For 10 years, Vets Beyond Borders has provided lifesaving and pain-relieving care for thousands of animals across India and the Asia-Pacific region. Samantha Trenoweth talks to the inspirational volunteers who make it happen.
Helen Byrnes is not a woman who likes to remain idle for long. When she first heard about Vets Beyond Borders, she was working in her two Brisbane vet practices and helping her youngest daughter through the last gruelling years of high school, but already she was wondering what fresh challenge to take on next.
Dr Byrnes heard that Vets Beyond Borders was looking for volunteers to work in the north-east Indian state of Sikkim. “I didn’t know where Sikkim was,” she smiles, “but it looked exciting.”
That was in 2006 and Dr Byrnes has been travelling backwards and forwards between Australia and India ever since.
In recent years, she has been the program manager for Vets Beyond Borders’ Sikkim Anti-Rabies and Animal Health program (SARAH), and has become a seasoned traveller. But back in 2006, on her very first trip to India, the sights and sounds and smells of the sub-continent were overwhelming.
“We landed at the old airport in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) at midnight,” Dr Byrnes recalls. “On our cab ride to the hotel, we saw naked sadhus wandering the dark streets as we wound through the slums. It was astonishing. Then, on the day we were scheduled to leave Kolkata for Sikkim, the government called a strike. The streets were jammed with demonstrators and a travel warning was issued. We were concerned about getting to the airport because there were no buses or taxis operating, but the concierge at the hotel said, ‘If need be, we’ll call an ambulance and you can crouch down low.’ In the end, the hotel’s driver took a long and winding route and avoided the upheavals. I made it to national TV because I was one of the few blonde people at the airport that day.”
Volunteers en route to Sikkim don’t usually encounter such high adventure. From Kolkata or New Delhi, they can travel by train or fly into Bagdogra, in West Bengal. From there, the road winds, through tea plantations and forests, beside the cloudy peaks, valleys and gorges of the Himalayan foothills, to Gangtok, the district capital. It’s a four-and-a-half hour journey by car and Dr Byrnes never tires of it.
When she arrived in Sikkim, in 2006, the town was full of street dogs. “They were scabby and mangy and skinny,” she recalls, “and rabies was still active there. On the other hand, the area where we worked had a strong Buddhist and Nepalese Hindu sensibility, so there was an immense desire to do something to help these animals, as well as a great need.”
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Vets Beyond Borders’ primary roles in Sikkim, then as now, were to perform de-sexings and vaccinations, to provide clinical care to injured animals and to educate people about animal care and welfare.
“Most of my time was spent in surgery,” Dr Byrnes recalls, “lined up with a team of vets and nurses, all wearing our head-torches because the power kept going out. We performed one surgery after another all day. There were some local vets working with us but they were still relatively inexperienced in clinical work. So we provided the extra experience and training too. Like the Aussie vets, they were keen to learn. My husband, who had come along for the adventure, helped out too, doing a bit of nursing, painting, lifting and carrying—whatever was required.”
It was a life-changing experience. In the years that followed, Dr Byrnes volunteered in two more Vets Beyond Borders’ projects. The first was in Ladakh, on the Tibetan plateau. The second was in Bylakuppe in India’s south-west. By then, she was hooked. After her return from Bylakuppe, Dr Byrnes took on the role of program manager with SARAH. It meant that, for two to three months of every year, she was on the ground in India. This was made possible, she says, by her “fantastic staff” who ran her Brisbane practices like clockwork during her absences.
Dr Byrnes came on board just as SARAH was being officially absorbed into the Government of Sikkim’s Animal Health Department. Since then, the project has become a masterful collaboration between Vets Beyond Borders (which supplies program management and volunteers), the local government (which provides facilities, local vets, vet assistants and dog catchers) and Fondation Brigitte Bardot (which provides much of the project’s funding). It is considered a blueprint for similar programs that the Indian Government is rolling out across the subcontinent under the leadership of Dr (Major General retd.) Kharb of the Animal Welfare Board and Smt Maneka Gandhi (Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law).
