How did you find this opportunity?
I found this opportunity through a presentation at a pre-veterinary club at my college. I am a student at Penn State and we had one of the students who is a member of the club to speak about this amazing opportunity that they got in Belize. And then they put us in contact with C.E.L.A. Belize, which runs the program, and after I got connected with C.E.L.A. Belize I filled out the application and luckily got accepted. I lived in Belize for a month and completed two courses of study while I was down there. The first was “Large Animal Veterinary Practices in The Tropics” and the second was “Wildlife Health and Conservation”. The first few weeks I spent living in a small town called San Ignacio and while there we would drive out every day to a farm to help out with their large animals. The next two weeks we worked in the main Belizean zo and while we were helped with their conservation project for tapirs as well as did clinical sessions with oscillates and jaguars.
Could you tell me about the organization you worked with- C.E.L.A. Belize?
C.E.L.A. Belize is run by Americans who are now Belizean citizens. They’ve been living down there for 8-10 years. The organization is headed by a woman named Cynthia and in Belize she and the rest of the organization run the various courses and they’ve been running for at least 4 years and under their current name C.E.L.A. Belize for about a year and a half now.
Did you have to do any special training or classes in preparation for this trip?
The applications were pretty much first come, first serve. You didn’t have to have any real experience but they did expect people to come in with a heavy interest in veterinary studies, for obvious reasons. They also expected people to come in with a basic sense of ecology but they were willing to teach everyone from scratch.
Did you or your group ever talk about issues like “voluntourism” or other moral dilemmas with foreign community service and outreach? What are your thoughts on these issues? Did you think they were applicable to your experience in Belize?
We definitely considered those issues. We were really fortunate on this trip. My last two weeks I worked with a wonderful man named Dr. Julio Mercado who actually is a Mexican born vet who works in the San Diego Zoo but he and his wife practice mainly in Mexico so they talked a lot about mission trips that will come down there, often acting like the white savior. In their opinion, we are working only in programs that are community based, so it is the community only helping themselves. We’ve worked with a monkey forest that was entirely run by community leaders. There is a lot of machisimo left in Latin American countries, which you all will experience in Nicaragua I’m sure, but this monkey farm program was run by the local women and we would go to their organization and work there and make evaluations, then go to them and tell them overall what we thought of the health of their populations were. So we worked with organizations like that and we also worked with the Belize Zoo. Their tagline is actually “the world’s neatest little zoo”. This neat little zoo works on projects such as the Tapir Crossing. Tapirs are these half pig, half rhinoceros looking animals, that I think are really cute. We worked with a local man who was initially just interested in the issue but is now doing some groundbreaking tapir research. Tapirs cross the roads and get hit by cars at high speed, a lot like deer in the United States, so he decided to put up traffic signs that said “Slow Down, Tapir Crossing”. He collected data by setting up speed traps by the sign to see if people would actually slow down when they saw the sign. It was all locally run, children helped sit outside and collect data with speedometers, and he found that there was a high success rate with this: people slowed down about 20 mph. So, by doing that we helped him set up more signs as well as helped out on other zoo conservation projects such as looking at their alligators and we helped with their bird conservation as well. We worked with local researchers, instead of going back to American-based researchers, and throughout C.E.L.A. programs we went to local farmers to provide vet care that they normally couldn’t afford but our funds for the program actually paid for all of the vet supplies that we needed to purchase down there so our little program fee would pay for the vet car that they normally couldn’t afford. We also ran a free spay/neuter clinic which was much needed, as you will find throughout all of Central and South America. They really don’t believe in neutering because they believe that it will take away the “manliness” of their pets so that’s a huge problem down there because the most effective form of birth control for animals is to neuter the males since they can breed over and over again, compared to females who have to wait for a heat cycle. So when we offered it for free, people were much more willing to take their male animals and get them spayed. With the team of 16 of us we were able to spay and neuter about 70 animals in one day.
What did you think of the mix of experiences with clinical and conservation aspects? Was this what you expected? Did it enhance or hurt your experience?
