most aggressive animals. Despite a few bites, no customer was turned away and no volunteers were deterred.

I helped out for the first five days.
Each day was an adventure.

Sunday: Worked in pharmacy in AM, making packets of antibiotics to be handed out to homebound patients. Also! Learned how to fill syringes with rabies vaccines to be administered by vet techs. Later, washed and sterilized surgical tools. By the end of the day, I knew by heart all the tools that make up a spay kit.

Monday: Worked in recovery. Vet techs tended to animals post-surgery. They removed breathing tubes, administered vaccines, cut toenails and cleaned ears. I learned how to take temperatures, which was easier than I expected. Dogs were than handed over, wrapped in blankets, and I got to hug and pet them while they woke from anesthesia. Drama of the hour: a cat escapes from its crate, runs around the place and is captured by a heroic animal handler!

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Popular dog names of the day: Mia, Luna.
Favorite name of the day: Brownita.
Worst pet name of the day: Cannabis.

Tuesday: Worked in registration, so I got to meet pet owners and see the animals before they were sedated...a new perspective! A guy brought in three kittens without names, so I named one Fluffita. The others got the names Motito (Little Weed) and Mashed Potato.

Favorite dog name of the day: Capitan (a Chihuahua).

Wednesday: Saw what a cat bite looks like. (It swelled up like a balloon!) Lesson: don't get bitten by a cat! Most popular pet names of the day: Muneca (Doll), Pelusa (Fluffy). Learned a good trick: if a dog is having a hard time waking from anesthesia, sometimes it helps to put peanut butter on the end of its nose.

Thursday: Worked in recovery again, this time at Chihuahua Island, a cot full of heating pads for dogs with low post-surgery body temperatures. Most of these customers were Chihuahuas, who seemed to be forever cold. Favorite dog name of the day: Butchy (a Chihuahua).

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One of the highlights of the event was seeing how pleased the owners were. Everybody thanked us. A pet owner whose dog had a tumor removed said she'd never have been able to afford such a surgery. Another highlight was getting to know the other volunteers and seeing their skills in action. But the best part was seeing how so many organizations and people could come together to make such an impactful event happen. It felt great to be making a difference.

Sara Varon is a graphic novelist and children’s book author/illustrator living in Brooklyn. She loves both traveling and dogs, and was pleased to discover that she could combine these through volunteering. Her most recent graphic novel is New Shoes.

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