Sterilising in the Jungle – from Austin City Limits to Portobelo Beaches

The below article has been contributed by one of our amazing volunteers, Lynette Strickland, who helped us out at our clinic in Cacique in August. Lynette is currently working at Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution and took time out from her busy schedule to come and help us. Read on to find out the differences between volunteering in different countries!

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From the ages of 4 to 21 the only thing I knew for certain about my life is that I would be a veterinarian. Shows how much we know about our own lives, because I did not become a veterinarian. But I knew at least that to become a veterinarian I needed to go to college, a feat no one else in my family had yet accomplished. Fast forward 14 years to the end of my first year in University when I’ve just started volunteering at a non-profit spay/neuter clinic in my hometown, Austin, Texas. This place was more-or-less a warehouse turned clinic, funded almost entirely through community donations, volunteers, and vets who worked pro-bono. I was extremely honored and humbled to work with such a large, dedicated team of people. I learned a lot through my time here, but mostly that the most rewarding work is never the most glamourous—actually, it doesn’t even come close. Covered in unknown animal fluids (and really, you don’t want to know) with cats shooting out of cages, drugged dogs howling in the most out-of-synch chorus, and the occasional surprise of the day; we worked hard to sterilize animals at a low cost for communities that could not afford this care otherwise.

Fast forward a few more years and I’m still volunteering in the same clinic but quickly realizing that my passions are leading me other places, namely towards a question-based form of science. Around this same time, I also got an up and close look at an amputation of a dog’s right leg, and could only stare on with a face that I’m sure conveyed sheer horror. Needless to say, the life of a veterinarian was probably not the right path for me. However, through my ever-flourishing passion for research it would be nearly three years later that I would find myself living off and on in one of the most fascinating geographic locations, the Isthmus of Panama. Here I live in a tiny semi-jungle town about an hour away from Panama City, pursuing my own research on one of my greatest loves in life, tortoise beetles. While adventuring around tropical rainforests flipping over leaves to find the metallic beetle that spends its life on a single vine, I was gifted with truly loving and generous friends.

On an incredible weekend hike through the cloud forest of Chucanti, I met a remarkable woman and friend, Amy Bennett. We would keep in touch a bit over the next year, primarily through a mutual friend also living in said jungle town. So of course, when Amy sent out the call for aid, to help at a spay/neuter event at her home in Porto Lindo, I jumped at the chance! A couple of days with Amy (and that gorgeous house), the dogs, great friends, and the chance to help again in the same capacity I had once loved, I had to be there!

There were of course some major differences in how things were done. I had volunteered in a stable clinic that was rather organized; a cat and dog recovery room, patient check-in, patient check-out, etc. But there are a lot of similarities that come with a non-profit spay/neuter event. Most of it being the total chaos associated with administering anesthesia to dozens of nervous animals, while trying to keep everyone as safe and comfortable as possible. The most surprising thing for me was how close we could be as volunteers to the surgery. Watching testicles and ovaries being removed right in front of me was an interesting experience (and I’m pretty sure I had the same facial expression as watching the amputation a few years ago). Overcoming the language barrier was also a unique experience. As a non-Spanish speaker living in Panama learning how to communicate effectively is not new to me, but our crew of 11 had very mixed abilities to speak Spanish and/or English; particularly our veterinarians, as one only spoke English and the other only Spanish. Luckily, we had some volunteers who were fluent in both and full of patience!

The best part about the event was finding that the feeling at the end of the day didn’t change at all. By the end, we were all tired, hot, and sweaty, but extremely honored and humbled to be a little part of a change for good. I give so much credit to Amy for organizing, funding, and seeing all of this through. This is no easy task and she manages to do this with grace, love and fun! The effects of all of her hard work are certainly seen and felt, and I’m glad I got to take a day off from beetle hunting (still managed to get a bit of collecting in) to spend some time volunteering on the Caribbean!

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