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Are you a pre-vet or veterinary student interested in volunteering abroad with domestic animals? Great!

I am interested in trap/neuter/return (TNR) programs for stray/free-roaming dogs and cats, shelter medicine, public health, rabies vaccination campaigns, animal welfare in international development, and providing medical services to low-income communities in the US and abroad. I’ve done research into ways of quantifying and monitoring free-roaming/feral cat populations. I’ve been a short-term volunteer in 5 countries with 7 different projects, both through structured pay-to-volunteer programs and independently. I’ve never met another pre-vet or vet student who has the sort of varied international volunteering experience that I do, so I’m in the unique position to be able to compare different options based on first-hand knowledge. (I’ve traveled to about 30 countries total in my life, so I’m also an experienced independent traveler aside from my animal-related volunteering.)

I want to help you find the international volunteering route that fits your needs while also challenging you to gain a real understanding of global animal welfare and health issues. I am not a paid recruiter for any program, I earn no commission from voluntourism companies, and I’ll give you the honest pros and cons of my experiences so you can make your own decisions. Above all, I want you to get more out of your trip than just those cliche photos of you hugging cute brown kids. I want to help you gain a thoughtful, internationalist view of veterinary medicine, so that once you’ve earned your DVM, you’ll be in a better position to volunteer again when your help will be more useful. I try to be an optimist, but I’m not an obtusely enthusiastic do-gooder who’s here to tell you that you can save the world over spring break. I advocate having some understanding of postcolonial theory/orientalism and the many critiques of voluntourism before undertaking any voyage abroad to “help.” Even your best of intentions could use some introspection.

An important disclaimer about the othering inherent in this blog: as an American, my use of “international” and “abroad” assumes that you are a pre-vet or veterinary student from a developed/Western country, and that you wish to travel to developing/non-Western countries to work with animals.

I also assume that you are an pre-vet or veterinary student, but I imagine that there is useful information here for anyone interested in volunteering with animals in developing countries, or for veterinarians who are curious about the subject.

I advocate evidence-based medicine as the essential foundation of medical ethics and animal welfare. The first step towards providing cost-effective, compassionate care for your patients is to use therapies that actually work.

I’m hoping you’ll read my posts in chronological order, starting at the end of page 4 and reading forward, because I have been moving from general advice to more specific information and trip reviews. You can easily download and read all of my posts using an RSS feed reader, or use the “subscribe via email” link to the right.

You can send me an email via my contact form.

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How can Westerners talk about cruelty “over there” without stirring racism?

When I talk about my interest in doing small animal public health and animal welfare work internationally, one topic that regularly comes up is the issue of some Asian cultures eating dogs.  It’s a topic I’ve grown to really dislike, despite my obvious sympathies for the dogs.  From the amount of general public attention the issue gets, dog meat is one of the things Western people think is most barbaric and vile about other cultures, right up there with female genital mutilation.

Because dogs are essentially a sacred animal to my own Western culture, the idea that anyone could treat dogs the way we treat our own food animals is absolutely horrifying.  Dogs are family.  Cows are food.  Any culture with a different hierarchy of the value of animals is evil.  Things gets very emotional and angry very quickly.  Because Asians are the other, then it is their otherness that becomes the focal point.  Asians are eating dogs because they are monsters and have no ethics.  If they had ethics, they would behave like we do and eat animals that we think are the correct ones to eat.

While I absolutely share a disdain for the dog meat trade, it’s such a difficult issue because it can’t be discussed by Westerners without devolving into racism very quickly.  It’s a topic I don’t even want to talk about as a white person, even though it could serve as such an interesting spark for a discussion about how notions of animal welfare, the animal-human bond, and the way we treat animals vary greatly from culture to culture.  There sadly isn’t room for complex discussions of cultural imperialism when it comes to dog meat, including the important issue that Western protests of the dog meat industry may actually be aiding that industry.

I regularly see Facebook posts about the dog meat industry.  The comments are invariably awful.  Here’s one thread that particularly bothered me because the article in question was about Chinese activists fighting the Chinese dog meat trade.  While the other was both the hero and the villain in the story, comments still focused on race.  (I added one line in red to clarify where I think the poster was referring to the Chinese animal activists rather than Chinese dog meat consumers.)

antichineseracism

“They aren’t people.”  It’s the exact definition of dehumanizing someone you dislike.

