Interview with Casey Quimby, co-founder of Animals Fiji

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Animals Fiji was a wonderful brief volunteering experience.  I visited for 3 days at the beginning of a vacation, and I wish I’d been able to spend more time with the group.  (Read my trip review here.)  Animals Fiji is definitely a top recommendation for a place to volunteer.  American expat and co-fouder Casey Quimby was kind enough to give me some of her time for an interview.  Read more about Animals Fiji on animalsfiji.org.  All photos in this post are courtesy Animals Fiji via their Facebook page.

Tell us about Animals Fiji: how did the organization get started?

The West Charity Trust (WCT) was established in late 2011 by four Trustees to support—initially via fund-raising activities—what was then the Nadi branch of the SPCA Fiji (head clinic/office based in Suva) due to the SPCA’s increasingly limited resources. There had been no permanent veterinary services outside of the Capital City of Suva for over 3 years at this time; the clinic was staffed by a vet nurse and a full-time volunteer vet nurse (Sue). By June of 2012, the WCT owned 90% of the clinic’s assets, 100% of the drugs / medical supplies and was providing veterinary services (welfare and revenue generating) via sourcing of international volunteer vets. In July of 2012, SPCA Fiji could no longer support their Nadi clinic in any meaningful way and the West Charity Trust—now trading as Animals Fiji—took over operations.

Since then, via international volunteers and short term minimally paid vet staff, Animals Fiji has been able to provide full-time veterinary services for approximately 80% of the year. With our Nadi Clinic, the permanent staff has increased to include a part-time veterinarian on a 3 year contract who works 2 -3 days a week, 4 full-time kennel hands, a full-time veterinarian on rotating 6 month contracts, and our full-time vet nurse Sue is still with us. The new Savusavu clinic in the Northern Division is staffed with a vet and veterinary nurse.

Animals Fiji is registered in NSW, Australia for fund-raising activities and is operated there by 2 volunteers who are long-term animal welfare supporters. In Fiji, Animals Fiji is also supported by various volunteer groups, professionals who donate their service e.g. marketing, accounting etc. and the Trustees.

Animals Fiji has undergone big changes since my visit. What has it been like trying to practice medicine while moving an animal shelter and operating out of a temporary location?

During our organization’s transition to move our Animals Fiji Nadi clinic to our temporary location in June/July it was quite difficult for our entire Nadi team—especially the medical team. We had to store vaccines and refrigerated medical supplies at one of my Co-Trustees house under lock and key. Plus, functioning for a few weeks with absolute basic care/treatments while we packed and unpacked boxes during the construction and transition into our temporary clinic built out of shipping containers. However, the community was aware and supportive of our situation and understood there was limited treatment we could offer in that time.

During the move in end of June early July we had two “out clinics” functioning around Fiji. The first was our fifth time teaming up with a New Zealand based organization, Kiwi Care Team, where we travel around various villages and settlements over a two week period to provide horse care, treatment, and gelding. The second was a TNR program we help with volunteer veterinarians on the island of Malolo Lailai. So, although all staff of Animals Fiji Nadi clinic were functioning out of a construction zone for 3 weeks, we had medical professionals around to assist with and advise on extremely rudimental treatments to get through until our Animals Fiji Nadi clinic’s surgery room was operational.

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What are most common veterinary medical problems you face in Fiji? The deadly, massive tick infestations were most memorable to me as a visitor.

The most common veterinary medical problems in Fiji for animals in general are dehydration and neglect of the basic treatments most animal receive in developed countries like the US.

With horses, the biggest issue is with dehydration due to the owners ignorance. They will provide a bucket of water in the morning and a bucket of water at night, but nothing during the day while their animal is out under the blistering sun. Also with horses are saddle sores, where the owners continue to ride despite the sores as they have no other mode of transport. There are also hoof care issues due to ignorance on the basics of cleaning the hoof after each ride or even the maintenance trimming needed.

For horses, cattle, and goats—worms as also a majority parasitic issue.

