The trip of a lifetime

No five-star hotels, but a volunteer trip offers singular rewards
Published on December 17, 2014
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When Dr. Pauline Perry’s daughters went abroad, her house grew quieter. The solitude left her restless and needing “to do something more.” She decided that she, too, could travel, while doing what she loved. A few weeks later, she was off to the Dominican Republic to change hundreds of lives, including her own, through the international veterinary organization World Vets.

Dr. Samantha Beaty was at a crossroads in her career, between jobs. She had always wanted to volunteer abroad but had never found the time. She decided this was the perfect opportunity. With a little planning, she worked out a volunteer project in Botswana with the Silent Heroes Foundation.

“Volunteering internationally truly makes a difference in improving the everyday lives of animals and people around the world,” says Dr. René A. Carlson, AVMA volunteer director of international affairs. “People, animals, and our environment are more interconnected than ever before. Yet, veterinary medical knowledge and resources are not so equally or fairly distributed.”

These experiences carry many extra benefits for volunteers, she added—meeting people from other cultures, making friends, gaining new perspectives for managing the everyday challenges faced by people and animals around the world, building confidence by working under different circumstances, broadening one’s work experiences and skill set, and learning a new language.  

“The people and animals served will certainly benefit; however, usually the one doing the providing of services returns home with much more,” Dr. Carlson said.

World Vets

Besides the Dominican Republic, Dr. Perry (California-Davis ’92) has gone to Guatemala and Colombia’s San Andrés island with World Vets. “When I volunteered for one of their trips, I really liked the organization and volunteering with them,” she said.

Founded by CEO Dr. Cathy King (Washington State ‘97), World Vets improves the lives of thousands of animals each year by providing veterinary care through its volunteer force of more than 3,600 individuals, combined with financial support and in-kind donations.

World Vets volunteer Dr. Pauline Perry spays a dog in an outdoor, makeshift pavilion on Colombia’s San Andrés island.

The volunteer force consists of veterinarians; veterinary technicians; preveterinary, veterinary, and veterinary technology students; and other animal lovers. Its mission: to improve the health and well-being of animals by providing veterinary aid and training in developing countries and by providing disaster relief worldwide. The group works to deliver free veterinary care in areas that need it.  

World Vet programs also help to prevent the spread of zoonotic diseases and help small farmers pull themselves out of poverty. 

According to Dr. Perry, first-time volunteers can find the experience a little jarring. “I had no idea what to expect. It was pretty intense. You just go, go, go.”

She said most of the clinics are makeshift with only the equipment World Vets brings, and often there is no running water. “You do things on the fly. It’s a completely different perspective doing surgery (than) in the United States, (where) we’re gowned up and totally sterile,” she said.

“On these trips, the animals are dogs (and cats) off the street. A lot of them are covered in fleas and ticks. We’re there to help these animals, to help people, really.”

The day begins early, with lines of people waiting with their animals to be spayed and neutered. “There are no anesthetic machines, so pets are maintained with injectable anesthesia. People who bring in their pets and the strays have to be there all day because there are no cages to contain the animals,” she said.
“Most of these places are repeat visits, so over time, the organization and the townspeople see a dramatic reduction in animal overpopulation.”

Silent Heroes Foundation

The Silent Heroes Foundation was formed through the partnership of Drs. Hayley Adams (Tennessee ‘01), director of operations, and Innocent Rwego (Makerere ‘99), assistant director of the foundation and a wildlife epidemiologist at Makerere University in Uganda. Dr. Adams said volunteer opportunities are available to veterinarians at a few places year-round.
The foundation has a mission of enhancing one health and protecting Africa’s iconic wildlife through innovative conservation. 
Veterinarians can volunteer at one of the foundation’s supported projects, such as the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, Rwanda; Maun Animal Welfare Society, Botswana; Victoria Falls Wildlife Trust, Zimbabwe; Transkei Animal Welfare Initiative, South Africa; and Cheetah Conservation Fund, Namibia. For information on these opportunities, contact Dr. Adams, adamsatthesilentheroes [dot] org ().

In a village outside Chanoga, Botswana, Dr. Samantha Beaty and other Maun Animal Welfare Society volunteers give veterinary care and food to this family’s dogs, which guarded the family farm. MAWS also provided food for the family members, who were living on watermelon. (Photo by Tana Hutchings/MAWS)

Dr. Beaty (Tennessee ‘01) volunteered in Botswana for three weeks with the Maun Animal Welfare Society, which partners with the Silent Heroes Foundation. The first week, she provided preventive care to companion animals.

“You don’t necessarily think of people in developing countries having companion animals, but they do, and they are a huge part of their lives. But a lot of times, their primary resources do not go toward the pets, for obvious reasons,” she said. The services are free, but the appreciative people try to pay in kind with things such as watermelons.

“I had a superpositive experience. Just to be in contact with people who are so appreciative and kind was great. I really loved the Batswana. Even when I had to euthanize a pet, the people were so understanding. It was very rewarding for me to reach out and touch people like that.”