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Trip review: independent vet student volunteering with SOS Kuching and the Sarawak SPCA in Malaysia

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The Save Our Strays Kuching team securing a street dog as we request pickup service from a veterinary clinic.

 

Last summer, I visited Borneo, which had been high on my travel wish list. I couldn’t fly all that way without also seeing what sort of work was being done to help cats and dogs in the region. I spent two days each with two groups based out of Kuching: Save Our Strays (SOS) Kuching, a fairly new street dog focused trap/neuter/return program, and the Sarawak Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which operates an animal shelter and holds adoption events. Although the latter was originally founded by expats in the 1950s, both are currently almost entirely Malaysian-operated organizations.

Because these nonprofits are run by the community in which they operate, there’s long-term commitment to their goals and a deep understanding of how to best affect change for animals in the area. I really enjoyed meeting the people involved in these (sometimes overlapping) groups, and I am thankful for the kindness of the SOS team for showing me around Kuching in the evenings as well. SOS was the first veterinary aid group I’ve met where most of them were younger than me — mostly early and mid-20s — which is exciting to see. (Not that I don’t love all the projects run by women in their 40s to 60s, but it was cool to see such a youthful grassroots effort.)

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A dog caught by SOS, waiting politely with a DIY muzzle tied in place to prevent bites.

 

Official pitches

“This is a non-profit all volunteer group, all of the rescue operation, trapping, neutering, feeding are initiated by its volunteers. Please do not praise. We wish to wake up humanity and restoring the basic rights of all life forms… We welcome all the questions, suggestions and posts regarding strays rescue, health problems, animals for adoption and anything related to the benefits of our homeless furry friends in this group.”

More: Save Our Strays Kuching’s regularly updated Facebook page

“We run joint neutering campaigns with the local councils in an effort to curb the expanding stray population; We walk hundreds of visitors through our Shelter to educate them about the need to be more responsible citizens and pet owners; We organize countless off-site adoption campaigns to increase the chances of our animals finding new homes; We act on reports about animal abuse cases; We manage an animal crematorium – the first in Malaysia – so that we can dispose of animal carcasses in a safe and hygienic manner; We climb up trees and down drains to rescue trapped animals in the dead of night; We brave the flood waters at midnight to take our shelter animals to safety; and We pen millions of words in an effort to raise awareness about Animal Welfare and to fight for Animal Rights. ”

More: Sarawak SPCA’S website and Facebook page

sspca-3The SSPCA shelter on the outskirts of Kuching.

 

Costs, housing, other volunteers and basic information

Since this was not a voluntourism program, there was no fee to participate, but I brought some donations off a list of things each group suggested as stuff they needed. This is always good etiquette to thank people for taking the time to explain their work to you and let you tag along. I stayed in a hostel in the tourist area of Kuching, and other volunteers were kind enough to pick me up every day. Kuching itself is accessible by flight from Singapore and Penang, and as an eco-tourist destination, it’s not difficult to get there and find affordable lodging and food. It’s your flight that will be the expensive part if you’re coming from North America. I was the only short-term outsider volunteer at the moment, which I prefer, because I feel like I can better melt into a group and learn from it.

sspca-4Dogs for adoption at the SSPCA shelter.

 

Cultural immersion factor

Excellent! Almost everyone in both groups was Malaysian. Thanks to the friendliness of the SOS team, I was taken to a number of great restaurants of all types, given suggestions for what to order, and visited a nighttime festival in a city park. In my travels, I rarely have local friends to give me this sort of tour, so it was a total treat for me.

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The examination/operating room in the SSPCA shelter.

 

Vacation factor

It’s entirely up to you. Kuching has many fun things that are a day trip from the city, like national parks and wildlife centers, as well as a one-of-a-kind cat museum (!) in town. (“Kuching” means “cat” in Malay, and there are cat statues in public and cat themed souvenirs in stores.)

sspca-5Dog housing in the SSPCA shelter. I like that they had built levels to create vertical space for the dogs to make the limited space feel bigger. I see this regularly with shelter cat housing, but not with dogs for some reason.

