It’s 7:30 AM on the small tropical Island of San Andres, Colombia. Myself and 11 other animal health professionals walk towards the government building we recently converted into a makeshift veterinary clinic. The exterior hallway is already lined with local residents waiting patiently with their cats and dogs. Over the next three days, our goal is to sterilize and provide veterinary care to as many dogs and cats as possible.
We are all volunteers, and have flown from various North American cities to work with World Vets International Aid for Animals (worldvets.org), a non-government organization (NGO) based in Fargo, North Dakota. Since 2006, World Vets has been organizing groups of veterinary volunteers to sterilize and provide veterinary aid to animals in developing countries.
My own involvement started just last year when a friend sent me a Facebook link about World Vets. I work in animal first aid, and thought I lacked the necessary qualifications, but there was a position available for me. So in October of last year, I joined a group of volunteers traveling to Guatemala. We happened to arrive at the tail end of a tropical storm. Mudslides had killed many, lakes were flooded, dogs and cats were displaced and hungry. Both people and animals were in dire need of support. The trip had a profound effect on me, so I quickly signed up for a second one, this time to San Andres Island, Colombia.
I’m far from alone in my desire to volunteer. Brian Arneson, DVM, of Harrisonburg, Virginia said it took him “about 15 whole minutes” to sign up for his first trip when a friend contacted him about World Vets. Our trip to Colombia was his third. And when asked how many trips she’s been on to date, Karen Allum, DVM, of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, told me: “I am not actually sure but I think the count is now 17!”
World Vets kindly allows a couple of “free days” at the beginning of each trip itinerary. This allows volunteers to get to know one another and explore the local culture and landscape. It also gives them an opportunity to learn about one another’s skills and interests, and form a cohesive team.
I worked in Recovery for the duration of the Colombian trip. I monitored each animal’s vital signs and incisions, administered medications, and released them when they were ready. While I did this, the other volunteers registered, prepped, consulted, sterilized and provided additional veterinary treatment to dogs and cats. Our workdays were ten to 12 hours long and we were all exhausted by the end of each one. But it didn’t matter — every morning we woke with the sun and were itching to get back to the clinic.
On the second day, one of the local volunteers helping me in Recovery adopted a little female puppy that had just been spayed. “Does she have a name yet?” I asked. The answer was no, so I jokingly said, “Well, Lisa’s a great name for you little one!” Her new person quickly replied, “Perfect, I will call her Lisa then!” Tears welled in my eyes as I realized a little piece of me would remain in San Andres when I left. I was honored.
At the end of our three days in Columbia, 208 animals were sterilized and an additional 99 were treated for other ailments. I was sad to wrap up the clinic and say “goodbye” to my new World Vets family. I knew we had made a genuine difference to a community in need, and that I had made some lifelong friends.
I returned home knowing I was addicted to World Vets for life. In fact, I’ll be heading to Zanzibar, Tanzania this October with another group of volunteers. Fellow volunteer Elizabeth F. Baird, DVM, of Palm Harbor, Florida, said it best when she told me: “If I could afford to do this work full time, I would in a heartbeat.”
The exterior hallway is already lined with local residents waiting patiently with their cats and dogs.
“If I could afford to do this work full time, I would in a heartbeat.”
Lisa Wagner is the Operations Director of Walks ‘N’ Wags Pet First Aid (walksnwags.com), based in Vancouver, Canada. She offers Pet First Aid certification courses across Canada with distance learning available worldwide.