Well, we made it! We have arrived at our first destination and survived – even flourished – our first week in this beautiful country. I met up with Sarah at the Miami airport on our layover to Belize city, where we joined our last group mate Diana, who had been doing some personal travelling in South America for the better part of two months before our Global Vets adventure really got underway. I will admit, we did the girly shriek-and-hug when we first saw each other and then scrambled to take a plane into Dangriga. Our flight was leaving in ten minutes! It turned out to be an itty-bitty, 10-seater propeller plane that I was ecstatic to be in, but not as excited as Sarah who got to pilot the plane! Kidding, but she did sit in the copilot seat. Here’s some photo evidence :
The scenery is gorgeous in Belize. Picture Jurassic World but without the dinosaurs and more Tarzan-esque vines hanging from palm trees. We plastered ourselves to the window for the fifteen-minute flight and exchanged open-mouthed grins at the start of our adventure. My favourite part of flying is landing without crashing, and this was successful as we touched down in Dangriga. Two of our companions from that flight were heading to Hopkins as well, so we graciously took them up on their offer and squeezed into the back seat of their truck. We were quickly introduced to the friendly and community-minded atmosphere that the little villages around the coast take so seriously and have continued to be overwhelmed with kindness during our stay in Belize. It doesn’t feel like a village so much as a very large family. Hopkins is home to only about 2000 occupants, mostly native Belizeans and some of what the locals call “Ex-Pat[riot]s”, those who moved from other countries to settle down in Belize.
The community is also extremely animal-oriented, you can often see dogs happily padding behind their owners and playing with children. Many restaurants and local businesses contribute a portion of their profits to the Hopkins Belize Humane Society (HBHS) and our acomodations have so far been provided by the Caribbean Shores resort. It is gorgeous. I may repeat this statement a lot in these blogs – get used to it. Thank you so much Cindy and Joe for housing us! Here is a picture of where we are staying:
We feel so lucky to be volunteering with this wonderful organization! HBHS operates solely on donations and there are always needy animals with treatments and medication expenses so every donation is used as effectively as possible! HBHS offers free dog food to the community to come and pick up as well as running clinic days and spay-and-neuter clinics when there are veterinarians around to volunteer their time.
In fact, we had just plopped our bags off in our rooms on the first day when Kelli – a volunteer who is a large part of the behind the scenes magic at HBHS – came looking for us. There was a puppy at the clinic who had recently been sick and was suspected of being infected with canine parvovirus. This virus causes diarrhea, vomiting and extreme dehydration often in young, unvaccinated puppies and it can be very difficult to treat, even fatal. We performed a full physical exam of the little Pomeranian fluff ball and checked the fridges for snap tests to test for parvo. Apparently three puppies in the area had been positive for it recently and this pup wasn’t fully vaccinated yet. The clinic tests had all run out, but luckily, we had brought some snap tests with us that had been donated by Idexx (thank you Idexx!) so we crossed our fingers and waited the eight minutes for the results to come up. In the meantime, I was suddenly slammed with the realization that we weren’t going to simply be students our whole lives, and that in a few short years, we would have a ‘Dr.’ in front of our names and be practicing real medicine! Being responsible for the care of animals in Belize drove that fact home. Finally the test was finished. Phew, it was negative! The puppy’s symptoms even seemed to be resolving on their own, so we sent the owner home with instructions to watch her carefully and give her lots and lots of water and to let us know if anything changes. A happy ending! Here is is with our very first patient (from left to right: Diana, me, and Sarah):
We were given a tour of the clinic and area by Kelli afterwards. Currently at the shelter are two wonderful dogs named Caye-Caye (pronounced KiKi) and Sweet Pea. HBHS prefers to foster and adopt out stray dogs rather than house them when possible, but made special exceptions for these two. Sweet Pea showed up at the clinic first, afflicted with Transmissible Venereal Tumors (TVT). This is a disease that is not prevalent in North America, so we were interested to see a case in person. TVT is the only known form of cancer that can be spread between animals infectiously, and is transmitted when the dogs mate. In most cases it aggressively invades local tissue around the reproductive organs, leading to discomfort and disruption of normal tissue and organ function. Sweet Pea had tumors invading her rectum and mammary glands and underwent surgery to remove them when she came to the clinic. She is now cancer free, however, her rectum lost more tissue than could recover to it’s original state and so she can’t quite control her bowel movements. She loves being in an outdoor run that we cleaned three times a day while we were in Hopkins, and leads a happy life stealing blankets and playing with Caye-Caye. She is a tiny ball of energy and excitement, you would never have known she had been a cancer patient! Caye-Caye, on the other hand, wants nothing more than to be petted and loved, rolling over to show you her belly whenever she can get your attention. She’s come a long way from being the shy, scrawny dog that some sailors found on a tiny 20 by 20 foot island. We think she had been surviving on land crabs and sleeping in the only shelter on the island: an outhouse. Islands in this area are called cayes, hence, the name Caye-Caye. In a matter of weeks she has fattened up, been house trained, leash trained and come to enjoy the company of people – she wants nothing more than to please you. We really loved working with these lovely dogs and hope they find a furever home soon! Here is a photo of us in front of the clinic (from left to right: Sarah, me, Diana):
For the rest of the evening, we relaxed at a local burger place that was throwing a joint Fourth of July and Canada Day party and pigged out on creative burgers and festive beverages. Seriously, where have you ever seen a burger with a homemade donut or grilled cheese bun!? We needed to replenish our energy supplies for our trip through the mountains in the morning to get to San Ignacio where Dr Braun – a vet native to Kansas and volunteering on her family vacation – would be running a spay-and-neuter clinic at the Cayo Animal Welfare Society (CAWS).