 

Typical work day and types of animals

SOS operates all day on Saturdays and Sundays, plus other times as needed. They take reports of places where injured dogs have been seen by the public, and then go looking for those animals as soon as someone has the time. They are basically the unofficial animal control agency of Kuching, but are using their own vehicles and paying vet bills with donations. After looking for dogs on the priority list (injured animals, females in heat, TVT cases), SOS members drive around looking for dogs to catch and take to the vet for sterilization. They have one vet who they regularly work with, and he had a shaded outdoor area behind his clinic for animals getting surgery or recovering from illness.

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Dogs caught by SOS waiting to be picked up by the veterinarian’s staff.

 

The SSPCA shelter was located away from the city center, providing housing and care to both dogs and cats. It operated in a partnership of sorts with the local town councils to accept strays. They had a clinic on site, but not a full-time veterinarian. (I didn’t have a chance to meet her, as when I was there, she was at the orangutan sanctuary where she also worked part time.) There were all the typical animal shelter chores of feeding and cleaning up after animals, but my task was cleaning and organizing the clinic. (Something I also did at Animals Fiji.)

I was impressed by the level of attention to cleanliness at the SSPCA shelter and their maintaining different areas quarantined from each other to lessen disease transmission. The culture of hand washing and using bleach step bins between areas was a stark contrast to the ESMA shelter in Cairo where no seemed to be aware of germs, and I was looked at like a weirdo when I requested soap so I could wash my hands that were visibly blackened with oil and dirt after playing with the shelter dogs. It’s hard to maintain perfect cleanliness on a small budget, but the SSPCA was doing the best job of it that I’ve seen in a shelter during my travels. Aside from welcoming the public to the shelter to find a new pet, the SSPCA also holds adoption events at shopping malls on weekends, which I really loved. Rather than just collecting animals, they were actively working to get them adopted by the public. (Some foster puppies from SOS members were also brought to the adoption event I attended.)

sspca-1Kitten adoptions and animal welfare information offered to the public by the SSPCA.
sspca-2SSPCA puppy adoptions at a shopping mall.

 

Most memorable case

As the SOS patrol was driving around to find dogs, we saw a group of animals napping and quickly got out of car and caught several of them. People came out of their shops to see what all the barking and fuss was about, and we were told that one of the dogs we caught was already spayed. However, that dog’s mother and her daughter were not sterilized, so we took them to the vet to complete the entire family of dogs that lived in front of some shops. I thought that was cute.

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An SOS dog waiting at the vet’s office for her spay and any other necessary medical care.

 

What I’d do differently if I went again

I think everything went well, and I could have easily spent a more extended period of time with everyone.

Overall, these groups are a good fit for you if…

* You want to work with small locally-operated nonprofits, and in the case of SOS, awesome young people.
* You want to volunteer with Asian animal groups but only speak English. The SOS team were mostly fluent in English and some people spoke English at the SSPCA shelter.
* You want to learn how a trap/neuter/return program (focused on dogs) and an animal shelter (dogs and cats) can work in a different country.
* You would like to choose your own class of accommodation/food and go cheap or go fancy.
* You would like to volunteer somewhere that can serve as a good base for some tourist stuff as well.

And was not best fit if…

* You’re someone who is looking to volunteer strictly in developing, impoverished, or rural areas. Although parts of Malaysia are less developed, Kuching is a fairly modern city.
* You’re looking for cheap airfare from the US.
* You’re looking for a lot of interaction with a veterinarian. SOS has a commercial vet clinic they work with, and the SSPCA doesn’t have a vet every day of the week.
* You want to do purely TNR volunteering. SOS operates only on weekends since it’s a volunteer-run group whose members have jobs or university to attend, but you could definitely spend your weekdays at the SSPCA shelter and weekends catching dogs with SOS.

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And finally, some sweet SSPCA shelter cats! (Not in the photo frame, but they did have food and water.)
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Interview with Dr. Valerie Ragan, Director of the Center for Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine at VMRCVM

When I was doing research for my list of DVM programs with the best options for students interested in global vet med, the Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine was clearly one of the schools at the top. Along with solid offerings in the core curriculum, VMRCVM utilizes “tracking,” where students get to choose a branch of veterinary medicine and focus most of their time on classes pertaining to that field. One of the track options is Public and Corporate Veterinary Medicine, a program overseen by Dr Valerie Ragan, where she also teaches many courses. Dr Ragan has worked all over the world, from Egypt to Bolivia, as well as with the USDA/APHIS in the states. She took some time out of her busy schedule to answer some questions for aspiring global veterinarians.

