At free clinic, island’s cats and dogs get much-needed care

From surgeries to handing out leashes, volunteers work to create lasting change

Carlo Gonzalez assists volunteer vet student Alyssa White by handing her one of Tita’s puppies to receive fluids.

Carlo Gonzalez assists volunteer vet student Alyssa White by handing her one of Tita’s puppies to receive fluids.

SANTA CRUZ, Galapagos Islands, Ecuador — At 15, Scotty’s arthritis was so bad that his hips had come out of their sockets. The teeth inside his mouth were mostly rotten. But the yellow Labrador retriever’s most severe injury was an open abscess on his right side.

Dr. Bonnie Chu, an American veterinarian, hoisted Scotty onto the outdoor examination table so that she could better study the softball-sized bedsore. There was not, she determined, enough skin left to sew up and close the wound.

“It’s time for the quality of life talk,” Chu said solemnly as she walked over to speak with the owners.

Chu, 29, worked for a private upscale veterinary clinic in Houston for five years. But she gave that up to spend nearly six weeks this summer volunteering with Darwin Animal Doctors, a clinic that provides free services to pet owners on Santa Cruz Island in the Galapagos Islands, in the Pacific Ocean, 600 miles off the coast of South America.


The clinic, which opened in 2010, was the first veterinary clinic in the archipelago. Its primary mission is to protect the environment of the Galapagos by sterilizing cats and dogs, which are considered invasive species and illegal to own. But the law  that hasn’t stopped everyone from smuggling pets from the mainland or adopting those born on the islands.

“Even the mayor has a dog,” said Dr. Jochem Lastdrager, a veterinarian from the Netherlands and a Darwin Animal Doctors Clinic board member.


In the past five years, the clinic has grown from being only open a few months a year when it could get veterinary students on school break to come volunteer, to being open year round and offering preventive exams, nail clippings, surgeries and deworming medications — all at no cost.

As the clinic has expanded, the culture toward pet ownership on the island has changed.

The first patients brought to the clinic “were more dead than alive,” Lastdrager said.

“At first, owners came in saying ‘My dog has not been eating for three weeks,’” he said. Within three months, people were bringing in pets that hadn’t eaten breakfast that morning.


Just for the animals

The clinic has no air conditioning. Most of the work, except for surgeries, is done outside in the courtyard. The sickliest patients, like Scotty, are placed on the one outdoor table. Doctors, wearing T-shirts and sometimes barefoot, crouch on the ground to examine the other animals.


The clinic doesn’t have an X-ray machine. It cannot afford the $60,000 price tag for a digital machine, and it has turned away offers of used equipment from other clinics because they produced chemical waste.


Without an X-ray machine, the vets perform what they call a “human X-ray,” running their hands over the animals’ bodies to feel for arthritis, broken bones, dislocations and air pockets.


Vaccinations for rabies, Parvo and distemper, considered routine throughout much of the world, aren’t given in the Galapagos for several reasons: For starters, there is no rabies on the islands, and also, there are no laws governing the care of pets on the island because, technically, the pets are there illegally. Also, the concept of vaccinations isn’t exactly in line with Darwinism, the idea that species evolve through natural selection, and only the fittest survive.


Into this scenario trots Brownie, a 16-month-old black lab mix, who had just been in a dogfight.


After a quick look at Brownie’s face, Lastdrager determined that the bloody open wounds under his eye needed immediate attention. The dog needed to be put under anesthesia, have the wounds cleaned, and be stitched up. It would also be an opportunity, Lastdrager told the family, to have Brownie neutered. They readily agreed.


Such services in the United States would have cost close to $1,000, Chu estimated.


Darwin Animal Doctors bill: $0.


Overcoming reluctance


The vets were relieved at the family’s quick willingness to sterilize Brownie.


Many residents on the island are reluctant to sterilize their animals  because they have heard that neutering makes animals less macho, less effective as guard dogs, uninterested in hunting and inclined to gain weight.

“This is simply not true,” Lastdrager said. Sterilized dogs, he said,  are more focused. Owners just have to take the time to properly feed and re-train their animals.

Michelle Green, the education coordinator for Darwin Animal Doctors since January 2016, said the clinic wants to treat create long-term change.


To do that, Darwin Animal Doctors Clinic wants to focus on teaching children ages 7 to 14 the importance and joy of caring for a beloved pet.


It starts with handing out free leashes, which gives the owners, especially kids, a sense of commitment and responsibility. “They are literally connected to their pet. That’s what we want to teach them,” Lastdrager said.


Children take responsibility

Three young siblings walked into the clinic just before dusk. Carlo Gonzalez, the youngest, held a leash in his hand.  On the other end was Tita, a 2-year-old mutt with curly white hair. She was tugging every which way in an attempt to get closer to the other dogs, cats and people waiting at the clinic.  The only thing she wasn’t interested in getting close to was the box that held her five puppies.


“That’s not normal,” said Lastdrager, observing the new mother.


