Today, the Galápagos Islands are heavily protected, yet its unique wildlife remains under threat from the rapidly growing populations of domesticated animals, increasing competition, predation and infectious disease transmission. And it’s not only the wildlife that is suffering, the island’s pets and strays also face hardship, with limited access to veterinary care.
Based on the Island of Santa Cruz, the Galápagos Animal Doctors is a joint venture by Worldwide Veterinary Service (WVS) and Pan Animalia Galápagos (PAG) that aims to address the health, welfare and population of domesticated animals in order to limit their impact on the fragile ecosystems of the Galápagos Islands. Through expert veterinary care, population management, and community engagement, they are contributing to conservation efforts, and welcome veterinary volunteers to join them in delivering this service.
Melinda Hollinger is a licenced veterinary technician from Las Vegas who spent a week in the Galápagos Islands, with time spent volunteering at the Galápagos Animal Doctors clinic. She was kindly invited along by friend Jessica, a fellow veterinary technician, and the winner of the 2021 Wild West Vet Show passport competition: the trip of a lifetime to the Galápagos! Melinda works at one of the largest veterinary hospitals in Las Vegas and it was a drastic change of scenery upon arriving at the small island clinic.
“I've been working at Craig Road Animal Hospital for almost ten years, starting as an exam room assistant and then moving into the veterinary technician role. That is where I met Jessica, where she started as a veterinary assistant and I was able to watch her evolve into a Vet Tech which helped inspire me to do the same. It is one of the largest hospitals in Las Vegas with a dozen doctors, eleven exam rooms, two surgical suites, a dental suite, an advanced imaging system, and just a lot of things that have spoiled me.
The Galápagos Islands have always been a bucket list location to visit because of the distinct fauna found nowhere else in the world. So of course, Jessica and I entered to win. Jessica happened to win. Since we went to the conference together, she decided that we would also go to the Galápagos together, a choice that I will be forever grateful for. I will try to put into words the wonders I saw and convey my appreciation for this experience.
Our volunteer handbooks from WVS were very helpful in preparing for our trip detailing everything we needed from vaccinations required, and what to pack in our luggage, to what to expect on the islands. I started trying to learn Spanish in preparation. We travelled from Nevada and were met in Ecuador by Dr Ben Howitt who accompanied us for the remainder of the travelling to the islands. Dr Ben was an inspiration because I had read about him as a driving force behind the Galápagos Animal Doctors.
We arrived in the town of Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz on Friday afternoon. We started our volunteer trip with a couple days of vacation in a tropical paradise organised by Uniquely Galápagos. The town of Puerto Ayora was beautiful. Pelicans and herons begged for fish scraps at the docks. Sea lions snoozed on benches. Everyone we met was so kind, greeting us and thanking us for stopping by. There was live music and lots of delicious food options.
"Something I took for granted everyday, these doctors did without. And they did it well."
After a few days of vacation, it was time to start our volunteer experience. I had expected something similar to a spay, neuter, and vaccine clinic. But I was surprised at my experience there. The clinic was small, run by a crew of 3-4 doctors. Veterinary technicians didn't exist there. We really looked forward to helping out but weren't sure how at first. Our first day in the clinic, we started by monitoring a spay of a little dog named Frida with Dr. Sergio. But coming from a hospital with inhalant gas anesthesia machines, I was caught out of my comfort zone by their total intravenous anesthesia protocols. It was a whole different experience monitoring for that surgery than what I was used to. Something I took for granted everyday, these doctors did without. And they did it well.
They didn't need the blood machines that I so heavily relied on at home, because Dr. Erika manually read a blood smear prior to performing surgery on a suspected pyometra. Dr. Nicole set up a cat on IV fluids by calculating a drip rate rather than using a fluid pump. I expected their abilities to be limited by their access to supplies, but their capabilities were impressive. I was even shown how to castrate a cat, and took part in doing so myself, guided by the head vet to ensure best practice standards and patient safety. He was a handsome orange and white cat named Garfield and this was a completely new experience for us as veterinary technicians.
In the afternoons, the clinic saw consultations for all sorts of conditions. One dog was there for gastrointestinal upset, one for skin, and one for suspected seizures. I regret not starting to learn Spanish earlier because there was a language barrier at times. I may not have caught and understood every word but I could pick out familiar concepts as the doctors gathered the histories of the patients and made their recommendations. Chicken and rice was the best diet for an upset belly, whether in the United States or the Galápagos. I didn't have to know exactly what was said by the owners because I could feel the appreciation radiating off of them as they thanked the doctors for what they did.
Their services weren't limited to owned pets either. We visited a local dog rescue, Juanchita Al Rescate, where we were greeted by the muddy pawshakes and drooly kisses of 19 rescue dogs. We performed physical exams and treated for ectoparasites. I fell in love with a little girl named Esmeralda, who was such a good patient while I drew her blood for a 4DX snap test. Coming from Las Vegas, my ectoparasite knowledge was minimal. I learned about the prevalence of tick-borne diseases in the Galápagos because sweet Esmeralda was positive for ehrlichia and anaplasmosis, but happily asymptomatic. They actually are partnered with a few rescues in the town, from dogs to horses.
"In that small clinic, it felt like we were making huge differences in the lives of the animals, their owners, and the community."
On our last day in the clinic, I felt like I was getting the hang of things especially when a cat with a urethral obstruction came in. Blocked toms were something I did frequently at home, though there were differences. We sedated the handsome orange kitty. Why is it always the orange kitties that decide to block? Dr Nicole and Dr Ben were able to relieve the obstruction and flush as much grit out of the bladder as possible to decrease the risk of re-blocking. Because the clinic was not equipped to hospitalise the cat with an indwelling urinary catheter, the continued care was up for the owner to closely monitor the cat for urination. The owner seemed to take everything to heart, listening closely to the plan. I realised that there was a level of appreciation from these owners that I hadn't felt before. In that small clinic, it felt like we were making huge differences in the lives of the animals, their owners, and the community. I really enjoyed being a part of that. And I was able to leave a part of me there in the form of a handprint on their wall of volunteers, as one of the first veterinary technicians to help at that clinic.
The trip was a once in a lifetime opportunity. During our trip, I was able to see all of the legendary animal species. We saw the giant tortoises, the blue footed boobies, the marine iguanas, and a land iguana. We enjoyed the sun, sand, and water of the islands. Snorkelling was amazing. We were able to take in all the flavours of Ecuadorian cuisine. The island culture was lively and fun. I found so much inspiration for future art projects at home in their art galleries. The vacation aspect was so exciting.”
"I feel so much more confident in my abilities as a technician because I learned my adaptive capabilities in new situations."
It was also an eye-opening experience for me as a veterinary technician. I learned that I do take many things for granted in my animal hospital. I have a new appreciation for my anesthetic machines and my blood work machines as well as our readily accessible supplies like needles, syringes, and even leashes. But the trip made me into a stronger technician. I learned how to titrate and monitor total intravenous anesthesia, something that I had never done before. I was pushed out of my comfort zone and was able to experience so much more. I feel so much more confident in my abilities as a technician because I learned my adaptive capabilities in new situations. It really was an incredible experience that I will always remember. It changed my life. My goal is to return someday and do a longer volunteer experience because I gained so much from this experience.”
The Galápagos Animal Doctors clinic is an example of how veterinary care goes beyond treating sick and injured animals, preventing ecosystems from being disrupted, diseases being introduced, and habitats from becoming overwhelmed and overpopulated.
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