Common dog issues—as you mentioned—are parasites of ticks, fleas, and worms (round worm, tape worm, and hook worms). Especially in puppies, the worms can take their lives very quickly. We have also had outbreaks of parvo, but now with more resources we have been able to vaccinate ALL shelter animals upon intake to alleviate any further outbreaks within the clinic, but we still see it occasionally in owned puppy litters. Heartworm is of epidemic proportions for the dogs we test, 85% of them are positive. As well TVT in the Western Division of Fiji is common, but in Savusavu it is not much of an issue. A common risk dogs face that results in medical treatment is being in a road traffic accident.

Recently with Fiji suffering draught we seem to have an increase in fleas in both dogs and cats. Other common cat medical issues we face are road traffic accidents, eye infections, dog/cat fights, and worms.

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Does Animals Fiji charge for its services, and how do you decide on pricing and which cases you will take on for free?

Animals Fiji is a non-profit charity organization based in the Pacific Island nation of Fiji. We operate the only two veterinary services in the Northern and Western Divisions (an area with a human population of about 600,000). In addition, we facilitate and at times lead  “out clinics” to provide and bring veterinary care to remote villages, settlements, and islands for dogs, cats, and horses.

Therefore, we do charge for services at our clinics for the most clients as we need to cover the costs of medication. However, if someone cannot pay we either work out a price that works for them, a payment plan, or offer the service for free. That way, the clients who can afford our services (as well as donate) balance out the clients who cannot afford care. Donations obviously subsidize our services within the clinics. As well as donations fund our “out clinics” to do remote free desexing, horse clinics, etc.

What are the long-term goals of Animals Fiji, and how you have engaged the local community in these efforts?

Our long term goal is to grow our four aspects of Veterinary care the we currently offer on a small scale:

1) Veterinary care for those who can afford it
2) Veterinary care for those that cannot afford it – animal welfare care
3) Outreach – grow our remote de-sexing clinics
4) Establish a formalized education program to be formatted and part of the Fijian school curriculum.

What has been the biggest surprise lesson you’ve learned while caring for animals in Fiji?

Not the abuse, but the lack of knowledge and huge amount of old wives’ tales. For example, if you put butter on the feet of a cat he/she will never run away. Or putting gasoline on a dog will get rid of fleas and ticks forever. Hence our next big focus, besides finding a permanent home for the Nadi clinic, is education. And it is not surprising that a lot of these beliefs continued so long, considering there are only 5-6 vets in the entire country.

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Does Animals Fiji get many pre-vet and vet student volunteers? What roles does your organization have for such visiting volunteers?

Yes, we welcome a vast variety of volunteers—including pre-vet and vet students. As per the organizational structure they are exposed to quite a variety of cases under our medical staff’s supervision. How much they do is based on the assessment by the vet on duty at that time.

If you could give a “reality check” of sorts to students who are interested in volunteering abroad with animals, what would that be?

Currently, on our staff we have one vet who has over 50 years of practice, Dr. Jeff Allen. He has such a vast variety of knowledge—yet even after all this time he is still open to see how others an improving veterinary care and recognizes there are different ways of doing things. At the same time, knowing what works for him and never being close minded. So my reality check is, although you know a lot, you do not know everything and be open minded to how others do things—including nurses, staff, etc. Impart your knowledge in a patient, non-condescending way.

What can students, either as undergrads or in vet school, do to prepare themselves if they’re interested in working in global animal health?

Volunteer at a local shelter or welfare organization while you are in vet school. Get as much one on one time with a vet in your area with medical experience and good customer service to service as an apprenticeship. Travel and volunteer with various organizations in various climates while on your school breaks—therefore expanding your knowledge of various diseases and medical issues in various areas of the globe. During your time volunteering as a undergrad or vet student, try to do a variety of jobs so when you one day are practicing or own your own clinic you know more than just one facet of a veterinary operation. There are multiple ways to do things and each vet has their own technique, so observe and take in as much as you can trying different ways until you find what works best for you to hone in on your craft.

