Guelph veterinary students volunteer abroad

GUELPH — This summer, veterinary student Michelle Horton will chase stray dogs in the streets of New Delhi in India.

She’ll throw a burlap bag over the cagey animals, then load them into a truck that will take them to a clinic for spaying or neutering before they are released again.

The crowded streets of India’s capital city are a long way from Guelph, where Horton, 23, shares a house with four other veterinary students and three cats

But she’s anxious to see the world, use her skills and learn about animal health care in a developing country where customs and practices are different from those in Canada.

“This will be outside my comfort zone,” says Horton, interviewed last week at the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph. “But I love travel and I love animals.”

Horton will depart for India in May with fellow veterinary students Natasha Asotra, Kurtis Tubby and Corey Biesinger, all of whom will return to begin their third year of studies in the fall..

The four are among 28 students from the college volunteering with Global Vets, a student-run program started at Guelph in 1997.

Student veterinarians are also headed to Thailand, Africa, Central America and South America to work on projects ranging from spaying and neutering stray dogs to saving sea turtles.

In Colombia, for example, students will help to rehabilitate wildlife rescued from the black market. In Kenya, they’ll educate villagers about healthy swine herd management. And in Phuket, Thailand, they will work on conservation programs to assist sea turtles and other marine life.

Students plan the projects, make contacts abroad and raise money to cover their costs. It will cost about $5,400 each, for example, for the students heading to India.

To boost their fundraising efforts, veterinary students have designed a “Mini-Vet School” to be offered once a week on Thursday evenings from March 3 to March 24 for members of the public.

At each session, professors will present information about large and small animals, and about surgery practices and other specialty topics.

In India, Horton, Asotra, Tubby and Biesinger will work on three projects over a six-week period. They’ll make farm calls in the Himalayan Mountains of Himachal Pradesh, a state in Northern India, accompanying vets from the local university.

“For us, it’s a learning experience,” says Asotra, 22. “We learn how to deal with clients with limited resources.”

They will also visit the National Dairy Research Institute, India’s premier institute for dairy research, at Karnal in the state of Haryana. And they’ll capture stray dogs in New Delhi, spaying and neutering them at a non-profit clinic called Jeev Ashram, which means “a refuge for animals.”

Asotra, whose parents were born in India, has seen packs of stray dogs running in New Delhi when she visits relatives there.

“They’re everywhere,” she says, adding that dog bites and rabies are a problem.

Like her fellow students, Asotra knows that part of their work will be to understand people’s cultural practices and religious beliefs.

Cows, for example, are considered sacred and are allowed to wander in the streets, she says.

“The people take it upon themselves to take care of them.”

The students are interested in India and its overpopulations, in animals and people, Asotra says.

“A lot of people talk about the human population increasing. What is the role of animals? In production and livestock, how do they cope with an increase in mouths to feed?”

Third-year veterinary student Samantha Salter went to India with Global Vets last summer.

Among her jobs, she worked with a university that provided free veterinary services to poor farmers. She assisted an advocacy group for camel herders. And she brainstormed at the National Research Centre for Camel, which is trying to sustain camel populations by improving farming practices and developing new products such as camel ice cream.

Salter also helped to catch stray dogs in New Delhi, later spaying and neutering them at Jeev Ashram. The dogs were wily, says Salter. Once one stray dog howled, the whole pack would scatter, she recalls.

“They have a communication system and they all run away.”

In one slum, people told dogcatchers to leave, says Salter, 24. “They wanted the strays for guard dogs at night. . . . A lot of people see them as pets (but) without responsibility.”

Salter, whose home is in Elora, says her experience in India made her even more convinced that the health of people, animals and the environment is interrelated. She’d like to work in public health in rural and First Nations communities after she graduates.

“My goal is to take what I learned in India and apply it in Canada. I can do so much more for the world.”

Horton, who hails from Buffalo, N.Y., expects her volunteer work in India will help cement her plan to work periodically in small animal clinics around the world.

In fact, Horton and Asotra say they’re part of a small group of students who have made a “pact” to do frequent stints in developing countries.

Asotra’s dream is to work full-time in India at her own mixed animal clinic, which would provide services to needy people.

Relatives in India are eager to help her, she says, as is her father, who has a PhD in science specializing in animal reproduction. She’s looking forward to graduating in 2013.

“There’s so much you can do once you leave here.”

Barbara Aggerholm , Guelph Mercury

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