It was somewhat disorienting arriving in Puerto Natales, Chile after travelling for two days on three buses and two airplanes from my sunny winter home in Mexico. Of course it was summer here but it took quite a bit of acclimating, several hot showers and hugging the gas heaters to get comfortable. The landscape was like a strange mixture of BC rugged, quaint Maritime fishing village, and Scottish Highland sheep scrub, but what was most striking were the dogs. They were everywhere! In all shapes and sizes, on the streets, in the yards, on the rooftops, fences and pick-up trucks. In packs, with people or alone, they sported dreadlocks, bite wounds, injuries, hit-by-car lameness, venereal tumours, and mange. Dogs were eating garbage, fighting, defecating and procreating in the broad daylight, which seemed to go on forever. This was the farthest south I’d ever been on the planet and it was weird adjusting to these extra-long days, a huge harvest moon in February, and glaciers surrounded by herds of wild camelids and mini-ostriches. Also the ozone depletion over this part of the globe could cause severe and rapid sunburn as evidenced by the white cats dodging the dogs, their ears consumed by solar dermatitis or carcinomas.
The Latin American team was fantastic! I had already met our dynamic project leader, Dr. Elena Garde at our Vets without Borders’ Board of Directors retreat on Galiano Island in November when I volunteered for this interesting and important project.
Now I was introduced to her partner in work, life and crime – plying me with “pisco sours”, Guillermo Perez, a Chilean-Canadian biologist and dog catcher extraordinaire! There was also the lovely and capable Dr. Angelica Romero, who was nicknamed “Flaca” because she was thin, but for good reason – she worked long days pounding the pavement, recruiting dogs door-to-door for the project, and as our media and PR spokesperson, taking client education to a new level. Also on the team were Karla, another Chilean vet, who charmingly procured whatever we needed from bricks to suture material, and Connie, a final-year student who will surely become the canine neuter champion of Chile after this experience. Dr. Susan Kutz, a parasitologist from Calgary who currently heads up our Nunavut dog project was there to lend a helping hand and a contagious smile. We were joined by two American volunteers, Karen Green, Senior Director of the Alliance for Contraception in Cats & Dogs, from Portland, Oregon, and Dr. Mary Ann Hollick, a veterinarian from Alaska, both of whom had experience with Esterisol, the chemical manufactured by Ark Sciences that we were using for sterilization, and loads of enthusiasm and excitement for our project.
The study involved about 150 free-roaming dogs divided into three groups: the conventional surgical neuter group, the chemical sterilization group, and the controls. We were interested in determining the most effective population and disease control techniques for free-roaming dogs throughout Latin America. The data accumulated was extensive, with questionnaires to be completed by the dog-“owners”, videotaping the behaviour of the dogs at different times of day, and extensive follow-ups. Dogs were blood-tested for testosterone levels before and after sterilization, fecal samples were analyzed for hydatid disease and thorough physical examinations, vaccinations, de-worming and microchipping were performed. The “Esterisol Dogs” were also ear tattooed to facilitate identification, since they still had their testicles, something that appeared to have cultural desirability. The Municipality was very helpful and cooperative with this important study, making available two community centers, manpower, supplies and media coverage to encourage families to participate. They also treated us to a couple of memorable excursions on our days off to see the Prehistoric Milodon Cave and Torres del Paine National Park with its breathtaking mountains, glaciers and wildlife. This project is a model for community involvement with animal health issues where wildlife, domestic animal and human interfaces are of critical importance for the study of zoonotic diseases and the concept of “One Health” throughout Latin America and the rest of the world.
In two short weeks we spent many long days in the clinics, doing surgery and injecting dogs, with limited resources, developing some very creative anesthetic and surgical protocols based on what we didn’t have. It always seemed to flow miraculously well, thanks to the camaraderie of our professional team, the kindness of the people of Puerto Natales, and the delicious seafood, great Chilean wines and of course, the pisco sours!
The smiles of the children helped too, their faces pressed against the windows, watching us do surgery, or munching on our shared snacks. The greatest reward was to witness their authentic love for the animals. For this wonderful experience I give thanks to all, including the beautiful creatures I met in Patagonia such as the condor, rheas, guanacos, owls, peregrine falcons, caracaras, horse, cattle, sheep and most of all, the dogs. Gracias a la vida!
– Dr. Jack Gewarter, Bloorcourt Veterinary Clinic, Toronto.