The stout, elderly woman— think babushka — arrives at the makeshift clinic with her two aging dogs. The dogs are in good health, but she wants them checked out by the American vets anyway. Later, she returns, pushing an old wooden cart laden with kittens to be spayed and neutered. The woman has decided that she trusts these Americans, and they happily oblige. It is, after all, why they’re here in Sărata-Monteoru, Romania.
Among the veterinarians participating in this clinic, which was organized by World Vets (see sidebar), is Stacy Steele from Ocean Shores, Wash. Like most teams put together by World Vets, her group comes from across the U.S. and consists of three other veterinarians, five vet techs, one vet student and three unskilled volunteers with a strong desire to help any way they can. They’ve each paid a fee and their own airfare to come to this remote town. They will stay a week, spending four of those days in clinics doing multiple surgeries and providing needed care in an area where such care is considered extraordinary.
Companion animals don’t have an easy life in rural Romania. “For the last 40 years, dogs and cats have been dumped in the streets, left to breed,” says Dr. Steele. “There are hundreds running loose. Sometimes the army rounds them up to be spayed or neutered. Then they go to a shelter, but not to be adopted out. If people can afford a dog, they buy purebreds,” she says.
At their clinic, the team meets Dr. Dan, a Romanian vet eager to learn how to perform spay/neuter surgeries. Dr. Steele discovers that Romanian vets don’t receive small-animal or surgical experience in their training; their information comes solely from books and is focused on large farm animals. Luckily, Dr. Dan has relatives with small pets and was also able to get some surgical experience at a clinic. “He loves dogs and cats and is eager to learn how to spay and neuter,” says Dr. Steele. “He traveled hours from his home to spend three days in surgery with us. Dr. Dan will take the skills he learned back to his own town. It’s so gratifying to be able to help a local vet carry on this work.”
The locals are initially wary of the Americans, perhaps a remnant of the mindset fostered under former Communist rule. Eventually, though, more people and their pets arrive at the clinic. The team receives gifts of baked goods and fruit, even tuică and palinka (homemade hooch). “Just sniffing it burned the hair in my nostrils!” says Dr. Steele.
When a female dog experiences complications, Dr. Steele decides to reopen the surgical site. Afterward, the dog is weak, and Dr. Steele is concerned she won’t survive the cold night. “Owners leave their dogs outside at night in Romania; we’d see them in cardboard boxes on the front stoops,” she says. “When we release dogs to their owners and suggest they keep them warm and inside overnight … you’d think we’d just asked them to let a pig in their bed, or a cow in their kitchen! [In this case,] we got permission from the owner to keep the dog overnight, and we snuck her into our hotel room.” The next day, she was fine. Creative thinking and flexibility are critical tools on these trips.
According to participants, part of the challenge — and fun — of trips with World Vets is stepping outside professional and personal comfort zones and being immersed in a new culture. Dr. Steele had her first World Vets experience in January 2009, when she went to Loreto, Mexico. In some ways, it was the natural culmination of two years of personal change and growth. In 2006, she was married and working as a vet associate in a local clinic in Seabeck, Wash. The clinic’s owner decided to sell. “It was a big practice. I enjoyed working there, but did not feel it was managed well,” she says. “I had been there nine years. I could pour in lots of capital and effort to turn it around or go elsewhere. Two weeks later, I saw an ad for a vet practice in ‘a coastal resort town.’ I love the ocean. I decided the practice was mine. My marriage was on the rocks, my job was in limbo and I thought, I can go live at the beach!”
The marriage was amicably dissolved, assets were sold and split, and Dr. Steele took over that ocean-side practice in August 2007. One big dream realized. But owning her own practice meant she might have to set aside her other dream of traveling. Or would she? In a happy twist of fate, she saw an article about adventure travel, with a sidebar on World Vets. “I’d always been interested in Doctors Without Borders. Intrigued after visiting the World Vets website, I signed up for Loreto,” she says.
Dr. Steele encourages her staff members to go with her. She pays her own way and helps sponsor fundraisers to defray the cost of her staff ’s travel expenses. That year, they had a community dinner with a silent auction of items donated by local merchants. Calendars are another fundraising favorite. For a $5 donation, clients submit a photo of their pet, and people donate $1 per vote to select the 12 “calendar girls” (and boys). The pet with the most votes gets the cover and one month’s page, and the balance of the calendar features the eleven other top vote getters. The cover dog raised $250 in votes in the calendar’s first year, and the entire project generated close to $2,000, remarkable considering that Ocean Shores is a small town of about 4,000 people. Funds raised in these and other creative ways help Dr. Steele’s staff participate in World Vets, and a portion is also donated to animal welfare organizations like Progressive Animal Welfare Society and Old Dog Haven.
