Volunteers travel the globe to help animals

Travel with a purpose
By Rebecca Wallick, October 2011
World Vets veterinarian Dr. Lydia Tong examines a pup in Vanuatua.

World Vets veterinarian Dr. Lydia Tong examines a pup in Vanuatua.

Second-year veterinary student Tomasina Lucia deworms a horse in Nicaragua.

Second-year veterinary student Tomasina Lucia deworms a horse in Nicaragua.

Surgical veterinary technician Laurie Doton with puppies in Granada, Nicaragua.

Surgical veterinary technician Laurie Doton with puppies in Granada, Nicaragua.

Kirsten Swenson providing care for the animals of nomadic Mongolian herdsmen.

Kirsten Swenson providing care for the animals of nomadic Mongolian herdsmen.

The stout, elderly woman — think babushka — arrives at the makeshift clinic with her two aging dogs. The dogs are in good health, but she wants them checked out by the American vets anyway. Later, she returns, pushing an old wooden cart laden with kittens to be spayed and neutered. The woman has decided that she trusts these Americans, and they happily oblige. It is, after all, why they’re here in Sărata- Monteoru, Romania.

Among the veterinarians participating in this clinic, which was organized by World Vets (see sidebar), is Stacy Steele from Ocean Shores, Wash. Like most teams put together by World Vets, her group comes from across the U.S. and consists of three other veterinarians, five vet techs, one vet student and three unskilled volunteers with a strong desire to help any way they can. They’ve each paid a fee and their own airfare to come to this remote town. They will stay a week, spending four of those days in clinics doing multiple surgeries and providing needed care in an area where such care is considered extraordinary.

Companion animals don’t have an easy life in rural Romania. “For the last 40 years, dogs and cats have been dumped in the streets, left to breed,” says Dr. Steele. “There are hundreds running loose. Sometimes the army rounds them up to be spayed or neutered. Then they go to a shelter, but not to be adopted out. If people can afford a dog, they buy purebreds,” she says.

At their clinic, the team meets Dr. Dan, a Romanian vet eager to learn how to perform spay/neuter surgeries. Dr. Steele discovers that Romanian vets don’t receive small-animal or surgical experience in their training; their information comes solely from books and is focused on large farm animals. Luckily, Dr. Dan has relatives with small pets and was also able to get some surgical experience at a clinic. “He loves dogs and cats, and is eager to learn how to spay and neuter,” says Dr. Steele. “He traveled hours from his home to spend three days in surgery with us. Dr. Dan will take the skills he learned back to his own town. It’s so gratifying to be able to help a local vet carry on this work.”

The locals are initially wary of the Americans, perhaps a remnant of the mindset fostered under former Communist rule. Eventually, though, more people and their pets arrive at the clinic. The team receives gifts of baked goods and fruit, even tuică and pálinka (homemade hooch). “Just sniffing it burned the hair in my nostrils!” says Dr. Steele.

When a female dog experiences complications, Dr. Steele decides to reopen the surgical site. Afterward, the dog is weak, and Dr. Steele is concerned she won’t survive the cold night. “Owners leave their dogs outside at night in Romania; we’d see them in cardboard boxes on the front stoops,” she says. “When we release dogs to their owners and suggest they keep them warm and inside overnight … you’d think we’d just asked them to let a pig in their bed, or a cow in their kitchen! [In this case,] we got permission from the owner to keep the dog overnight, and we snuck her into our hotel room.” The next day, she was fine. Creative thinking and flexibility are critical tools on these trips.

According to participants, part of the challenge — and fun — of trips with World Vets is stepping outside professional and personal comfort zones and being immersed in a new culture.

Dr. Steele had her first World Vets experience in January 2009, when she went to Loreto, Mexico. In some ways, it was the natural culmination of two years of personal change and growth. In 2006, she was married and working as a vet associate in a local clinic in Seabeck, Wash. The clinic’s owner decided to sell. “It was a big practice. I enjoyed working there, but did not feel it was managed well,” she says. “I had been there nine years. I could pour in lots of capital and effort to turn it around, or go elsewhere. Two weeks later, I saw an ad for a vet practice in ‘a coastal resort town.’ I love the ocean. I decided the practice was mine. My marriage was on the rocks, my job was in limbo and I thought, I can go live at the beach!

