By Amelia Dugan
During the summer of 2011, I had the amazing opportunity to participate in EcoLife Expedition’s Vets-in-the Wild Expedition with a group of Animal Science students from the University of Vermont. I spent 22 days in South Africa assisting wildlife veterinarians in the bush, visiting the Onderstepoort Veterinary School at the University of Pretoria, going on safari in Kruger National Park, and volunteering with Community Led Animal Welfare (CLAW), a non-profit organization. CLAW’s mission is to provide companion animal veterinary services and animal care education to pet owners in some of the poorest communities in the world.
My work with CLAW took me to a large slum in Soweto, part of the Gauteng province. My group and I packed up our van with vaccines, medical supplies, pet food, collars, leashes, and blankets and we headed out into the community. As we pulled in, it was clear to me that this was the most impoverished neighborhood I had ever been in. Houses were no larger than 10” x 15” and were built using sheets of metal and whatever other scraps were available. No grass was in sight, only rusty brown dirt that blew into your face with the wind.
Upon seeing our van, children and adults immediately flocked to us, as they knew why we were there. One family immediately relinquished a litter of puppies to us because they could not possibly care for so many dogs. We exited the van and set up stations while trying to contain the people and their pets and establish some order. My group and I split up into different stations: some of us helped the pet owners to fill out a form, some gave vaccines, and others dealt with minor veterinary care.
A veterinarian from CLAW and my EcoLife leaders, Paul and Peter, oversaw us. I helped to gather information and fill out the forms. This required me to communicate directly with the community, which proved to be difficult due to the language difference. As best as I could, and while being culturally sensitive, I took down everyone’s name and address as well as their pet’s name, age, sex, and breed. Breed was mostly a guess because all the dogs were mutts. Another part of my job was to explain to the owners that CLAW would only provide free veterinary care if the owners agreed to surrender their animals the next week to be spayed or neutered at CLAW’s clinic at no cost to them, and then they would be returned home.
There was some resistance. A few of the pet owners didn’t want their dogs fixed because their dogs provided security for them and their families, but we were able to effectively convince the owners that this was best by being polite yet firm. A lot of dog owners understood that they could not risk the chance of having puppies because they didn’t have the money to feed extra mouths. Overall, the pet owners were willing to comply because they needed the veterinary care we were providing.
We passed out the collars, leashes, food, and blankets to the pet owners that we felt needed them the most. Once all the animals had been seen, we passed out some fruit to the local children. We kicked around a ball with them and played for a bit. They were obsessed with our cameras and loved to see their own faces on the screen. Before leaving we took a walk around the neighborhood to make sure that any animals we saw were being treated humanely.
We educated the pet owners on the importance of the humane treatment of animals, and we emphasized the importance of giving the animals access to shade and water at all times. We also showed them how to properly care for and feed their companion animals. When we headed back to the CLAW clinic, we took with us one dog with a bad case of mange, a pregnant cat, and some surrendered puppies. I was filthy, but feeling satisfied, and a puppy slept in my lap for the entire ride.
Back at the clinic, we all helped to clean cages, walk dogs, and feed the animals while the vet went straight to work with surgeries. It was gratifying to be able to help animals in the community and educate owners on proper animal care. It was also inspiring to meet and work with a veterinarian and 2 veterinary technicians who had moved from Canada just to work for CLAW and help the cause. They weren’t paid very well, especially when compared to your average veterinary staff in the United States and Canada, but they loved their jobs and they loved helping animals and their owners. That was their mission, and I’m so glad I go to be a part of it. Volunteering is in my blood, and I can’t wait for my next experience.