The mix of experiences was definitely not what I was expecting. Originally I was expecting to work mainly with the zoo’s animals on a strictly health perspective but it was much more conservation focused, but I actually really liked that. And then the environmental practice of getting involved in the community and helping out in these existing projects, I realized that this structure already being down there was so important. If you are working in a community and hope to make a big change, a temporary project and the change you make will leave when you do. You have to set up projects with the local people and the local people have to p=be passionate about these projects in order for anything to work long-term. So if you set up a health clinic, the health clinic dies once you leave because there are no doctors in the town. You need to teach people how to care for things. So, even when we would go out and do veterinary medicine, we wouldn’t just administer care and return the animals. We would tell farmers and their workers, for example, that when giving your own vaccines you have to get through the subcutaneous layer, you can’t just stab through the skin lightly. They’re cows, you need to go pretty deep to hit muscle. We would do blood testing to be able to determine if this farm does have good bio practices and to teach other farmers what to do to improve themselves. For farms that were obviously lacking, we would make suggestions too. So the big point of a lot of this work is to make a lasting impact which has to come from a local basis- whether that is teaching people how to care for themselves. As you all know, teach a man to fish and he’ll feed himself for a lifetime and I thought that was really important. This model is something I would like to continue on in my future work.
Did you think it was essential to have veterinary experience in a foreign country to your academic interests and career goals? How did having this experience in Belize make it unique, in that it couldn’t have happened anywhere else?
The most important part was that while I was down there they don’t have the rights and laws for animals that they do in the United States. So, when I work in the United States as a vet tech, I’m not allowed to suture wounds, I’m not allowed to give vaccines without a vet present, I’m not allowed to give any major procedures or medical advice. While I was down there, because we were working for free and because they don’t have the same laws as we do, it was a completely different story. They don’t have the same concept of pets as we do. Pets are an idea born out of luxury and Belize, once you move out of tourist areas, is a poor third world country so you can see the poverty that people live in. Once you experience this poverty you are able to give more advice because they don’t have the luxuries we have. Pets are absolutely luxury, born out of the ability to feed something and keep it just because it’s something that’s nice. All the animals down there serve a purpose. The guards are all dogs. You don’t see cats down there as much because they don’t serve as big of a purpose unless they are hunting out mice. Cows, sheep, goats, all of them are used for milk. Everything is bred for a purpose down there. Horses might be used for transportation if you can’t afford a car. After I realized that, I realized that America has all these luxuries, and that, in order to improve the world’s perspective on vet care and animal health I really need to work in a country that’s trying to build these positive concepts. The vets down there want to change the situation and they could do great things if they had some of the resources that we do in America. So one of the most important things that I learned was to go to these other countries and giving them the resources that they need, making sure they go to the right people. Also, helping them with their own projects and making sure that when you leave the projects are continuing to be carried out by the people that you’re giving the money to. You can’t just pour money into something blindly because then funds are often used badly, unfortunately.
How did being fluent effect your experience in Belize? Did it have a major effect considering you were working with animals?
Knowing Spanish was probably the most amazing part of my trip. I was able to connect so well with the locals who worked down there because, even though Belize is technically an English-speaking country, only people who are pretty educated can really speak English with any degree of proficiency that we could have a conversation with them. So, knowing Spanish allowed me to talk to the workers and people who came into the clinic and ask them “what actually is going on with your pet? Do you understand the risks of the surgery they are going under for spay and neuter?” Sometimes animals don’t wake up from anesthesia and to be able to explain these things in a language that they could understand was so important because consent is a huge part of medical care, informing your patient about what is going on, so I found that was really important. It also really helped me connect with the culture down there. You’ll find that when you can speak the local language people are much more likely to talk to you. I would go up to a shop owner and say “hey! Can I have ___ many mangoes” in Spanish they’ll be much more likely to converse with me. Also, while we were down there, a lot of the workers only spoke Spanish so to be able to convey instructions and medical information clearly was very important. Knowing Spanish was a really big part of being able to bridge gaps: making sure that people knew what you were doing and how to properly carry out these medical procedures when you were gone.
LINK to Audio