Michelle Smith, Dr. Steele’s lead assistant at the Ocean Shores clinic, had never traveled out of the U.S. before she went to Loreto. “The Loreto trip was totally a life dream come true,” she says. “It allowed me to combine my passions for animals and seeing the world. It’s great to see another culture, how they are with their animals, while bringing them veterinary care and education. I learned so much about injections and intubation; I now use those skills in the free spay/neuter clinics we provide four times a year in our own town.”
Michelle fondly remembers the gifts of food they received from the townspeople. “It was the best: homemade cheeses, enchiladas, tacos. The people are so grateful and show it with food and invitations to their homes. Great food, great people!” Michelle is looking forward to participating in a World Vets clinic in Peru later this year. (World Vets programs in Loreto have been so successful that they no longer include that town on their roster.)
Like other “voluntourism” opportunities, World Vets requires all participants to pay their way. “There’s a set fee for each trip, anywhere from $1,000 to $1,400, depending on location,” explains Dr. Steele. Every participant except the trip leader pays the same amount, plus their own airfare. World Vets chooses the site and handles in-country logistics; almost everything is provided — lodging, transfers, some or all meals, as well as vet supplies like anesthetics, gloves, antibiotics and sutures. “We also seek donations for supplies,” she says. “Getting supplies into a country can be a challenge. In Nicaragua, some of our luggage was ‘lost’; when it was returned to us, the antibiotics were missing. It takes a king’s ransom to buy a small bottle of injectable antibiotic there, so most likely it was stolen to be sold on the black market.” But despite the costs and challenges, the experience is positive. “World Vets is very good about providing safe, nice places to stay and a couple of days off to see the locale,” she adds.
Dr. Steele has brought clients along on trips to Nicaragua and Romania; one client has gone on to do additional trips with World Vets on her own. Other vets have done the same. “It’s addicting,” she says; in March, she went to Ecuador, her fourth World Vets trip. She delights in sharing her adventures by giving slideshow presentations for the folks back home.
Dr. Steele has a special and lasting reminder of her first World Vets experience: Oreja (“ear” in Spanish), a Mexican mutt she rescued. The sturdy little dog was one of many rounded up from the streets of Loreto and brought to the clinic. “I took one look at her and said, ‘She goes home with me!’” recalls Dr. Steele. Alaska Airlines generously agreed to fly Oreja and six other rescued dogs back to the U.S. for free. Oreja joined Dr. Steele’s five other dogs for a happy and healthy life beside the ocean. Dr. Steele swears she won’t be bringing her pack any more rescues from World Vets trips. Time will tell.[This article first appeared in Bark magazine, September 2011, and is reprinted here by permission.] Cover Photo: Dr. Steele in surgery in Romania in 2015, photo taken by Marian Boenheim.
MCCALL DIGEST UPDATE, MARCH 2018:
Dr. Steele broke her promise about not bringing more dogs home. Twice! On a World Vets trip to Romania in 2015, she met another dog she couldn’t leave behind, a small Dachshund-like pup with a severe overbite whose big eyes melted Dr. Steele’s heart. After spaying her and naming her Furnicuta (means “little red ant”), “Furnie” flew home with Dr. Steele and despite being the smallest of Dr. Steele’s personal herd of five dogs at the time, manages to boss the others around. Oh, and in 2017 in Nepal, she found another dog she to whom she said, “You’re coming home with me.” Dr. Steele describes Momo, a Border Collie-cross, as the smartest dog she’s ever had. After the recent loss of her oldest dog, a rescued Border Collie named Molly, Dr. Steele is now down to four dogs – Border Collie Karoo and three international rescues.
Since her initial World Vets trips to Loreto, Mexico and Romania, described in the article, Dr. Steele has volunteered with the organization at locations around the globe every year: Ecuador (adding Galapagos Islands as a side trip) and Peru in 2011; Guatemala and Mauritius in 2012; Grenada and San Andres, a Colombian island in 2013; Belize and Roatan, Honduras in 2014; Romania a second time and Cambodia in 2015; Thailand for an elephant sanctuary in 2016; St. Vincent/The Grenadines and Nepal in 2017. A non-World Vets trip but one where Dr. Steele saw plenty of animals was to Antarctica in late 2015/early 2016. Plans for 2018 include St. Lucia, Laos and Vietnam. She continues to drag colleagues and friends on these trips, fundraising to defray costs. Dr. Steele recently sold her vet practice and is retired, leaving her more time for traveling around the U.S. with her dogs in her RV, and helping animals and their guardians around the world on World Vets adventures.
World Vets is a nonprofit nongovernmental organization (NGO) that provides veterinary aid around the globe in partnership with animal welfare groups, foreign governments, non-governmental organizations, agriculture and public health officials, as well as a wide variety of veterinary professionals in the countries where they provide service. Its work spans 46 countries on six continents and addresses not only veterinary issues, but also human-health issues related to zoonotic diseases. They treat animals large and small, from cats and dogs to water buffalo, cattle, pigs, chickens, sheep and much more.
You can also find World Vets on Facebook.