My continuing obstinacy in refusing to take up scuba diving in some of the world’s best diving locations meant I was on the look out for alternative activities in Koh Tao and chanced upon an advert in the island’s information leaflet for the Animal Clinic asking for volunteers. I don’t have any veterinary experience - I have trouble just saying the word - my main incentive was Puppies! Kittens!
My romantic notion of volunteering at an animal clinic was shattered on my first visit to see if I could help. When I walked in, the vet was standing over an unconscious dog splayed out on an operating table. With a scalpel in one hand and an internal organ covered in blood in the other, she said cheerily, “Hello, how can I help?” She said I could come back the following morning and I let her get back to reorganising the dog’s insides.
When I arrived the next day, I was introduced properly to Jae, the clinic vet, and volunteers Sarah and Will from the UK. Sarah had another year of veterinary studies to complete before qualifying, and Will was newly qualified. With a tiny puppy recovering from mange sat in my lap chewing happily on my fingers, they told me about the clinic’s work. Their biggest undertaking is to try to control Koh Tao’s population of stray dogs and cats by neutering them. Even dogs and cats that have owners need neutering because the freedom that Thailand’s domestic pets enjoy means that they can pop out for a shag whenever they want. With new kittens and puppies able to reproduce in as soon as six and eight months respectively, populations can increase dramatically. Yet, many pet owners have to be persuaded to agree and requiring payment has proved counterproductive to an effective strategy of persuasion. At almost 1000 baht per procedure, with always another neutering to be done, and with no one to pay for the strays, the clinic relies on fundraising and donations.
At about 10am, the phone rang and I was given my first task: to hop on the back of a motorbike and help bring a dog back to the clinic for spaying. Although she was a stray, she was friendly with the owners of a local restaurant who fed her regularly. Having found homes for her most recent litter of puppies, they’d contacted the clinic to have her neutered. So, one minute, she’d been having a lazy day basking in the sun and the next, Emily, another newly qualified vet from the UK, had injected her with a pre-med and she was about to be whisked away to have her womb removed. She would probably be using a new patch of ground to kip on from now on.
She wasn’t unconscious by the time we arrived, but she was drowsy so it was easy to get her into the trailer, wrapped up in a sheet, where she slumped against my leg. It sounds quite easy to hold on to a sedated dog in a motorbike trailer. It isn’t. I didn’t want to hurt her by pushing down too hard, which was going to be the least of her concerns that day, and not even a minute after setting off, the bike hit a bump. The energy of the jolt seemed to flow directly to the dog’s muscles and she sprang to life, leaped out of the trailer and my pathetic grasp and bolted off down the road with me running after her as usefully as a shadow. The more adrenalin an animal has, the more sedation they need and it was another half an hour and two injections before we could try to get her back in the trailer again. So, I wasn’t much good at helping with the dog, but I could at least ride Emily’s bike back to the clinic.
By the time I got back, our poor dog was out for the count, laid on her back, legs akimbo. Will was getting ready to operate while Emily explained the procedure. When a dog is spayed in the UK, a large hole is made so the vet can see exactly what’s going on and where stuff is. In Thailand, where even the domestic dogs tend to run around free all day, chasing cars and tourist buses, a big hole is far from practical. Without constant supervision, the stitches tend to come undone causing their insides to spill out. So, Jae teaches her vet volunteers to make a small hole and feel around for things instead. It’s similar to using a dark bag to remove film that’s got stuck in a camera, only instead of a dark bag, it’s a female animal, and instead of a film, it’s a uterus and a couple of ovaries.
The procedure itself sounds pretty straightforward; first you use a ligature to make a tie and stop the blood from gushing everywhere, then you make the cut. Tie and cut, tie and cut. Emily drew a diagram on a Post-It for me. But Will also explained that being a qualified vet is very different to being an experienced vet, and he was now required to perform the procedure blind. A further challenge was that he was a left-hander having to use right-handed tools. We all get stressed from time to time at work, but when you’re knuckle deep in intestines trying to tell a bladder apart from a stomach, the stakes are higher than usual. Emily, Sarah and I left him to it and went for lunch.
Doctors are known for a somewhat dark sense of humour. With what they have to do on the average day, I don’t blame them. A story that Sarah told me showed that vets are no different. A friend of hers was training as an agricultural vet and was down on a farm helping a sheep to give birth. With her tutor, she’d managed to get one of the lamb’s hoofs out and it was a question of using lambing ropes to pull the rest of it out. With the ropes tied round, she had to pull hard. After a good deal of pulling, there was still no movement and she was instructed to pull harder. She’d already been pulling as hard as seemed reasonable, but mustered the strength to pull with everything she had. With a final, massive heave, the movement they’d been looking for suddenly happened and she fell back, finding herself on the floor with a leg of lamb in her hands. The lamb had been dead for some time and had started to decompose and so the leg had been pulled free from the rest of the body. I knew it was wrong to laugh, but I absolutely cracked up, but with my hand over my mouth and my eyes screwed shut, much like I do when watching scenes with the accident-prone vet from The League of Gentleman (which I could not stop thinking about for the whole time I was in the clinic).
After lunch, our stray had been sewn back up and lay passed out on the floor, and there were another two spayings and a castration to be done. All vets and operating tables were occupied while a strange buzzer kept going off somewhere in the room making the whole scene feel like a real life game of Operation. Sarah couldn’t find her kitten’s ovaries and began to wonder if it was, in fact, a girl and Emily pulled something out of her kitten and wondered ‘What’s that?” All the frustrations, unpleasant surprises and worries I’ve felt during the average day at work were all crammed into every operation. The most use I could be was to keep little-mange-puppy, and another one who’d been castrated that morning while I was out losing dogs, from getting under the vets feet (literally) and fishing ovaries and testicles out of the bin.
As Emily tattooed her kitten’s ear so the clinic would know in the future that she’d already been spayed, she asked me if my day had inspired me to be a vet. Apart from the practicalities of being too old to start with all the studying, I have to say there is no way, frankly. I love animals, but you need a lot more than that to be a vet (it struck me that vets seem to like animals a lot more than most of the doctors I’ve met seem to like people). “I don’t know about being a vet,” I replied, “but I should find it easier to watch an 18 rated film”.
Thanks to everyone at Noistar Thai Animal Rescue Foundation, Koh Tao, for welcoming me to the clinic and letting me see all the hard work that you do. As I’ve mentioned, the foundation relies on donations. You can find out more about it and make a donation at http://www.kohtaoanimalclinic.org/index.php.