We picked Joseph up with the clinic truck bright and early, but Belize is two hours behind Canada so it felt like a luxurious sleep-in. Joseph is the assistant director at HBHS and is also the only registered technician at the clinic. He really runs the show and knows everyone in Hopkins. He is native to Hopkins and I had a sneaking suspicion that he was homesick while on the road with us girls. We are pretty quirky but he quickly fell in with our silly banter and would tease us (especially me) for having zero sense of direction. Much of the countryside is mountains and orange tree orchards, and occasionally on the Hummingbird highway there are one way bridges over small rivers that made us squirm. It’s a bit blurry, but here is a snapshot of some of the countryside we drove through to get to San Ignacio:
And Sarah driving the truck
When we arrived three hours later, we were greeted by Marcus and his three dogs at the Parrot’s Nest resort. It’s a cute little resort in Bullet Tree village just outside of San Ignacio. SO GORGEOUS! See what I mean about Jurassic World?
We had the rest of the day to relax before starting the clinic the next day so we grabbed some tubes and Marcus gave us directions through Bullet Tree to a spot we could put our tubes in. We didn’t need the directions though! The dogs led us the whole way! Marcus had said “Yeah, I had to take them about a hundred times before they knew the way. It was real tough” with a wink. The dogs swam or floated in the water with us and sometimes scrambled up onto the tubes. Diana, who hasn’t learned to swim yet, was understandably apprehensive about going over the rapids (they were pretty mild) but later said it was one of the highlights of her whole trip so far!
Marcus and his family also house and rehabilitate parrots and other needy animals at their resort. While we were there they had a baby bunny, a guinea pig and a turtle. Unintentionally there was also a tarantula that lives in the shower stall and I met him when he jumped out of the shower curtain. One is never ready for a hand-sized tarantula to be bathroom buddies with but I can’t say I hated the experience. Me plus Bunny:
Thank you so much for your hospitality Marcus, we all loved staying with you and getting to meet such an outgoing and warm person.
On our second day in Belize we packed up and drove down to CAWS to begin our volunteering with Dr. Jessica Braun’s clinic. We had a full day of surgery planned, in which we assisted with desexing six dogs and six cats. We weighed and premedicated the patients for surgery, then gave them different drugs to induce a state of unconsciousness and intubated the patients. Intubating means to insert a flexible plastic tube into the patient’s trachea in order to protect their airways and supply inhalant anaesthetic and oxygen. We then shaved and scrubbed their surgical sites with iodine and alcohol and I even got to assist with closing one of the neuters while Sarah and Diana worked on wound repair! It was a very cool and informative day. Even more importantly, these animals have been spared from possible future medical complications that can arise from simply having reproductive organs and from having puppies and kittens that may not be able to find homes and care. It was humbling to be able to be a part of this work. Thank you Dr Braun for all that you do and being such a great mentor to us for the day! Also a big shout out to Amanda (aka Mandy) who started CAWS out of her own house and provided such a delicious lunch (and also delicious avocados from her own tree). You are doing amazing work! Here is the whole crew at the end of the day (from left to right: me, Dr Braun’s husband and assistant Kurt, Diana, Dr Braun, Joseph, Sarah and Mandy):
The ride home went without a hitch, Diana discovered excitedly that you can get 10 bananas for a Belizean dollar, and we began rounding up dogs for the next spay and neuter clinic in Hopkins the next day. Stay tuned for our next set of adventures in Belize with Dr Marie Simard and the veterinary students from Faculte de Medicine Veterinaire vet school in Quebec!
-Britt Vivian, Sarah Hall, and Diana Shum (Team VHS)