AWI Staff Member Gets PAWs on the Ground in Dominican Republic

by Mary Lou Randour, Ph.D.

AWI staff members are dedicated to helping animals on the job and off, and many of us engage in various activities for animals after we leave the office. One example of such an extra-curricular activity is the People Animal Welfare (PAW) project that I helped initiate, organize, and in which I participate in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. From July 12-14, PAW held a three-day spay-neuter event that succeeded in spaying and neutering 167 dogs and cats.

The need for a spay-neuter program in the Dominican Republic is painfully clear. There are thousands of homeless dogs and cats throughout the country; in addition, those citizens who have pets in their homes often cannot afford health care for them. The thousands of stray dogs who roam throughout the city streets and rural roads create a significant animal welfare concern, with many animals suffering from untreated diseases, wounds, and lacking proper nutrition. One of the homeless dogs brought into the spay-neuter program in July suffered from a deep wound in his snout in which scores of maggots had lodged themselves. Another young dog had been hit by a car the day before. Her guardian initially took her to a neighbor who tried to amputate her broken leg with no anesthetic or proper surgical equipment. In addition to being spayed or neutered, many animals also received critical medical treatment.

PAW is a project of Casa de Orientacion y Desarrollo Real (CODR), working in partnership with the Veterinary School at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo (UASD) and World Vets to provide rabies-spay-neuter services to the dogs and cats with and without homes in the Santo Domingo area. CODR is a Dominican non-profit organization founded in 2009 with a mission to facilitate access to higher education for poor students in the Dominican Republic by offering them housing along with a variety of support services and skill training, with a special focus on leadership and community development. UASD is the public university system in the Dominican Republic. World Vets is a non-governmental organization providing veterinary aid around the globe; their work spans 34 countries and six continents.

PAW was fortunate to have the facilities of the UASD Veterinary School. There were four operating tables in an air-conditioned surgery room, a room for intake of animals, another for pre-op preparation, and then a very large recuperation area. Compared to many sites in which spay-neuter campaigns such as this are conducted in developing countries, these facilities were luxurious.

Capturing the essence of a spay-neuter campaign - with all of the details of sound, smell, touch, and sight - seems impossible. Dozens of animals of various sizes and in varying conditions are waiting outside in the sun, under trees; others are reluctantly waiting to go into pre-op, some are flipped over on their backs, being shaved before their surgery, others are on their backs on the operating tables, all four legs splayed out and tied, veterinarians and vet techs surrounding them. It is very hot and humid in Santo Domingo in July. At times the electricity falters and we all hold our collective breaths, but then start breathing again as we hear it kick back in.

The large recuperating area is filled with 30 crates of various sizes. Some dogs are in the crates, recovering. Others are lying on the floor, on makeshift beds, receiving the attention of volunteers, vet techs, and vet students. Dogs whose body temperatures are still too low are being wrapped in blankets and rubbed vigorously; others are receiving post-surgical medications. While this is happening, the homeless dogs who live on the Veterinary School campus roam in and out of the various rooms, curious and unaware that "they are next."

As a psychologist I had limited professional skills to offer. I just did whatever I could to help - which included holding dogs while they receive shots (Chihuahuas have very tiny veins), cleaning up accidents, caring for dogs in recovery, helping process dogs during registration, and offering back massages to the vets who were standing up all day over operating tables. As one of the organizers of the event, I also was responsible for keeping lines of communication open between the vet team and the volunteer team - which was at times a challenge to my still-not-adequate Spanish language skills. Fortunately, we had Carlos Diaz and Juan Carlos Florentino - first-rate translators who were part of the CODR team headed by Hardy Florentino.

Working with the World Vets team was an experience I will remember in vivid detail. Headed by Dr. Karen Allum of Pennsylvania, the team included vets and vet students from Texas, New Mexico, Michigan, Illinois, Pennsylvania and South Carolina. Although they had not worked as a team before the July event, they worked seamlessly together. In fact, the staff of the Veterinary School assumed that they had been together for many years.

The end goal of PAW is to create a sustainable spay-neuter program in the Santo Domingo area of the Dominican Republic (and once established in Santo Domingo, to expand to other areas in the country). The July campaign was the first important step. The PAW team of CODR, World Vets, and UASD plan to continue working together to conduct other campaigns once or twice a year. Of equal importance, there is an ongoing training process in which Dominican vets and vet students are learning the latest spay-neuter techniques.

There are always some dangers of participating in one of the spay-neuter campaigns. For example, we were advised to receive up-to-date rabies vaccinations. The greatest peril, however, if the reader will excuse the bad pun, is not in being "bitten," but rather "smitten." The latter befell me.

I returned home, not only feeling that I was part of something important, but also with a lively, big-eared puppy who was living homeless at the Veterinary School. I knew it was a mistake to name her (Sabrina) when I started playing with her at the school in July, a clear sign that I had succumbed. For me, for Sabrina, and for many of the other 166 dogs and cats, this story has a happy ending. We want to bring more happy endings to more dogs and cats in the Dominican Republic in the future.