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Book review: “Volunteer Tourism: Effective Development Tool? Or Feel-Good Travel?” by Camaro West

Volunteer Tourism: Effective Development Tool? Or Feel-Good Travel?
by Camaro West, Copyright 2011 by Lambert Academic Publishing
★★★★★

Volunteer Tourism was one of those great books you read where you’re excited to have found an author who has wonderfully articulated the half-coalesced ideas that have been brewing in your own head, putting concepts into a coherent and highly readable form.  I already quoted from West’s study in my post defining what I mean by “voluntourism,” but the book warrants some stand-alone praise.

After getting back from my frustrating VIDA volunteer trip, I spent time on WorldCat, a global library database, looking for books, dissertations, and academic articles written about the voluntourism industry. West’s title jumped out at me because it clearly was taking a side, or at least, acknowledging that there are multiple sides to voluntourism.  Also, the organization she studied for her Master’s thesis was in Guatemala, and I wondered if it was VIDA.  (I don’t think it is, but she doesn’t name names.)

West joined two voluntourism programs in 2010, where she interviewed other participants and staff working in Guatemala and America, and synthesized her research and observations with academic writings on development. One project was a medical group operating mobile clinics, and the other building safer cooking stoves.  The book starts off with a history of development frameworks, NGOs, and community-driven development, then dives into defining voluntourism and looking at its troubling aspects, and explains how a transient, paying voluntourist is not the same as a development worker.

Voluntourist organizations and individual voluntourists most often lack any kind of theoretical background for their work. However, they are not to be confused with trained volunteer workers in development, as there are stark differences between the groups. Voluntourism is structured to fulfill the needs of volunteers, not the poor. Most voluntourist organizations are based in the tourism industry, meaning that they are first and foremost accountable to tourists.

That last line was the one that struck me the most about the book. Voluntourism, both as West explains it and from my own experience with VIDA, was about the needs of the paying participants. Everything else was second.

As a 100-page book/thesis, Volunteer Tourism not a long read, but there’s a lot of information packed within. As a limited-run academic book, it’s expensive, but you might be able to get your university library to order a copy. The author assumes the reader has some knowledge and interest in development, but I think any intelligent person would be able to understand it, even if you have to Google some terms for background information. If you can track it down, I recommend West’s book.

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Interview with Selaine d’Ambrosi, founder of Ayuda Guatemala

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Ayuda was one of my best volunteering experiences, even though it was just for two days. Founder Selaine d’Ambrosi was clearly a force to be reckoned with, and she was kind enough to do an interview for my blog. I hope this will be a useful post for students who are curious about small-scale international spay/neuter programs. Read more about Ayuda on ayudagt.wordpress.com and their frequently-updated Facebook page. Read my own volunteer review here.

Tell us about Ayuda: why did you choose to start your own organization, and why are you focusing on the things you focus on?

After arriving to Guatemala in 2006, I became involved in various initiatives to improve the domestic animal welfare situation in the Panajachel-Lake Atitlán area. I ultimately founded Ayuda in 2009.

I kept running into a common misconception. Most people think the solution to domestic animal overpopulation is a shelter. I have learned from long experience that it is not the solution. It takes animals out of sight, out of mind with very little responsibility put on the people who breed, bought, or adopted the animal.

All too often, shelters become overcrowded which creates a dangerous situation in terms of health and well-being. They also take vast amounts of money to run properly. So, one ends up feeding and housing a certain number of animals with little or no money left to provide sterilizations or other health treatments to any other animals.

I founded Ayuda with one thought in mind: sterilization, one the most effective tool against the cruel practice of culling with poisons. Ayuda also addresses the intrinsic link between animal and human health through vaccinations and parasite treatments.

Ayuda practices CTRM, “Catch, Treat, Release, Maintain” with roaming community animals. We have agreements with the municipalities where we work which allow us to pick up and return any non-identified animal. We do this mainly because most roaming animals actually have homes. They’re put on the street to find their own food. If they are truly homeless, Ayuda volunteers care for them on an on-going basis.

