Dr. Morgan Peterman, a former veterinarian at Ann Arbor Animal Hospital, spent some time in January 2013 serving the veterinary needs of the animals of Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua. Here is her story:
For anyone who has performed service work in a third world country, you understand the challenge that I face in trying to share the experience that, once you’ve re-integrated back into first world life, feels so distant. Such is how I find myself trying to discover the words that share the intense poverty and challenges I bore witness to while working on the Atlantic coast in Pearl Lagoon, Nicaragua this past January.
I traveled to this area with a small group of US veterinarians and technicians (R-vets) and a group called Nica Vets. Nica Vets is made up of native veterinarians and students advocating to improve the quality of veterinarian education and practice. The challenges to animal care that Pearl Lagoon and much of Nicaragua faces are two-fold: 1) lack of access to veterinary care and 2) severe poverty. To complicate matters, Nicaraguan veterinarians struggle with the lack of availability of antibiotics, analgesics, and anesthetic agents that many veterinarians use multiple times a day when working in the US.
Travel to Pearl Lagoon from the airport in Managua required a 13 hour chartered school bus ride filled with our clinic staff, luggage, food for the week, and clinic equipment. The first 7 hours were on paved road, the last 6 were on a deeply rutted and washed out single lane dirt road. The nearest veterinarian to Pearl Lagoon was where the paved road ended. I traveled home independently from the group taking the most direct route – a mile walk to the lagoon, an hour speed boat shuttle packed shoulder to shoulder with locals, a cab ride to the airstrip, and a prop plane back to Managua. Access to human medical care was challenging and veterinary care even further behind.
We set up the clinic in three different local communities of varying remoteness. The first clinic, in a church side building near downtown Pearl Lagoon, offered the nicest accommodations – electricity and access to flush toilets/running water just 100 feet away. The next clinic site we worked at was more challenging. Water was pulled up from a well, pit toilets, and 1 electrical outlet run off of a generator. This building was the elementary school. The last clinic site was merely a thatched roof structure to offer shade in a key in the lagoon.
The health of the animals seemed to deteriorate as we moved more remote as well. The majority of dogs we saw were thin, many emaciated. Many were battling preventable infectious diseases such as distemper virus, parvovirus, and bordetella. Mange was the primary skin condition we treated.
While it was tempting to be frustrated with the situation, it truly was unavoidable. There was no access to preventative care. Overpopulation was primarily managed through infectious disease mortality and starvation. Traveling through the communities, seeing the living accommodations and the untreated medical and dental problems of the people, it was clear many pet owners were doing their best. However, a number of animals that came to the clinic suffered greatly from abuses directed upon them. A cat came in with its ear amputated by the owners uncle after it defecated in the house, dogs came in with scarred alopecic areas from hot water scalds (a common way to scare away unwanted animals lurking around your home), and there were animals with cosmetic ear and tail amputations that were done at home. The dogs and cats were abundant in population, and the value of the individual suffered. The area was and continues to be desperate for preventative vaccines and sterilization. Community members arrived early and would sometimes wait in line for hours to receive these services.
The need in the area is tremendous; the expertise is available in country through Nica Vets. The struggle, as is so often the case, is funding for continued service and supplies to be delivered to the remote areas of Nicaragua. There is a group of US based non-profits that all provide services in Nicaragua that are teaming up with Nica Vets to develop and implement a plan for sustainable veterinary care and infectious disease surveillance. Hopefully, through collaboration we will be able to improve the welfare of these animals that so desperately need it.
Written by Morgan Peterman, DVM