The last two weeks of her trip were spent in area villages during the early stages of a distemper outbreak helping MAWS staff euthanize severely affected animals and provide palliative care to affected pets whose owners refused euthanasia.

She said, “I know I was able to do a lot of good with the animals and in the outbreak. It was a different experience than I had anticipated. It deepened my appreciation for my role as a veterinarian in a world outside my backyard.

“Certainly, the medical conditions are not what we would consider standard for veterinary medical care in the U.S., but you use the resources you have, you do the best you can, and you can still do a lot of good. It opened up my eyes to a whole different world and how much I can do for someone else with what I’ve been trained to do.”  

Veterinarians Without Borders

Veterinarians Without Borders advances human health and livelihoods in underserved areas by sustainably improving veterinary care and animal husbandry, working toward preventing, controlling, and eliminating priority diseases.  

The nonprofit has had “reasonable success” working for a number of years in Monrovia and has had a privately funded project in Uganda for a year and a half, according to Dr. Thomas Graham (California-Davis ’83), director, president, and CEO of VWB. In Liberia, volunteers trained animal health workers (see JAVMA, Oct. 15, 2009), developed laboratory and husbandry courses, and taught at Cuttington University. VWB does not have a current presence in Liberia, though the nonprofit is seeking funding to help Ebola survivors in crop and livestock production.

“You need sustainable approaches and to help support infrastructure, otherwise when you leave, it collapses,” Dr. Graham said. 

The U.S. Agency for International Development has just awarded VWB a $1.4 million Farmer-to-Farmer grant over the next four years for work in Ethiopia and Uganda on transboundary and zoonotic diseases, including some, such as tuberculosis, brucellosis, sleeping sickness, and neural cysticercosis, which take a high toll on the women and children who are the primary livestock caregivers. 

A minimum of 13 volunteer deployments are planned, each with three volunteers—a veterinarian with regulatory and transboundary animal disease experience, a practitioner, and a veterinary student. VWB will recruit American veterinarians and veterinary students with good laboratory and disease surveillance skills and provide on-the-job training before leaving the U.S. to teach disease recognition as part of the program’s syndromic surveillance work.   

AVMA’s international Web page 

Late last year, the AVMA launched a new Web page on international activities on its website. As part of that, there is a link to information on International Opportunities in Veterinary Medicine. The direct link is here.

Dr. Carlson says, “Consider checking out AVMA’s international opportunities page to personally contribute to improving lives for humans and animals around the world.”

She noted that veterinarians are needed for spay and neuter programs; preventive health programs such as vaccinations and parasite control for companion animals and livestock; training for local animal health providers on health and welfare, nutrition, and genetics; wildlife conservation; education on one-health–related concepts; and collaboration with other health officials. 

The international opportunities Web page lists organizations that offer opportunities for veterinarians and veterinary students who want to combine foreign travel or cultural immersion with training, education, or service projects.

For those who can’t take time away from their practice or studies, the site lists reputable organizations that would be grateful for support in the form of monetary donations, supplies, or expertise that doesn’t require travel.
Heifer International, celebrating its 70th year, is an example. The Arkansas-based organization’s international work is supported by many American veterinarians through  volunteerism and fundraising primarily within the U.S. Heifer employs many veterinarians in its projects around the world, but nowadays, they are in-country veterinarians working to help improve conditions in their own regions.

During one of his half-dozen overseas assignments with Heifer International, Dr. Roger Ellis (Cornell ‘77) examines a sick cow at the request of the farmer (left), in consultation with a Bangladeshi veterinarian (right). Heifer marked its 70th anniversary in 2014.
Project VETS is another nonprofit and collects donated supplies for organizations from Mexico to Africa.

Dr. Adams said the Silent Heroes are not just individuals on the front lines but also those who support the work of the organization’s local veterinarians, physicians, and conservationists and together, make an impact in Africa.
According to Dr. Beth Sabin, AVMA associate director for international and diversity initiatives, the AVMA’s international opportunities Web page was the idea of the Committee on International Veterinary Affairs. Eventually, the committee would like to see the page evolve into an interactive database for veterinarians seeking opportunities and for organizations and entities offering them.

Sightseeing with a perspective

Dr. Perry said, “Part of the experience is the traveling; I go because I get to sightsee as well as help animals. I would never go to these places on my own. We don’t stay in a hotel; you stay in the town, in the thick of things, so you get a different perspective of where we’re going.

“It’s an adventure, it’s a challenge. Come ready to work, and be open-minded and flexible because you never know what kind of situation you’ll have to deal with.”

Dr. Beaty said, “Considering all the things that you see and learn, even the negatives, the fact that I am chomping at the bit to go back should tell you that it’s a very worthwhile experience.

“Seize the moment. Be smart, but don’t be afraid to do it, because it will be an experience you will absolutely never forget. And it will also make you appreciate the little things in life a little more.”  

Reedhima Mandlik is a third-year journalism and psychology major at Northwestern University and was a 2014 summer intern with JAVMA News.

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