We utilize foster homes to care for those too young or too weak to be returned to the streets while we seek a permanent solution.

The one thing we cannot do is control the people. So, we work closely with several Municipalities around the Lake. We constantly encourage them to enact humane ordinances.

Does Ayuda charge for its services, and how do you decide on pricing and which cases you will take on for free?

Our standard care package is sterilization first, then rabies and combo vaccines along with internal and external parasite treatments. We do not charge for services but rather ask for donations. With over 50% of the population living under the international poverty line, it’s not hard to know who needs help. Often we barter services in lieu of a monetary payment. We also ask for assistance in spreading the word amongst the local indigenous communities.

The exceptions are non-Guatemalans or those who have the means to get to and pay a veterinarian. If the person has taken an animal off the street, we ask for a donation of Q300, roughly $38 for the package, basically a break-even price. If the animal is pure-bred, purchased, or brought from another country they are referred to the veterinarian as a private patient.

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What are your long-term goals for Ayuda, and how you have engaged the Lake community in these efforts?

The long term goal is no more homeless dogs or cats in the Lake Atitlan basin region. The community recognizes the changes which have taken place since Ayuda’s founding in 2009. More and more are stepping forward to help catch roaming dogs, to provide foster care, to help us raise funds, and to spread the message. We also see many more dogs being walked on leashes!

It’s really great to see locals show up at a clinic to receive annual vaccines and they have their pet’s health record with them. They get it!

Also with an eye on the future, we will be piloting a new internship program, the Darlena Lake Fellowship, in San Marcos La Laguna in August. Funds have been secured for the fellowship to run for two years. It will accommodate four newly qualified veterinarian interns to live and work in the village for a term of six months each. Students from the University San Carlos need to fulfill an internship under a licensed Guatemalan vet after their academic studies before they receive their diploma. The model has been designed with this in mind.

The mayor and local council have committed a building for use as a small hospital facility and have agreed to provide water, electricity and security for the duration of the program. The model is about exposing the next generation of vets to the rural situation and to help them understand that they are part of the sustainable solution. It has wonderful potential.

What are most common veterinary medical problems you face in Panajachel?

Parasites, both internal and external are the biggest medical problem. Animals are often inundated with a variety of parasites. Both manges run rampant, worms are very prevalent as are fleas and ticks. Ayuda tries to run tests at least once a year in each village in which we work to stay on top of what’s going on. We are constantly in need of snap tests of all kinds!

Next medical issue is the unwillingness of many locals to sterilize male dogs. There are those who believe that as long as the females are done, there is no need to sterilize the males. WRONG! First off, we have rampant CTVT all around the Lake basin. So not only are the males propagating with any female they can find they are also spreading a highly contagious disease.

This old mentality is slowing coming to an end. For example, during our first years we sterilized far more females than males in the Pana barrio of Jucanya. At one point, most of the females had been done. A few remained intact. When they went into heat instead of having 5 or 6 males tracking them they had 15-18! This translated to more fights on the streets and more potential human bite victims due to the dangerous packing. It took the public seeing this result to change their opinion. We now do surgeries on a fairly even basis, males to females.

How do you see Ayuda as different from large nonprofits and voluntourism groups that operate sporadic mobile clinics in Central America?

To truly create change and for effectiveness, an organization must have a consistent presence within the communities in which they work. While large visiting groups can produce big numbers of sterilizations, there is very little interaction with the people, the municipalities, or the health departments. They rely on local coordinators who may or may not have built solid relationships within the community. Without follow through, the big numbers do not make a lasting impact.

Typically, the large visiting vet groups want to go where there are no practicing vets. This is a huge problem in light of the often high post-op complication rates. The groups are gone and someone has to clean up the problems left behind. There is rarely a plan on how to provide follow up care which means groups like Ayuda who host them are left to pay a local vet to provide post-op care.

