By Hannah Weitzenfeld, DVM
When I was first invited by SPCA International to volunteer at Spay Panama, I had no idea what to expect. I was a bit concerned about safety, as well as standards of veterinary care in Panama compared with what I’m used to here in Canada. Upon arrival Patricia Chan, the founder of Spay Panama, warmly welcomed me at the airport. After an inspiring chat she brought me back to my accommodations at the center.
The next morning, I met with all of the veterinarians and volunteers, who were quite friendly and helpful. Most of the volunteers and even some of the veterinarians began helping Spay Panama after the organization provided care to one of their family pets.
On the first day, I had a chance to observe how the whole clinic is run. The morning was spent on spay and neuter surgeries, and in the afternoon veterinarians saw sick and injured patients. Volunteers worked at different stations, including registration, patient preparation, post-operative care, and instrument sterilization. Volunteers and veterinarians worked together efficiently and harmoniously, with lots of great conversation and laughter through the day. It was evident that everyone was grateful for the opportunity to care for these animals in need. By the end of the first day of watching this team work together, I knew that I was involved with a very special organization.
The second day had something entirely different in store for me and part of the team: the head veterinarian, Dr. Augusto Barragan, along with another veterinarian, a technician and myself, were accompanied by a few locals as we went on a spay and neuter expedition to a remote area called Playa Blanca, in Colon province, on the Atlantic side of the country. After driving an hour, we packed our stuff into a boat and headed over to the remote area. There, after sterilizing several animals, we heard from one of the locals about an even more remote area where there were more dogs that needed help. We packed some supplies into a smaller boat and rode over. At the location, there was no paved path - we walked 20 minutes through bush and among cows, to get to a farm where there was a dog that needed to be neutered and had some lacerations that needed treatment. We treated the dog, and the farmer was incredibly grateful for our help. After returning to Playa Blanca, the locals gave us plantains and coconuts to thank us for our work. What a great day!
After a few more days at the Spay Panama center, came the “Blitz” – basically a weekend spay and neuter marathon at an elementary school in an impoverished suburb of Panama City. Local officials and city workers spread the word to low-income residents that Spay Panama was doing a low-cost spay-neuter event in the covered outdoor yard of the school. On Friday afternoon when we got there, school children eagerly rushed to help us set up. They crowded the Spay Panama school bus to carry our equipment and supplies, and to set up the many tables for the different care stations. At first it seemed a bit chaotic, but with the leadership of the veterinarians and volunteers, the kids did an amazing job! Saturday morning, we arrived to a seemingly unending line of local residents with their pets – cats in pillowcases in owners’ arms, puppies in laundry baskets, etc. It was quite a sight! One by one, volunteers patiently registered, medicated and prepared patients for surgery. With 10 veterinarians working, we preformed 500 surgeries in two days, using primarily injectable anesthetic, with great success. After the procedures, pet owners waited lovingly, sometimes stroking or codling their recovering animals. Unfortunately, the following day it was time for me to return home.
This experience was eye-opening and inspiring. Not only did I learn a lot about organizing large-scale spay-neuter events and the quick-spay method, I came to appreciate the importance of empathy, team cohesion and community involvement. I am so grateful to Spay Panama and SPCAI for this opportunity.