“The benefits of the program,” says Vets Beyond Borders CEO Steven Heath “are far reaching and they’re not limited to the dogs alone. Human and animal welfare are improved by effective rabies prevention. And the reduction in the incidence of other zoonotic diseases, such as scabies, hookworm and echinococcosis, also contributes to public health.”
In Sikkim, the program has successfully created a healthy, stable, vaccinated, street dog population. Dog numbers have reduced to manageable levels, there have been no human rabies deaths in the state since 2006 and no animal deaths from rabies since 2010. The community attitude to the street dogs has improved and the local people are relieved that all this has been achieved without the need for violent and distressing culls.
For both Heath and Dr Byrnes, the most rewarding aspects of the work have been seeing the changes in local communities and interacting with the people—volunteers and locals alike.
“Getting involved with Vets Beyond Borders is the best thing that’s ever happened to me,” Heath says. “I’m doing rewarding work, I’m meeting the most welcoming people—both Indians and Tibetans—and I’m working with teams of incredibly dedicated, generous volunteers from around the world. We’re based in Australia but people volunteer for our projects from America, France, Spain, India—all over.”
Dr Byrnes agrees. “I love the interaction with the people. I also enjoy the challenge of switching to India time and to that Indian way of thinking—letting go of some of the linear goals that you’re used to from a Western point of view.”
This year, however, Dr Byrnes has some linear goals to achieve. She’s returning to university, she says, “to do some postgrad’ work that will focus on my project management skills. I want to be more involved with measuring how effective we are and how we can have more meaningful results, and to help more with program development.”
There will be ample opportunity for program development in coming years, as Vets Beyond Borders expands its operation into the Pacific. Its first Pacific project, in Vanuatu, will be open for business later this year.
“There’s no rabies in Vanuatu,” Heath explains, “so it will be an animal health and de-sexing program. Once the Vanuatu project is up and running, we’re looking at other Pacific island nations too because there’s a shortage of veterinarians in the area and it’s convenient for Australian vets to volunteer there for shorter stays.”
Vets Beyond Borders aims (rather like Mary Poppins) to create community projects in which it eventually becomes redundant.
“We want to do projects that are sustainable in the long term,” says Dr Byrnes. “So we’ll work with a local group, provide training and support and then, at some stage, there’ll be an exit strategy for Vets Beyond Borders. There will still be a link and members will still visit but, in the end, we want it to stand on its own two feet. So we try to work with a local partner who can take the program on and run it in the future. There’s a big emphasis on skill transfer and vet training.”
This year marks Vets Beyond Borders’ 10th anniversary. From a group of 10 idealistic vets with a concern for the health and welfare of street animals in India, it has grown to become a highly respected NGO, working in developing countries across the Asia-Pacific region. Since 2004, Vets Beyond Borders teams have vaccinated more than 65,000 animals against rabies, sterilised over 30,000 street dogs and trained hundreds of local veterinary staff to increase their surgical skills and animal welfare knowledge. They have worked with local governments to introduce humane alternatives to the mass culling of stray animals and they have provided lifesaving and pain-relieving care for thousands of animals who had never before visited a veterinarian.
To mark the 10th anniversary, there will be a variety of fundraising events. The most exciting is a trek through Ladakh for adventure-loving vets. The trek will run from late August into September and will take in the excitement of Old and New Delhi, a four-day hike through the towering Himalayas and a stint volunteering on a Vets Beyond Borders project.
“Veterinary professionals can volunteer for any of our programs at any time,” says Heath, “and there are always roles for non-vets too—in community education and helping out in our Australian office.
Click below to see a video about Vets beyond borders
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“Volunteering is a great way to experience another country and culture and to combine vet work with travel. This trek will be a special opportunity but our volunteers often combine their work on a project with trekking, rafting, exploring monasteries and temples, local art and music and cuisine. I don’t think Helen and I are unique. For many, it’s a life-changing experience.”
More information about Vets Beyond Borders, the trek and current volunteering opportunities can be found online at www.vetsbeyondborders.org.