Another issue with voluntourism groups is that if the group members are not sensitive to local customs and are unwilling to take advice from their host group or local coordinator, they can create long-lasting negative impressions which are very hard to undo.

Consistency, presence, and relationship-building are necessary keys to ending overpopulation and suffering. As one of our volunteers says quite often, “slow and steady wins the race”.

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You founded Ayuda after a career in nonprofit business development. How important is having business skills in running a successful charity?

To keep any organization afloat, for-profit business acumen and philosophies need to be applied. Take the time to development a business prospectus, at a minimum. Take yourself through the tough questions. It will help to define your organization and make it easier to explain to potential donors, volunteers, and supporters. Come up with the classic “11 second elevator conversation” to get out the kinks in describing what exactly it is your organization provides. Next, find a really good book-keeper/accountant. Stay transparent. Stay on top of your overhead. Ayuda’s administration currently runs at just under 4%. We take a great deal of pride in keeping that number as low as possible. Good business practices help to attract donations from international foundations, corporations, and private trust funds.

What has been the biggest surprise lesson you’ve learned from running Ayuda?

There have been so many lessons. One of my biggest was recognizing the best way to approach the subject of domestic animal welfare with people and that is the connection between animal and human health. It has proven to be the most effective way to get people’s attention on the subject. It is also absolutely true.

The other thing I’ve learned—the hard way—is that it is best to work in a methodical rather than an obtrusive way. Of course you need to let people know what you are doing, through radio, television and face-to-face. However, it is equally important to wait for them to come to you. There needs to be buy-in at all levels for our program to be successful. This means the cofradias (the church representatives), the Central de Salud office (health dept.) as well as the mayor and cocodes (elected neighborhood leaders). There is no point in driving home a message before people, the community, are ready to hear and act on it.

Does Ayuda get many pre-vet and vet student volunteers? What roles does your organization have for such visiting volunteers?

For the last 3 summers, Ayuda has hosted vet students from the University of Guelph, Ontario. The students helped during our weekly clinics, assessed and caught roaming dogs for sterilization or treatments, designed educational posters, surveyed different barrios to ascertain how many animals needed sterilization, and brought us some much needed supplies.

We are always happy to provide learning experiences for small groups of students. We also welcome any veterinarians who want to work alongside our local vet during our regularly scheduled weekly clinics.

If you could give a “reality check” of sorts to students who are interested in volunteering abroad with animals, what would that be?

Please pay attention to what locals are saying to you about cultural differences. Know something about where you are going ahead of time. For example, short shorts are considered taboo by our locals. It’s upsetting for many of them and they find it insulting.

Also, do your homework on the group you’re going to visit. Read their website or literature before you arrive. Identify how you can help within their structure. It will greatly improve your experience!

What can students, either as undergrads or in vet school, do to prepare themselves if they’re interested in working in global animal health?

Get your passport and start traveling as soon as you can. Seek out the small, hands-on groups to learn how they started and how they keep going. Keep on open mind. Different places have different issues. Read up on them. Then, get out there and get to work!

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Trip review: independent pre-vet volunteering with Animals Fiji

fiji-1The previous clinic/shelter location of Animals Fiji in Nadi

 

If you were to ask me for a suggestion on where to volunteer internationally, Animals Fiji would be a top pick. While it is a long flight from the US, the welcoming atmosphere, great staff, hands-on tasks suited to any skill level, and excellent work being done makes Animals Fiji a perfect place to spend your volunteer time as a pre-vet or vet student. I did a quick three-day visit to Animals Fiji at the beginning of a two week winter vacation, and I wish I had been able to extend my trip and spend more time with the clinic. This is one of several organizations I found simply by Googling, “[country] animal shelter.” I also fell in love with a blind kitten at Animals Fiji and adopted her.

