UK vet Laura Dobson on her experience volunteering at IFAW's dog and cat centre in Cape Town
This post was filed by Laura Dobson, a UK vet that volunteered her time and expertise at IFAW’s Dog and Cat Center in Cape Town, from September through December 2009.
In May 2009 Emma Milne gave a talk at the Royal Veterinary College on her experiences working in two animal charity clinics in South Africa. The clinics, sponsored by IFAW, are based in Johannesburg and in Cape Town.
After a five year slog through vet school (never mind the A-levels) I’d been feeling somewhat overworked and slightly disillusioned with the whole idea of entering the rat race of modern veterinary practice. With finals looming I was struggling to summon the energy to immerse myself in the enormous task of revision that would hopefully get me over the final hurdle.
Emma’s inspirational talk about the work being done in South Africa sparked a new found enthusiasm for vetting. Having already visited the beautiful and diverse country of South Africa for a couple of months in 2008 I needed no further encouragement to contact the main IFAW office in London once I had my BVetMed certificate in hand.
On 14th September I landed in Cape Town due to start three months working at the IFAW Dog and Cat Center in the township of Khayelitsha. Although I knew I was throwing myself in the deep end as a new graduate I wanted to use the opportunity to bring my routine surgery skills up to scratch and practice some basic medicine. Luckily I started with some other more experienced volunteers who helped me find my feet.
The permanent team at the clinic were very supportive throughout my time there. Despite some of them not even finishing school their years of experience, willingness to learn, personal drive and determination to help animals and improve the dog and cat populations of the township have resulted in a very established and well functioning clinic. This consists of a first opinion veterinary service for local animals, a hospital for inpatients and a reasonably well equipped surgery area for the free pet sterilisation service. The permanent staff do consulting, hospital duties, collect and drop off animals and also do all the anaesthetising and preparation of animals for surgery. The clinic mainly relies on volunteer vets to be able to run the free sterilisation service, but also accurate veterinary assessment of hospital patients and assistance with some of the consultations is much required.
I clearly remember my first day – a Monday – mobile clinic day. Jane (the project manager) and the rest of the team took us out to a neighbouring township ironically called Happy Valley. It was an area that the mobile clinic had only just started visiting. Consisting of dirt streets, plastic chemical port-a-loos and hundreds of corrugated iron shacks of varying quality, Happy Valley is home to a mostly unemployed population who survive by scavenging on rubbish dumps or by recycling tins and bottles. Alcoholism is a widespread problem and its effects are evident. On first impression, providing some help to areas like this may seem like a hopeless mission. However, on subsequent visits to Happy Valley many people started to recognise the clinic pick-up trucks (‘bakkies’). Gradually a trust was built up and there was a realisation that we were there to genuinely help, rather than deviously confiscate animals as previous organisations had done. It was great to see animals coming back for second vaccinations, having people ask for flea and worming products, seeing mange cases for follow up treatments, removing stitches from sterilisation ops and even people just wanting advice on the best way to care for their animals. Children in particular were very curious and keen to help. Even in the relatively short time that I was in South Africa there was a noticeable improvement in the dog and cat populations of Happy Valley.
Job satisfaction is certainly one of the most enjoyable aspects of working at the clinic. On the whole animals come to the clinic with obvious conditions requiring quite straight forward treatment. Therefore it is often easy to make a very significant difference to the quality of the animal’s life. Basics such as educating owners, vaccination schemes and neutering services over time makes a huge difference to the health of the entire population. This is something that the permanent staff have noticed since the clinic set up in Khayelitsha just over thirteen years ago.
Working as a vet with the public and their animals, there are always interesting people and entertaining cases. Something I came across a few times was the concept of witchcraft. There was a man who was convinced his neighbour was performing spells on him with the assistance of a big ginger cat. This was something to be taken seriously and for its own safety the cat came to stay at the clinic until the neighbourly dispute had been resolved. Several times I was asked to cut out the worm from under the tongue of dogs who were ‘eating too much’. To the owners’ disbelief I explained that the worms were in the intestines and that we had tablets for that sort of thing! After a very long consultation with an elderly man who insisted on chatting to me in Xhosa, he gave me an extra R10 (approximately 80p), a wink and a toothless grin and told me to “keep it for drinkies”. I doubt I will ever be tipped in the UK for my veterinary services!
By far the most enjoyable part of being at the clinic is working with the people there. There is a very relaxed and homely atmosphere and everyone is very welcoming. As I got to know people better the individual characters, senses of humour and the cheeky personalities became apparent. I found it easy to form friendships and enjoyed experiencing the cultural differences. Jane, a petite lady with smiling eyes, brings an incredible amount of dedication, energy and enthusiasm to the project. It really wouldn’t be the same without her.
Although I’d heard plenty of horror stories about violent crimes committed in the townships, I never actually felt threatened or witnessed anything first hand. However, I never put myself in any unnecessarily risky situations and I was also well looked after by my new clinic family.
Returning to the UK this December has been not only a climate shock, but also a reverse culture shock. I had really settled into my surroundings and felt very at home in South Africa. There is no doubt in my mind that I’ll be back to the clinic and I’d like to visit the IFAW center in Jo’burg at some point too. Now, back in UK private practice my township experiences have certainly given me some enlightening perspectives on life and vetting which keep me smiling from day to day.