One of my favorite parts of our BCI trip is always going out into the neighborhoods, or barrios. We have done this every year as a way to increase awareness of us being there, spread education about vaccinations, and also to distribute vaccines! Every time we go, I am pleasantly surprised by the people literally chasing us down the block with their dog or cat in tow to get a vaccine.
Typically, we drive out to an area that we know has a lot of animals and families who are less likely to be able to travel to our clinic with their pets for care. We take Donna’s little four-wheel drive cart (affectionately called the grasshopper), and into the jungles we go. Most of these villages are spread across the island, set back from the main roads with only dirt roads to reach them. Some of them don’t even have roads to some of the houses! We drive to our designated spot, split into teams, and start our wandering. Honestly, I think I’m the only one who really enjoys this, as most of the others are nervous. We are wandering around on people’s properties just yelling ‘vacunas’ (vaccines), and then trying to convince people to allow us to ‘strike’ (vaccinate), their dogs and cats. One time one of our teams was even stopped by some police officers wielding semi-automatic guns, but luckily it was just to see what we were doing and wish us luck. I could see how this could be nerve-wracking, but I love it so much. I just love reaching people and having the chance to educate them and change their minds. It’s like a fun challenge to me – how many people can I convince that vaccines are important? How many can we talk into letting us ‘cut’ (spay/neuter), their pets? How many can I help educate on proper care of their pets?
The barrios visits are always fun, but they can also be extremely sad. I have cried on numerous occasions when I have gotten overwhelmed by the need and the lack of care. I vividly remember one specific dog who was so sweet and so sad. He was chained in the sun, to the side of a house with no shade, on a leash that was maybe 4 feet long. He had a small bowl, that was totally dry, and he was skin and bones, and panting in the hot sun. He wagged and got so excited when I approached – all he wanted was love and attention. I got so MAD at his care. When his owner came out to see what the commotion was, I grabbed the bowl and launched into an explanation on the importance of water, and shade, and more food. I then asked where their water was, and the woman nervously pointed to a sink around the side of the house and I bristled past her and filled the bowl to the brim with water, while continuing to rant about the importance of care. ‘Yes, ma’am, yes ma’am, sorry ma’am,’ she stammered as she followed me around the house back to the dog. He gulped down the water gratefully and I turned to her with tears in my eyes and pleaded with her to give him a longer chain, and more food, and explained that she needed to do better. We left and I cried. No, I sobbed. I know it was not intentional – the vast majority of people do not intend to neglect or mistreat their dogs, but that doesn’t make it hurt my heart any less when I look at them and know I can only do so much. When I break down, my team always rallies and reminds me that we are making a difference, and we are improving the care of these animals – one by one. But it can still seem and feel so overwhelming at times, and just feels like it’s not enough.
However, on the flip side, there are so many positive stories too. One of my favorite barrios memories is the time we stumbled upon a school in session, where the kids were having a sing-a-long. Not wanting to miss an opportunity to educate (and have some fun), myself, Amy, and Sammie busted in and started dancing and singing along with the kids. They were all a bit confused, but welcomed us anyway! After the song was finished, I asked the teacher if I could talk to the kids for a minute. I spent a few minutes talking about who had pets and having them tell me about their dogs and cats, and then talked about vaccines, and proper feeding, and love. The importance of showing their pets love and affection. The kids were so adorable, and I truly believe they are the ones we need to reach. The future care of the animals on BCI is in their hands, so my goal is to make those hands educated and compassionate.
And you know what? It’s WORKING. Just 2 weeks ago, one of our friends on the island was talking to Cynthia and told her that she was at a gathering recently and a bunch of the parents were jokingly complaining about ‘that vet team from the US’. When Cynthia asked why she explained that they were talking about how since we have started coming to the island all of their children insist on their dogs coming in the house, being fed more food, going for walks, and even sleeping with them at night! Guys – it’s working. I can’t tell you how much pride I felt when she told me this story. One by one. We will continue to work and to educate one by one to make a difference for these animals and their families. And one day I truly hope they don’t need us anymore.