Official pitch

“Since its doors opened 2 years ago, the Nadi Clinic has treated approximately 6,500 sick and injured animals, rehomed 960 abandoned pets and has de-sexed around 2,300 cats and dogs. Over this time it has established several outreach programs, where teams of volunteers are funded to travel to remote communities to control animal populations and to assist injured animals. These programs alone have reached over 20 communities and have led to 600 animals being de-sexed… The clinic plays a vital role in ensuring the health of Fijians and their animals.”

Read more on animalsfiji.org or their frequently-updated Facebook page.

Costs, basic information, and housing

There is no cost to volunteer with Animals Fiji, although donations are greatly appreciated. There are lots of inexpensive hostels in the Nadi area, and supermarkets so you can cook your own food to save money. (Or, you can go upmarket and stay in a fancy resort.) Nadi is the city where most international flights arrive in Fiji, so you don’t have to travel far to reach your volunteering location. I stayed at one of the hostels on the water, but there is plenty of cheap accommodation in Nadi town, too. (There is a new second Animals Fiji clinic location in Savusavu on Fiji’s second-largest island, but I don’t know that area personally.)

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A freshly-spayed kitten with an ear tattoo to mark her as sterilized (“de-sexed”)

 

Other volunteers

My three days at Animals Fiji overlapped with a visiting group of Australian vet students, a new vet grad from the UK, and a pre-vet student from Europe. Animals Fiji doesn’t always have so many volunteers, but it was Christmas break. (You may want to email and see if there is a time when your help would be the most appreciated, or when they expect others if you want to work in a group.) As an American pre-vet student, I enjoyed talking to students from around the world about the process of becoming a vet in different countries, and was quite jealous that the Australian vet students didn’t need to take physics or organic chemistry.

Cultural immersion factor

Great! You will be working directly with Animals Fiji clients, and since English is the national language, you can actually volunteer abroad and work on your client communication skills. (I’ve written previously about an important lesson I learned during these interactions.) Being able to directly work with clients while taking patient histories was great, since most of my volunteer experience at home is at an animal shelter where I rarely interact with the public.

It was interesting to learn that in Fiji, there is a cultural bias against female dogs, who are seen as “bad dogs” in a vague sense. Most of the surrendered puppies were girls because people had already found homes for their boy puppies.

Vacation factor

You can have as much or as little vacation as you like! Fiji is an amazing country with a lot to do, especially if you are a diver or into sitting on the beach. A word of warning: Nadi is a busy port town on Fiji’s main and most populated island, and as such, the ocean waters and beaches aren’t clear and beautiful like a postcard.  If you’re looking for gorgeous vacation areas for relaxing after your volunteer work, there are plenty of lovely smaller islands to choose from that are accessible by ferry. For being such an “exotic” location to an American like me, there was a good amount of tourist infrastructure, since Fiji is basically the Caribbean of Australia.

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The front entrance to the old Animals Fiji Nadi clinic location

 

Typical work day

The Nadi clinic is open from 8:30am-5:00pm on weekdays, and 8:30am-1:00pm on Saturdays. The staff included local vet assistants/kennel hands, New Zealander vet Dr Angus Black, vet nurse (vet tech) Sue, and clinic manager Casey, as well as a rotating group of volunteers. While we couldn’t save every patient, the overall clinic atmosphere was friendly, relaxed, and welcoming. We did a few surgeries per day, and I was able to scrub in on one complicated spay to hold tools for Dr Black. In the mornings, we started with cleaning and feeding the 50-70 (often free-roaming) shelter animals. Throughout the day, clients would drop in for exams, vaccines, preventative medications, emergency care, and sterilizations. As volunteers we would take patient histories and rotate around between the front of the clinic and caring for animals in the back and in surgery. The clinic was quite clean and well-organized, and the standards of cleanliness in the operating room were high. There were a number of young dogs and puppies with parvo and all the bloody diarrhea mess that comes with the disease, but some of them recovered. With patients that were brought in by the public, ailments were often complicated by having not been brought in sooner.

Types of animals

Mainly dogs and cats, although Animals Fiji also occasionally treats horses, chickens, and wild birds that get brought in.

