We were so excited at the start of 2020 having received a grant from The Summerlee Foundation, to buy a vehicle and kit it out as a mobile veterinary clinic. While we’ve been supporting animal shelters in Cusco for years, with volunteers and financial contributions, we thought it was time to take a more head-on approach to the problem. And a mobile clinic, offering free veterinary care and neutering in rural villages, was the way forward.
We got off to a great start back in February 2020 with our first veterinary care and sterilisation campaign. and then the pandemic happened. Peru was on full lockdown for months and even when restrictions started easing, bi-weekly changes kept us guessing at what was going to happen next.
However, in the second half of March this year, with more consistency in the rules, we decided it was time to get started again! We employed our brand-new veterinary team - Joel, our head vet, Anally, our veterinary assistant and Alan, our driver and admin assistant -, upgraded the inside of the van, stocked up with medicines and supplies (thanks to a grant from the Jean Sainsbury Foundation), set up our mobile app database and got to work!
The First Two Weeks
We are now 2 full weeks into the program and have completed our initial visits to four of the smaller villages: Quillahuata, Misciuno, Yuncaypata and Ticapata. In total, the team has registered 268 dogs and 68 cats (and a sheep!), to whom they have administered anti-parasite medicines, vaccinations where appropriate and other specific medications, such as antibiotics to animals that are unwell. Joel and Anally have started talking to the families about getting their animals neutered and are taking any opportunity they get to educate the kids (since they’re the ones who generally care for the dogs and whose attitudes will bring about long-term change), about what dogs need to be healthy.
Everyone loves puppies!
So far, a big proportion (36% total, and as high as 50% in one of the villages) of the dogs we have seen are under 1 year old and only 14% are over 5 years old. Un-spayed females can have three or four litters a year, which means their owners are constantly having to work out what to do with the puppies. They will often give them away to their neighbours and relatives, or take them to Cusco to sell them in the markets (those that are not sold, are often abandoned at the end of the day). Interestingly though, a large number of the puppies we saw seemed to come from outside the villages, given to kids by relatives or friends and some are even bought in the markets too!
Where are all the adult dogs?
That’s a good question. When we talk to the villagers, they tell us some dogs “just disappear” (since they tend to be free roaming), but many die in car accidents, from injuries incurred in fights, or after eating something they shouldn’t have; sometimes they are even poisoned. During a survey, one woman told us that when she complained to her neighbours about their dog biting her son (twice!), they unfortunately had the dog killed. And our experience tells us that is not a unique occurrence.
Another interesting thing we have heard is that Yuncaypata – a small village of 120 houses, just off one of the three main roads that leaves Cusco – has become a bit of a dumping ground for unwanted dogs. City folk buy (or rescue) cute little puppies and take them back to their apartments, but when they get big, they are harder to care for. So, the owners jump in their cars, drive out of Cusco and abandon the animals on the side of the road. The dogs head off towards the nearest settlement (Yuncaypata), and the people there – who seem to be more animal-welfare focused than others – will either take them in, or at least make sure they are fed. In fact, Yuncaypata was interesting compared to the other villages so far, as 67% of the dogs we registered were 1 year or older.
What are the biggest issues?
It is very uncommon for dogs to be fed proper dog food, instead they get whatever the humans are eating. The biggest problem with this, is that dogs and humans have very different dietary needs (and human nutritional needs are often not met by the diets in these villages), so a bowl of soup or a plate piled with potatoes and rice, just isn’t going to give the dog the right balance of nutrients. Joel commented that many of the dogs they’re seeing are aneamic, because of poor diets. But most people can’t afford to buy commercial dog food and cooking separate food for dogs is a completely foreign concept, so the team has their work cut out trying to educate locals about canine nutrition.
The Boy Problem
When we start offering to neuter dogs, we know that almost everyone will jump at the chance of spaying their females, but convincing owners of male dogs is going to be a challenge. Those who only own male dogs never have to deal with the consequences of not sterilising their animals, so they don’t take on the big expense to do so. And even if the operation is free, owners still might not get their male dogs castrated: there is a pervasive attitude in Peru (perhaps tied to machismo culture, but that’s a whole separate discussion) that male animals have the right to stay intact and to breed. So, we’ll need to work hard to convince locals of the benefits of neutering all the dogs!
Where to from here?
The plan is to visit another five villages in the area, register their dogs and start treating them. Some of these communities are a lot bigger, with up to 700 families living there! We will also revisit each village every couple of months to make sure dogs are up to date on their de-worming and flea treatments, as well as vaccinations.
Now that we have a lot of dogs registered, we will start offering to neuter them, free of charge. Ideally, we’ll neuter all registered dogs that are healthy enough and by operating on as many dogs as possible in one village, before moving to the next, we would hope that soon, there won’t be any puppies born locally in these communities. In the long run, when people are looking for new dogs, we’d like to be able to convince them to adopt from animal refuges, like our partner shelter, Soy Callejerito, rather than buying them.
We are so happy to be up and running again and have been really pleased with the uptake so far. The villagers welcome us in, give us a space to work from and get their dogs the treatment they need. We look forward to continuing our work and starting with the sterilisation aspect of the program in the coming weeks.