The clinic sponsored our lovely vet, Erin Dowler, to work at a clinic in Tonga for a week as a member of South Pacific Animal Welfare. While she and her co-workers affected the lives of so many animals, they only scratched the surface of the work that needs to be done there.
“I arrived at Auckland airport early Saturday morning, nervous and excited to be stepping out of all the comforts our little clinic provides. I met with 5 fantastic people, who I would soon share many good times with, and together we pondered our possible fates in trying to transport restricted veterinary drugs overseas.
While Tonga is only a short flight away, it felt a world apart from NZ. We arrived in a hot country where dogs roam with little fear of cars, cats crawl along tables, pigs go fishing along the coast and cows graze tethered to coconut trees. We cruised around the streets in cars with no working speed gauges, cracks in the windscreen, uncertainty about which gear you were in and some concerning noises. We soon realised these were some of the best cars around.
Our original accommodation fell through, so they had to put us at the beach house instead. No one seemed to mind the “inconvenience”. The weekend started on a relaxing note, so we could all get to know each other and respect the ‘no working on Sundays’ religious view. We caught a dinky little boat out to the beautiful Pangaimotu, one of the smaller islands, for a day in the sun and were greeted by the friendly local cats who felt they also needed fish and chips. The water looked glorious and I couldn’t resist a swim in the middle of our autumn, even if it meant risking jellyfish stings.
When it came to setting up the clinic, we walked into a building with 3 tables and somehow created a functional vet clinic. The team banded together and we were ready to hit the ground running… which we sure did. We were thrilled to see the community embrace veterinary care and saw a huge demand for it, with people and their animals lined up at the door. The majority of the work consisted of desexing, with the aim of improving the life of the animals and reducing the number without homes, but there was also work with sick, injured and even abused animals. The saying ‘you cannot change the world by saving one animal, but you can change the world for that one animal’ resonated true. Treating just one of these animals would have made the trip worthwhile.
A few cases will always stay with me. Pictured is Diego, a sweet little puppy who was hit by a car, suffering damage to his lungs and a broken back leg. He needed to be stabilised before returning for a limb amputation the following day. Without this surgery, Diego would’ve joined the numerous limping dogs that live with pain every day. Amputation is a difficult subject over there, so we asked the young boy who owns Diego to be proud of his dog and tell others how well Diego gets around. We also saved a dog which had been so savagely attacked by people that he cannot be pictured.
Euthanasia is generally not considered an option. There is a great need for education and more frequent veterinary care, so the lives of animals can be improved. The locals will generally bathe ill or wounded dogs in the ocean, hoping for a cure, as without permanent veterinary care available, there is no alternative. I hate to think what would have happened to some of our patients had they become sick or injured while we weren’t there.
The work pushed our team to the limit, so we made the most of our evenings to unwind as a group. We all stood united in the opinion that we would rather have a glass of wine than kava any day. The blowholes left us speechless – a phenomenal feat. We enjoyed a suckling pig feast at Anahulu Beach, followed by a cultural show in the stunning limestone caves, and Heilala Lodge was very generous in inviting us to a barbeque at their stunning beachfront location. They didn’t even look at us sideways when we showed up with a cat that needed continued treatment. We had intended to see Elvis in Tonga, but Diego needed us more, so Elvis had to rock on without us.
There was a great team of vets and nurses over there and being able to support each other with a smile made all the difference in a difficult environment. Everyone had the same goal in mind: to improve the lives of animals. It was touching to see increasing attachment and compassion towards animals compared to just a few years earlier. While the trip put the team through an emotional rollercoaster, everyone came away knowing our time there had made an impact.”