Emma: Hi Liz, welcome to The Animal Warrior Series, thank you for our time. Liz, when I met you back in 2003, you were just finishing up with the Peace Corp where you were stationed on the Galápagos Islands. How did that happen?
Liz: Good to be here, thank you for asking me. Yes, my Peace Corps training program was focused on Animal Production, Agricultural Resources, and Natural Production. The Galapagos National Park needed a veterinary technician for one of their projects, so I applied and was accepted for the assignment in 2001. I completed 3 months training on mainland Ecuador before working on a joint conservation project with the Galápagos National Park Service and the Charles Darwin Research Station. For 2 years I lived on Santa Cruz and helped to conserve the endemic species.
Emma: How did we connect?
Liz: Towards the end of the 2 years, the secretary for our project got an email from you saying that you wanted to start a spay and neuter project for dogs and cats on the islands. That was in 2003, and then we kept in touch and I offered to help you however I could with contacts, logistics etc. when I moved back home. I was super happy to be part of a dog and cat project as I saw lots of dogs in the streets, a previous Distemper outbreak that killed over 500 dogs, no vaccines were allowed in Galapagos for dogs and cats at the time, and people’s relationships with animals, especially children, were just different. The kids threw rocks at the dogs and were often afraid of them. They didn’t interact with them or form social bonds. Dogs were considered working dogs, not family members. Most people at that time outside of the Galápagos Islands, didn’t know that there was a regular community of people living there, going to work, going to school, inhabiting the islands. Dogs were being hit by cars, being poisoned, and there wasn’t much vet care available.
Emma: Was there a vet there at that time? (in 2003)
Liz: Yes, Dr. Marilyn Cruz (now the Director of ABG, AB’s partner) and her husband David Dra. Marilyn’s passion is to help the community and at that time she was performing some spays and neuters at her house.
Emma: Can you describe what is was like to live so remotely in another culture in 2003 (*pre internet on Galapagos – communication with the outside world was via public phone boxes, or a satellite phone)
Liz: I love the Ecuadorian culture; people are super friendly, and this was actually my first experience living abroad. I played on the town womens' soccer team and found ways to integrate into the community. It was a very positive experience and I wanted to find a way to give back. When it was time to leave, I was ready, but I knew I needed to learn more skills in order to come back and help. Señora Reina, my adopted Ecuadorian Grandma who I lived with, didn’t think I would return. I knew I would inside, and I keep my word – plus there was work to be done!
Emma: Beautiful, what happened next?
Liz: In 2003 and into 2004, you asked Dr. Julie Levy if she wanted to help, she did, the 3 of us put the supply lists together, thinking it would be mostly dogs. We did a lot of logistics that year, all the gear went down to the islands on the SSCS ship. I remember finally getting back to the islands in May 2004 and going to Baltra Island to meet the first AB crew to come in. They were so overwhelmed, they had been traveling for 2 days and then I told them they had to get on a bus, a boat and another bus! The logistics getting to the islands back then was crazy, plus everyone had all of the clinic gear.
I will never forget, I was sitting on the side of the road in Puerto Ayora, in front of the “Where the Rangers Eat” restaurant, surrounded by H tanks of Oxygen (the big ones) and tons of gear. As always there was chaos on the dock as to which boats people were taking and where they were going and coming from. I had a giant roll of chicken wire on my shoulder and was moving it to one dock when you walked over, I said ‘You Emma?’ and you said ‘Are you Liz?’ you shouted back ‘wrong dock’ and that started our life-long friendship.
Emma: I remember that very clearly. It was the biggest roll of chicken wire I’d ever seen anyone carry and I was asking you to carry it further and you just said okay, like that happens every day!
Liz: I’ll never forget the look on the faces of the volunteers (and Checho the boat captain) as to how we were going to travel on these tiny boats for 4 hours plus on the open ocean with all of our gear. They were low in the water that’s for sure. When we arrived on Isabela Island for the first time it felt very peaceful and calm, there were few people and the streets were made of sand. The cow truck took us and our luggage to the backpacker hotels.
Emma: How was the first clinic?
Liz: It was amazing, as it was at the Giant Tortoise Breeding Center on Isabela. We built a big wire cage all around it and did co-housing for the dogs. The US volunteers were worried, but I knew from my time in the Galápagos the dogs would do better together as they are social beings. When they were in their co-housing cage, they would bark at anyone who would come to the clinic, they began protecting the team and the clinic. The dogs accepted us due to their social nature. We didn’t have supplies to house dogs individually, but it all worked out. We adjusted our mind sets, we adapted to the culture of the dogs and the way we handled them.
I was very nervous that we didn’t have everything, as we all were. We were remote and on our own, so had to have everything. We had been planning for a year though and the SSCS ship arrived while we were there, bringing everything else, it was fun to see all that come together. It was an incredible moment when we put that first dog on the surgery table, I remember looking across at you.
Emma: I remember, Dr. Levy was the surgeon and I looked up and caught your eye, smiling with a tear in my eye, then we got back to business. Were there any other key moments for you on that first clinic?
Liz: It was a struggle to get the dogs in at first. The guys picking up the dogs were using the Galápagos National Park truck and the relationship between the dog owners and the Park was strained at the time. We used a different truck and they guys wore regular t-shirts to separate them from the Park. We washed the dogs in the main square, we held dog training classes… and found 6 dogs tied to a tree without owners ready for class!!! It was tough to build trust to begin with. We opened the clinic to the public and invited them in. That changed things!
Emma: What is your favorite part of campaign?
Liz: Taking the animals home. As techs we are in the clinic all day. Nothing beats the wagging tails and kids coming out of their homes happy to see their dog. I just love jumping into the back of the pickup truck and getting out to meet the community.
