Jessi Benn is a vet at the Summerleaze Veterinary Hospital in Maidenhead in Berkshire. During April 2016, she volunteered for an animal welfare charity called Maun Animal Welfare Society (MAWS), which improves the lives of domestic animals by providing veterinary services and education in Maun, one of the largest towns in Botswana. The charity is run by a small team of passionate volunteers who keep the clinic running purely through donations and fundraising. She tells us about the experience:
“I have always loved travelling and, during my preclinical years at vet school, volunteered with conservation charities in South Africa. Later, I developed my surgical skills by volunteering at a neuter clinic in Sri Lanka. I wanted to plan more trips once I was qualified because I wanted to make a real difference to animal health and welfare.
Having travelled to Southern Africa before, I was longing to go back, so when I saw the trip advertised on the website of Worldwide Veterinary Service (WVS), I knew it was for me. I had seen the project advertised back in 2014 but they need experienced vets because of the tough working conditions, so, this year, after 18 months in practice, I finally had the experience and courage to go for it!
I arrived on 5 April 2016 and was billeted in their volunteer cottage next to the clinic. My fellow volunteers were a vet from Australia and two vet nurses, one from the Netherlands and one from the UK.
Typically, our working day began at 8.00 am, walking, feeding, medicating and examining the inpatients, with conditions ranging from gastro-internal problems to fractured limbs. Once this was done, we began the main clinic work, sterilising up to 15 dogs a day and also vaccinating them and treating them for ticks and fleas. We worked until all the dogs had recovered then left the clinic for lunch in the sunshine before returning at 4.00 pm to check and feed the inpatients.
MAWS also runs a 24/7 mobile line for owners to call in regarding routine and emergency appointments for sick or injured pets so we would regularly have dogs brought in for weekly vincristine injections as their treatment for a TVT (transmissible venereal tumour).
The first couple of days were tough as I got to grips with a totally different working environment and I felt a little apprehensive. It was hot and dry with flies and mosquitoes everywhere and the operating facilities were … different. It took a while to adjust to injectable anaesthetics, the lack of monitoring, catgut sutures, re-use of needles and varying qualities of surgical instruments. To add to the already difficult surgery, many of the animals suffered from tick bite fever, which affected their primary clotting mechanisms, sometimes resulting in quite scary levels of blood loss. Still, I adjusted quickly – and soon learnt to love it, in the process becoming close friends with people who were strangers just days ago.
Overall, the trip was an amazing experience. Botswana is a beautiful country and I was lucky enough to go on weekend trips to the game reserves and Okavango Delta which are fantastic places to experience. Nothing compares to enjoying a glass of wine watching elephants play in the river under an African sunset!
Of course, our inpatients also etched themselves into our hearts. We were responsible for all of their care, every day and inevitably formed attachments. My personal favourites were Bobbi, a recently whelped bitch, who was hit by a car and required a hind limb amputation whilst still feeding her two pups; Spice Girl, a sweet but shy lurcher type being treated for a suspected pelvic fracture and beautiful Blossom, who arrived at the clinic back in March so emaciated that she was nearly euthanased on welfare grounds as no one thought she was strong enough to survive the night. After a couple of months of love, nurture and food she ‘blossomed’ back to life and into the sweetest, most angelic little dog you could imagine. I was so happy when she was finally rehomed to a loving family at the end of my trip.
This project has inspired me to continue doing charity work. I am already researching other clinics and projects, including Mission Rabies’ work in Uganda and Malawi. I am also fundraising to send more equipment out to the MAWS clinic.
If you are thinking of volunteering, I say go for it! We are in the profession to make a difference and to challenge ourselves and, from my perspective, it was the most worthwhile thing I have ever done. It will challenge your core clinical skills, intuition and adaptability, forcing you to think for yourself, without the luxuries of complex testing and equipment and embracing real in-the-field surgical techniques – but you will come back better and more confident. Be prepared for it being tough at times – but it will also be incredibly rewarding. It will give you an opportunity to see some of the most beautiful parts of the world and to meet some incredible and kind people”.
(CVS runs a scheme to enable staff to undertake voluntary work overseas. You will be able to take one week as holiday and be given one week as paid leave of absence.)