Most memorable case

Ticks were a major problem on the island, and we lost two dog patients to horrible tick infestations in my three days at the clinic. I can now say that I am an expert de-ticker, though. The saddest case while I was at Animals Fiji was a dog covered in thousands of ticks. It felt disrespectful to photograph my patient as he lay dying, but you can see in the photo the bowl of ticks I pulled off of just one part of the poor dog’s face. The large ticks were over a centimeter long!

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Ticks galore!

 

What I’d do differently if I went again

I only wish I had more time at Animals Fiji. If I could do all my adventures over again, I would skip wasting my money on VIDA and spend that time and money instead at Animals Fiji. I think I would have learned more, and had a lot more fun. Like Ayuda Guatemala, there’s really nothing bad to say about Animals Fiji.

Overall, the trip was a good fit for you if…

* You want the freedom and flexibility that comes with independent volunteering
* You want to help a small organization that focuses on long-term change
* You want to work on client communication skills and you only speak English
* You want to (possibly) work alongside other students from around the world
* You want to work in a friendly team of expats, visitors, and locals
* You want some practice with hands-on/vet tech skills that you’re developing
* You want to be a part of a country’s only provider of proper veterinary care

And the trip was not best fit if…

* You don’t want to plan your own housing and travel logistics
* You don’t want to pay $1000+ for your airfare
* You want a program that guarantees to teach you new skills

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Dr Black and Sue prepping a dog for surgery, where the leg tie is made of reused materials
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Trip review: independent pre-vet volunteering with Ayuda in Guatemala

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Photo of a street dog in Panajachel, courtesy of Ayuda Guatemala.

 

I left my problematic and frustrating VIDA Volunteer trip two days early to volunteer with an amazing local organization I found called Ayuda. It was an excellent decision on my part, and I describe the transition between the two as “like finally being allowed to sit at the grown-ups’ table again.”

Ayuda works year-round to reduce street animal populations through a catch/neuter/return program, as well as providing vaccinations and flea treatments to street animals and the animals of low-income members of the community. Ayuda has also been trying to work with the local government to hopefully institute laws to strengthen animal welfare. Ayuda’s anual operating budget is around $20,000 and they sterilize about 500 animals per year with that money, which makes them an exceptionally efficient organization. (On my VIDA trip, we four pre-vet students spent at least $15,000 on our trip costs, and we sterilized just 18 animals.) Ayuda’s wonderful founder Selaine d’Ambrosi told me that using their licensed and experienced local vet, rather than untrained student volunteers, has yielded a very small complication rate. As an on-the-ground, full time animal aid project, Ayuda is the one who cleans up the mess when outsider orgs botch surgeries and then leave town.

Official pitch

“Ayuda [Spanish for ‘help’] facilitates professional spay/neuter sterilization services for needy dogs and cats. As part of our standard treatments, we also provide for vaccinations against deadly local diseases such as Rabies, Parvo, Distemper, and more. Our weekly sterilization clinics are generally scheduled on Thursdays. Currently, we routinely facilitate clinics in 7 local villages… In addition to population control and general health care treatments, Ayuda maintains numerous ‘treatment’ stations where hungry and pre/post-op animals are fed, monitored, base-lined, and given basic medical treatments and dietary supplements.”

More: ayudagt.wordpress.com and their frequently-updated Facebook page.

Costs, housing, volunteers, and basic information

There is no program fee to volunteer with Ayuda, although donations are greatly appreciated. Ayuda is located in Panajachel, Guatemala, a beautiful little tourist town on a lake that has a variety of eateries and accommodations to suit visitors of all budgets. There were no other visiting volunteers while I was at Ayuda, but they do sometimes get vet students and foreign veterinarians.

Cultural immersion factor

Great! Ayuda’s focus is on long-term change within one region of the small country of Guatemala, and their work includes humane education programs in school, educating the public while out on dog surveys, and hiring a local veterinarian to perform their medical procedures.