Alyssa White, a volunteer veterinary school student in her second year at the University of Madison, Wisconsin, held one of the three-week-old pups in the palm of her hand. The puppies looked days old, not weeks. “These puppies are slowly dying,” Lastdrager said.


They were severely dehydrated and needed fluids fast.  White brought out a bag of intravenous fluids and filled a syringe with 5 cc. She sat on the ground and took the first puppy out of the box.  Sliding the needle under the pup’s skin, the puppy —  and Carlo — let out a yelp. Once Carlo understood White was helping the puppies, he was eager to help by handing them to her, one by one, and returning them to their box.


Meanwhile, Green, the education specialist, explained in fluent Spanish to Carlo’s older sisters what was happening:  Tita was probably sick from an infected uterus and unable to nurse the puppies.  The children  needed to bring her back at 7 a.m. the next day for surgery. If they didn’t, Tita’s condition would worsen and she and the puppies would likely die.


The girls argued that their parents had to go to work and they had to go to school. Green continued to stress the urgency while White, the vet student, demonstrated to the children how to fill the syringe with baby formula for the puppies to drink.


When the children left after dark, it was the last time the clinic would see them. No one brought Tita in the next day – or any day – for her surgery.


Not all the stories, though, have unhappy endings.

Mateo Saenz, 19, brought his 10-year-old mutt, Pecas, to the clinic to have her nails clipped.

Saenz, who is heading off to college on the mainland later this summer, heard about the clinic from a classmate, and he regularly brings Pecas in for check ups.


“For her age, she looks in great shape,” Chu told Saenz, after giving the dog a human X-ray.


Vet student, Alyssa White, trims Pecas’s nails on the courtyard floor while Dr. Bonnie Chu observes.

Vet student, Alyssa White, trims Pecas’s nails on the courtyard floor while Dr. Bonnie Chu observes.

Pecas plopped on the concrete floor and Alina Roessner, a fourth-year vet student volunteering from Germany, took her paws, one by one, and trimmed her nails. Pecas never even flinched.


Afterward, Saenz politely asked if they could have the deworming medicine as well. “It’s been three months since she’s had it,” he explained.

Pecas was reluctant at first to take the medicine.


“It’s yummy, banana-flavored,” Roessner told the dog, squirting the contents of the syringe under Pecas’ tongue.


A visit like this in the United States would have cost around $100, Chu said. As usual, Saenz was charged nothing, but he slipped a $10 bill into the donation box as he left.


Volunteers make it possible

It is mostly due to the volunteers like Chu, White and Roessner that the clinic is able to treat animals for free. “Volunteers are the engine,” said Rene Heyer, founder of the Nova Galapagos Foundation, which supports the clinic.


Vet students come from all over the world and commit to at least three weeks at the clinic. They pay $100 per week, which covers their room over the clinic, and are asked to bring donations. Chu brought hundreds of leashes; Roessner brought thousands of sterile gloves.

Vets like Chu offer their expertise as a way to give back to the world.  After her time at the Galapagos clinic is done, she will be traveling to other countries in Latin America to volunteer her services.

Students like Roessner and White come to get hands’ on experience and beef up their resumes.

“As a student, you can learn a lot and perform surgeries on your own, which is not allowed most places,” Roessner said.


It’s usually the vet students who cuddle and bond with the animals, Lastdrager said. As the clinic’s chief of staff who has seen thousands of cases, he doesn’t let himself get too attached. Like a doctor in a M*A*S*H unit, he goes from triage to triage.


A final nuzzle


Dr. Jochem Lastdrager performs a “human X-ray” on Scotty as vet student Alina Roessner holds him still.

Dr. Jochem Lastdrager performs a “human X-ray” on Scotty as vet student Alina Roessner holds him still.

The pain was getting worse for Scotty, the 15-year-old yellow lab with the abscess.

After asking the doctor several questions, the dog’s owner was ready to say a difficult goodbye.  He wrapped his arm around the dog’s neck and kissed his forehead.


Chu picked up the blanket holding Scotty and carried him inside. The dog’s body was stiff and pain shone on his face, but he mustered the energy to lift his head and glance back at his family one last time.


Ten minutes later, Chu returned from the building carrying the dog’s body, still wrapped in his blanket. Silently, she crossed the courtyard and put Scotty in the back of the owner’s truck. He was going home to be buried.


Methodically, she began cleaning the table where Scotty had spent his final hours, preparing the workstation for its next occupant.


While Chu had been performing the euthanasia, White had been tending to a large black mutt. She brought Lastdrager the thermometer: 106.7 degrees Fahrenheit.


“That’s the highest I’ve ever seen,” he said skeptically.

“I’ve taken it twice,” White responded.

They moved on. A new patient needed them.


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Info for box


Darwin Animal Doctors

2015 Statistics

Preventive checkups: 336

Sterilizations: 805

Average cost of a visit: $0.


More like this: Galapagos 2016

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