Did you originally go to vet school with an interest in public health, or did experiences along the way inspire you in that direction?

No, when I started veterinary school, I had no idea this aspect of veterinary medicine even existed. I “stumbled on to” this work, and am thankful that I did. I started off in small animal practice, and after a few years, I realized I wasn’t feeling that challenged any more, and was also looking for ways to get out of working in the same building every day, while still working in veterinary medicine. I ended having a great mentor who helped guide me a bit with career choices, and I was a participant in a Public Veterinary Practice Careers program with USDA, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, Veterinary Services program that gave me great experience and training in the public practice area of veterinary medicine. That was the basic framework that my career was launched from.

You teach a course on Vets in the Global Community at VMRCVM for vet students on the Public and Corporate tract. What does the class involve and has the coverage evolved over the years?

This course provides an overview of the role of veterinarians in global veterinary medicine, including important environmental and social global trends and issues in international veterinary medicine. The roles of governmental agencies, inter-governmental and non-governmental organizations in international relations, development, conservation, disease control and prevention, and trade are discussed. The course examines issues related to emerging disease threats, globalization and impacts on food safety and security. Student have the opportunity to practice oral and written communication skills by role playing, and preparing and delivering a short issue paper at the conclusion of the course. The coverage of the course changes a little every year to address current global issues.

What do you find most rewarding or interesting about teaching this class?

I grew up overseas, and spend a lot of time working internationally now as a veterinarian, so this subject area is one of my passion areas. Since I do a fair amount of work in other countries, I bring home those stories and photos and use them to illustrate issues we are discussing. I am always amazed at how engaged and enlightened the students are, and what how quickly they grasp and embrace the concepts. I really enjoy watching the students learn and grow, and to see them using the international lingo with ease at the end of the course. Of course, many of the students then go on to gain international experiences later and share those experiences back with me, which I truly enjoy.

If you could dispel a misconception or give a “reality check” to students who think they are interested in international public health veterinary medicine, what would that be?

It is difficult to go directly into working internationally right after school if you have no experience. It will be important to create networks, learn about who the important international organizations are such as OIE, FAO, and WHO, and what their different roles are. Recognize that many of the initial opportunities may need to be volunteer opportunities, and focus on what you can contribute as well as what you want to learn. Too many students focus on wanting to just have fun, or what they want to learn. It is important to recognize that whoever is hosting you is contributing a lot of time to mentor and host you. Be sure to let them know that you want to contribute and help them too – it needs to be a two-way street.

What are the journals, web sites, blogs, books, and other resources that students interested in public health and international veterinary medicine should be reading?

I would suggest keeping up with websites for the OIE (World Organization for Animal Health), CDC, the United States Animal Health Association (USAHA), and the World Health Organization. ProMED is also a great information source – you can sign up for news alerts on otubreaks around the world. Finally, a great book to read is Tending Animals in the Global Village: A Guide to International Veterinary Medicine, by David Sherman.

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Why no AAVMC guidelines for pre-vet students providing patient care abroad?

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In the US, one of the most common — if not the most common reason — for pre-vet students to volunteer internationally is because they want to perform surgery. VIDA is the only company that wink/nod/unofficially sells that opportunity to inexperienced high school and undergraduate students. In the pre-med world, there is a bigger voluntourism industry catering to students’ desires to gain clinical experience and make themselves competitive applicants to professional schools. (Although I’ve never heard of a pre-med student performing surgery.) The bulletin boards of every building at my undergrad university were plastered with “volunteer abroad” ads, including for pre-med programs.

Because international volunteering is popular with pre-medical and pre-dental students, both the American Association of Medical Colleges and the American Dental Education Association have written guidelines on volunteering in countries with loosely-enforced rules around medical care. These publications are distributed to colleges, and were publicized by my undergrad university’s pre-health advising department. It’s good to see medical and dental schools send the message that ethics are important when working in developing countries. (Which should go without saying.) See the full .pdf documents here: Guidelines for Premedical and Medical Students Providing Patient Care During Clinical Experiences Abroad, and Guidelines for Predental Students Providing Patient Care During Clinical Experiences Abroad.  Some key bits from the AAMC’s guidelines:

