DVMs recount tsunami aftermath


SOUTHEAST ASIA — Veterinarians who traveled to Asia to help with disaster relief from December's tsunami now are combating a new problem as the Sri Lankan military threatens to eradicate thousands of dogs if rabies emerges.

SOUTHEAST ASIA — Veterinarians who traveled to Asia to help with disaster relief from December's tsunami now are combating a new problem as the Sri Lankan military threatens to eradicate thousands of dogs if rabies emerges.

Veterinarians and animal care-workers modified their typical surgical techniques to adapt to chaotic working environments that included extremely hot weather, lack of supplies and no operating tables.

Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS) teams remained in Sri Lanka, at presstime, to ward off military threats by performing sterilization procedures on animals healthy enough to undergo surgery. The Humane Society International's (HSI) Executive Director Neil Trent says the only reason eradication has not yet started is because HSI offered army officials written confirmation that the organization would launch a sterilization and rabies program in the country.

Dr. Eric Davis and his team, which stayed in Sri Lanka for several weeks, was replaced by Dr. Susan Monger and Dave Pauli, executive director of the Humane Society of the United State's Northern Rockies Regional Office. The new team will take over sterilization procedures and vaccinations; they expect to handle about 40 dogs a day.

Humane Society International workers administer a vaccine to a dog in Asia while its owner holds it steady. Preventing population growth and administering preventive medicine was a large part of the work competed by animal welfare workers.

In the field

Veterinarian volunteers working in the tsunami aftermath say although the work was worthwhile, it was not easy practicing in unsterile, often chaotic conditions.

"I went to Nagaputinam (India) two weeks after the tsunami hit, and there were still dead bodies lying around," says Dr. Sara Winikoff of Rockland Holistic Veterinary Care in Blauvelt, N.Y. Winikoff's trip was sponsored by the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights.

Winikoff describes the scene as unlike any U.S. disaster; entire villages were flattened, and the majority of the human and animal populations were missing.

Animals that had received vaccinations were fitted with red collars by RAVS veterinarians for identification.

Now back in Phoenix, Dr. Lou Egar recalls Thailand's landscape using similar descriptives.

"Areas were simply devastated like a bomb had been dropped on them," says Egar, a RAVS team member. "I was only in Thailand, so to think that was just part of the effected areas is utterly mind-boggling."

Dehydration was a challenge not only for people, but for animals, Winikoff says. With little food and the water supply contaminated with salt water, animals are dying, she adds.

"Cattle and goats are eating nothing but plastic from torn-down buildings — a lot of animals are dying from dehydration," Winikoff says.

In Thailand, survivors sought shelter in camps, however the medical care of animals became secondary as efforts to rebuild communities began.

Consie von Gontard, a technician with RAVS, comforts a canine tsunami victim that suffered from chemical burns. Von Gontard's team arranged for this animal to be flown back to the United States for adoption. (Photos: Consie von Gontard)

"No picture can tell you what it was like to stand in the middle of it all," says Consie von Gontard, a veterinary technician with RAVS. "People couldn't help themselves let alone their animals."

Call of duty

That desperation drives veterinarians like Winikoff and Egar to help.

Winikoff, who closed her practice for a week, admits traveling to India represented "tremendous financial loss."

"When such a disaster happens, you are sort of guided by what you can do to help," she says. "When you see millions of lives effected and utter destruction, it makes you realize what's important — and someone being late to an appointment is not important."

The community, which had few qualified veterinarians before the disaster, has even less at their disposal to tend wounds inflicted during and in the aftermath of the tsunami.

"There was a lot of pantomiming of how the animals' were injured," von Gontard says. "One man demonstrated how his dog paddled its way to safety from rising water."

Wounds, mange, parasites and infection proliferated many communities' dog and cat populations.

AVMA wants names

"Only about 30 percent of the animal population was left," says Egar, who worked in Ban Am Khem, Thailand. "As far as initiating population control, this was a good time, so we spayed and neutered many animals while we were there."

Makeshift medicine

The generosity of the people overwhelmed von Gontard and Egar, as monks allowed veterinary workers to use their outdoor temples to perform surgeries and evaluations of animals.

"I was actually performing a neuter on a dog while a funeral was going on for one of the tsunami victims just a few yards away," Egar says. "Monks were chanting, and incense was burning; it was the first time I performed surgery when there was funeral going on concurrently."

Mourning families brought food and drinks for the monks and relief workers and really appreciated our presence."

The RAVS team that went to Thailand brought minimum supplies because of their rapid departure, Egar says. About five surgical packs and two suitcases full of supplies lasted the two-week duration of their mission.

"One owner who had been prosperous before the tsunami hit was very grateful for our presence," Egar says. "One of his dogs had an ear infection that was festering with maggots. We sedated the dogs and got that all cleaned up for him."

"Leaving an area that could continue to benefit from the presence of a competent veterinary staff was difficult," von Gontard adds. "But I did arrange for two dogs to come back to the states. They had been through enough and deserve a chance in a good home."

For the future

RAVS is making arrangements to send a veterinarian to help teach animal healthcare workers in Thailand proper anesthesia and vaccine protocols as well as more appropriate surgical techniques.

"The need for modern veterinary medicine is great in the region of Khao Lac," von Gontard says. "The people do care about their pets, and it would be great to have better professional veterinary care."

Winikoff says the time she spent overseas has left an impression.

"What I saw in the faces of people, in line waiting to get food, water, petroleum, walking their goats to find grass to graze, that was when I really saw the situation — it was pretty intense."

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