Vacation factor

Ayuda generally only has clinics once a week, but occasionally they will hold clinics in nearby villages. This slow and sustainable pace could make it difficult for you as a visiting volunteer to get a lot of experience with the medical side of Ayuda. However, if you are looking for a place to settle in for a summer, learn Spanish, and do a bit of volunteering with an awesome organization, Ayuda would be a perfect fit.

Typical work day

My first meeting with Ayuda’s founder, Selaine, involved an informative chat at her home, where clinics are hosted. We then had a walk around town with a local volunteer to decide which street dogs needed to be picked up for sterilizations the following day, and to talk to local people about why we were helping the dogs. On the clinic day, I sat with animals during recovery, and had a chance to watch Ayuda’s wonderful local vet care for patients, Dr. Isael Estrada Atz.

Types of animals

Ayuda mainly treats dogs, but you will also see some cats, and probably more as they become more successful. As their sterilization program has been able to get the population of street dogs down, Ayuda found that the feral cat population was starting to rebound from not being eaten as often by the dogs.

ayuda-2Dogs recovering from surgery in Selaine’s home, courtesy of Ayuda Guatemala.

 

Most memorable case

During spay/neuter surgeries, a man rushed in a puppy who had just been hit by a car. Its neck was clearly broken and it was panting heavily, but still just barely clinging to life. This was not an animal who could be saved, so euthanasia was the kindest option. According to Selaine, it’s very difficult to obtain euthanasia drugs in Guatemala even if you are a licensed veterinarian, due to the market for the substances as recreation drugs. (Euphemistically called “diversion” in the US.) So, I learned an alternative method for humane euthanasia: using an IV injection of a salt solution under general anesthesia. The American Veterinary Medical Association’s guidelines on euthanasia state,

Although unacceptable when used in conscious vertebrate animals, a solution of potassium chloride, magnesium chloride, or magnesium sulfate injected IV or intracardially in an animal that is unconscious or under general anesthesia is an acceptable way to induce cardiac arrest and death. The potassium ion is cardio-toxic, and rapid IV or intracardiac administration of 1 to 2 mmol/kg (0.5 to 0.9 mmol/lb) of body weight (1 to 2 mEq K+/kg; 75 to 150 mg/kg [34.1 to 68.2 mg/lb] of potassium chloride) will cause cardiac arrest…

Advantages—(1) Potassium chloride and magnesium salts are not controlled substances and are easily acquired, transported, and mixed in the field. (2) Potassium chloride and magnesium salt solutions, when administered after rendering an animal unconscious, result in animal remains that are potentially less toxic for scavengers and predators and may be a good choice in cases where proper disposal of animal remains (eg, rendering, incineration) is impossible or impractical.

Disadvantages—(1) Rippling of muscle tissue and clonic spasms may occur upon or shortly after injection. (2) Potassium chloride and magnesium salt solutions are not approved by the FDA for use as euthanasia agents. (3) Saturated solutions are required to obtain suitable concentrations for rapid injection into large animals.

Before my visit to Ayuda, I wasn’t aware of these methods. It drives home the fact that the drugs we assume are standard at home can be impossible to find in other countries, and that you need backup plan.

What I’d do differently if I went again

I wish I had found a way to spend more time with Ayuda. I’m grateful I was able to learn so much from Selaine about veterinary issues and her spay/neuter efforts in Guatemala, and I’m so glad I skipped the last two days of group recreation on my VIDA trip.

Overall, the trip was a good fit for you if…

* You want to work with a small local group focused on sustainable change
* You want to learn how a trap/neuter/return program can work in a developing country
* You want to spend most of your time on vacation/Spanish lessons and volunteer part-time
* You want to get a thorough education on the operation of an animal welfare program from the hard-working and fiercely pragmatic Selaine!
* You would like to choose your own class of accommodation/food and go cheap or go fancy

And the trip was not best fit if…

* You want to be able to volunteer full-time in a medical setting
* You want to be taught vet tech skills
* You want to volunteer as a part of a large group
* You want a guaranteed itinerary of things you will do and see

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