Many students are now taking advantage of opportunities to gain clinical experiences abroad, where regulations governing the procedures that students can perform on patients are often less stringent and well defined than in the United States and Canada. Additionally, existing local regulations may not be uniformly or fully enforced. While many students have had beneficial experiences through involvement in patient care activities abroad, and services have been provided to people in need, the potential for harm and abuse in these situations cannot be ignored…

There are companies that will, for a fee, help place you in a foreign clinic. Be aware that some of these companies are in the business of making money first, and they may not be ethically sound. Check out these companies very carefully before signing any contracts. If any agency is over-promising and suggests that you will actually practice medicine while abroad, rather than simply observe or shadow, you should have serious reservations about working with this agency…

Always keep the welfare of the patient foremost in your mind, not the perceived opportunity for proving yourself. Ask yourself how you would feel if you were in the place of a patient and a person with limited skills and preparation was about to perform a procedure on you. If this thought makes you feel uncomfortable, it is probably not an appropriate task for you to be doing. Recognizing patient autonomy is one of the core values of medical ethics; it is particularly important to honor in communities with limited resources, where all patients must be given the choice whether or not to have trainees involved in their care.

Why doesn’t the American Association of Veterinary Medical Colleges have similar guidelines for pre-vet and vet students? They already have a template of what those suggestions could look like from the AAMC’s document. I emailed the AAVMC about this in 2014, but no one has yet replied to me. Perhaps if they hear from multiple people politely asking them to create a guideline page for students volunteering abroad, they might produce one. Their contact form is here. Such guidelines would be non-binding and unenforceable, but it still demonstrates an acknowledgement that animals in developing countries, just like humans in developing countries, aren’t expendable and invisible educational models for the privileged to practice on. Volunteering abroad is a great thing, but it must be done so thoughtfully.

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Progress for dogs in the Islamic world

Among “animal people” in the developed world, a lot of time and energy is spent on debating different highly specific visions people have for what a better world would look like for animals.  It’s important to not lose sight of the big picture, though.  Small kindnesses towards animals that we would never even think about in the US are major animal welfare news stories in other countries.

As a white person, I strive to be conscious to not enter a foreign country and bludgeon strangers with my ideas of how they should act.  As I’ve written previously, such behaviors not only reinforce nasty colonialist relationships that people from the developed world have long had with the developing world, but they are also incredibly counter-productive.  I’m going into veterinary medicine because I would like to play a skilled support role, enabling the “back end” of community-driven animal welfare projects with improved medical care.

A recent news item from Malaysia on a dog-touching event was really heartwarming to me.  From the article:

Nearly 1,000 people attended the Oct. 19 event at a park in the western state of Selangor, aimed at helping Muslims overcome religious stigma and fear of canines, learn permissible ways to touch a dog and how to perform a cleansing ritual, known as “sertu” or “samak.”…

On Facebook, cafe operator Zurinna Raja Adam stated that the Quran does not mention that dogs are unclean, but rather that it is subject to differing interpretation of Islamic scholars. “But for years it has been hammered in us that is it prohibited (to touch dogs). But that’s the thing about religion, it is a never-ending learning process,” she said in an interview, calling the event one of the most “profound” experiences of her life.

(Read more here.)

In the Muslim world, there is a strong social stigma/taboo about dogs being unclean, whether in the physical or spiritual sense.  While the Muslim-run animal shelter ESMA has worked to demonstrate through passages from the Quran and other holy texts that their fellow Muslims should respect animals, it’s more than just an issue of intellectual argument.  Free-roaming dogs are common in Egypt, as well as in many parts of the less-developed world, and I was told that every Egyptian has a story about being bitten by a baladi (stray) dog.

I was excited when I heard that a trap-neuter-return program started operating in Egypt this year.  A piece from a recent article on animal welfare improvements in Egypt:

Commonly known as baladi dogs, these animals are subject to name-calling while their owners are often pulled into a verbal frenzy that questions and belittles their consideration of adopting these canine friends.

“When you get a baladi dog, you can’t care what people think,” says Hadeer Halawa, who owns three. Her friends and family have ridiculed her for keeping the dogs, but she turns a blind eye to their criticisms.

(Read more here.)

Seeing Muslim-driven efforts to make dogs less frightening and alien is exciting, and I’d love to give my time to organizations working to take small steps on those issues.

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