The marriage was amicably dissolved, assets were sold and split, and Dr. Steele took over that ocean-side practice in August 2007. One big dream realized. But owning her own practice meant she might have to set aside her other dream of traveling. Or would she? In a happy twist of fate, she saw an article about adventure travel, with a sidebar on World Vets. “I’d always been interested in Doctors Without Borders. Intrigued after visiting the World Vets website, I signed up for Loreto,” she says.

Dr. Steele encourages her staff members to go with her. She pays her own way and helps sponsor fundraisers to defray the cost of her staff ’s travel expenses. That year, they had a community dinner with a silent auction of items donated by local merchants. Calendars are another fundraising favorite. For a $5 donation, clients submit a photo of their pet, and people donate $1 per vote to select the 12 “calendar girls” (and boys). The pet with the most votes gets the cover and one month’s page, and the balance of the calendar features the eleven other top vote getters. The cover dog raised $250 in votes in the calendar’s first year, and the entire project generated close to $2,000, remarkable considering that Ocean Shores is a small town of about 4,000 people. Funds raised in these and other creative ways help Dr. Steele’s staff participate in World Vets, and a portion is also donated to animalwelfare organizations like Progressive Animal Welfare Society and Old Dog Haven.

Michelle Smith, Dr. Steele’s lead assistant at the Ocean Shores clinic, had never traveled out of the U.S. before she went to Loreto. “The Loreto trip was totally a life dream come true,” she says. “It allowed me to combine my passions for animals and seeing the world. It’s great to see another culture, how they are with their animals, while bringing them veterinary care and education. I learned so much about injections and intubation; I now use those skills in the free spay/neuter clinics we provide four times a year in our own town.”

Michelle fondly remembers the gifts of food they received from the townspeople. “It was the best: homemade cheeses, enchiladas, tacos. The people are so grateful, and show it with food and invitations to their homes. Great food, great people!” Michelle is looking forward to participating in a World Vets clinic in Peru later this year. (World Vets programs in Loreto have been so successful that they no longer include that town on their roster.)

Like other “voluntourism” opportunities, World Vets requires all participants to pay their way. “There’s a set fee for each trip, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,400, depending on location,” explains Dr. Steele. Every participant except the trip leader pays the same amount, plus their own airfare. World Vets chooses the site and handles incountry logistics; almost everything is provided — lodging, transfers, some or all meals, as well as vet supplies like anesthetics, gloves, antibiotics and sutures. “We also seek donations for supplies,” she says. “Getting supplies into a country can be a challenge. In Nicaragua, some of our luggage was ‘lost’; when it was returned to us, the antibiotics were missing. It takes a king’s ransom to buy a small bottle of injectable antibiotic there, so most likely it was stolen to be sold on the black market.” But despite the costs and challenges, the experience is positive. “World Vets is very good about providing safe, nice places to stay and a couple of days off to see the locale,” she adds.

Dr. Steele has brought clients along on trips to Nicaragua and Romania; one client has gone on to do additional trips with World Vets on her own. Other vets have done the same. “It’s addicting,” she says; in March, she went to Ecuador, her fourth World Vets trip. She delights in sharing her adventures by giving slideshow presentations for the folks back home.

Dr. Steele has a special and lasting reminder of her first World Vets experience: Oreja (“ear” in Spanish), a Mexican mutt she rescued. The sturdy little dog was one of many rounded up from the streets of Loreto and brought to the clinic. “I took one look at her and said, ‘She goes home with me!’” recalls Dr. Steele. Alaska Airlines generously agreed to fly Oreja and six other rescued dogs back to the U.S. for free. Oreja joined Dr. Steele’s five other dogs for a happy and healthy life beside the ocean. Dr. Steele swears she won’t be bringing her pack any more rescues from World Vets trips. Time will tell.