Emma: In 2004, CIMEI was created to address invasive species (a collaboration of all the local institutions that Victor Carrion of the Park created and then he gave AB permission to enter) and became AB’s key partner on the ground. What was it like to work with this collaboration?
Liz: I was very excited to have a community contact on Isabela that was a government entity. It was a positive move to create supporting controls through spay/neuter activities. Dr. Ruben Alleman and Diana Vinueza, who were in charge, were fantastic and so were the helpers from all the other institutions. Even though each institution had sent staff on an assignment, they were all intrigued by the AB team, our work ethic and the sheer amount of equipment that we had arrived with.
Emma: That was probably the best way to get the message out to the institutions too, via their staff having practical experience with us. They went back and told their spay/neuter program stories.
Liz: I remember donating our syringes etc. to the local Sub Centro de Salud, the local community human hospital after each clinic. We had more supplies for the animals than they did for the community. The community, helpers and institutions saw that our intentions were sincere, and we provided a high quality of medical care to their animals. Of course, they didn’t know what to expect, this had not happened before. The ‘language barrier’ wasn’t a barrier as we watched and related and figured it out together.
Emma: How many AB clinics have you done?
Liz: I've lost count.
Emma: Me too! Which countries have you traveled to help with AB?
Liz: After a lot of Galápagos campaigns!!!... Dominican Republic 2007 and on, American Samoa was 2009, Bahamas for Operation Potcake in 2013…That was an incredible first time, massive multi-clinic MASH, although we had done many in the Galápagos on multiple islands at the same time and then in the DR, we had 3 teams, 3 clinics; red, blue and white clinics. I think Operation Potcake, with its 5 huge MASH clinics on Nassau at the same time in 2 weeks, plus a full-on street dog trapping team, showed everyone in animal welfare who AB is, and demonstrated the skill level of AB, for others to follow. I reconnected with AB in Aruba in 2016 and on a post-hurricane response spay/neuter clinic in Barbuda in 2018..those were some very challenging conditions and some amazing people!
My favorite part of these clinics, are going up into the highlands in the Galápagos with a small team and setting up in rural settings, on farms, surrounded by other animals and the families. One time I remember we didn’t have a good space for recovery at one farm, the young boy, son of the farmer, cleared off his bed. The taxi driver on the Galápagos knew how to handle animals kindly and was super helpful on those remote clinics. These people had no access to care so we approached it 2 ways, a stationary clinic in the town and a remote clinic from the pick-up truck. We would come back with arms of fruit and vegetables, it worked!
Emma: Were there other groups that you've volunteered with?
Liz: Yes, RAVS and Soul Dog on Native American Reservations in the US and I would go to Ambato with Dr. Lew and Dr. Diego to help with those clinics. I went with AB on the first Hawai’i campaign when you were introducing the ZMASH program. That was ahead of its time, I liked the methodology as we were targeting the males whose owners would not castrate surgically. ZMASH is a practical model in the right community.
(ZMASH = Zeuterin (non-surgical lifelong castration given via injection into testicles) and the regular MASH (surgical) clinic.)
Emma: Who would you say was the right community?
Liz: For those who don’t want surgical castration, don’t want the testicles to go, have cultural reasons, and it helps achieve population control, it would be useful on reservations, for remote areas as all you need is a back pack of supplies and we proved that it works as an efficient model when we were on Oahu as 50% of the calls were for Zeuterin. It was super useful in the boar hunting community there. I think it is very important that we look for other approaches for population control besides surgical.
Emma: How did you find the path to Grenada teaching at St. George’s University School of Veterinary Medicine?
Liz: I really enjoy living abroad, especially living on an island, after my experience on Galápagos and with AB around the world. I was teaching at the ASPCA in NY and I really enjoyed that. I could combine both with this position that came up on Grenada. It is very much like being on an AB campaign every day as we fix the community dogs. We provide free spay/neuter services to the community. I teach at the junior surgery and anesthesia lab. I help third year vet students who are performing their first spay/neuter surgeries. Grenada is a great learning and teaching environment. I just love riding my scooter home and seeing all the dogs running around with our collars on so we know they are fixed, although sometimes they chase me down 😊
Emma: It is perfect for you Liz. They are lucky to have you and your students have no idea! What else have you been working on?
Liz: A colleague and I started teaching a Shelter Medicine Selective course here. We use AB as the model example for spay/neuter, sustainability, and cultural sensitivity and humility for real world experiences for students. The guest lecturers that speak to the students in the course all come from the AB family and they share their volunteer experiences from AB and other similar NGOs.
Emma: You are incredible Liz. Is there anything else you would like to add?
Liz: Yes, I am super supportive of AB USA. It is great to see it happening because assistance for spay/neuter resources and trainings are much needed in the US too. I helped out at the first Tulsa, Oklahoma clinic with AB and I had quite the different packing list! It’s so great as many more volunteers can now take part as its 3 or 4 days and they can drive to them. It creates sustainability in the USA for sure, people want to help in their own communities and it’s a great way to include local volunteers.
Emma: Thanks Liz, do you have an ending comment?
Liz: The Galápagos is where it all started for me. Its come full circle, within 16 years, to see the whole shift happen there. Now there are vaccine clinics and each island has established its own spay/neuter clinic and laws to combat over population humanely. I am so glad I got that random email from you that day! I found my calling by meeting Animal Balance. I learned teamwork, cultural humility, and adaptability and flexibility…for my career and for life!!! Living and teaching in Grenada is where I am supposed to be in my life right now and I was inspired by all those AB adventures. I am so grateful for everything I have learned from Animal Balance and the lifelong friendships I have made.
Thank you, AB and Emma, for all that you do for the animals.