Consie von Gontard – Pioneer of MASH – Hardcore Animal Warrior
Emma: I believe that you were one of the pioneers of MASH, can you tell us how you got started?
Consie: I was vacationing on the island of Bimini in 2000 and helping friends at their dive shop. For years there had been a problem with packs of feral dogs attacking both the community and the tourists, who are the mainstay of their economy. For years the island leaders would pay a bounty to several locals to either shoot or poison the dogs. Obviously this option didn’t sit well with the locals or with us. There are no vets on Bimini, but visiting vet happened to be there doing a small clinic with 2 recent veterinary school graduates. I offered to help with their clinic while I was there. The two recent graduates are still treasured friends, as a matter of fact, my dog, Martha, is named in honor of one of them. The initial clinic needed some upgrades, upon returning home, I began researching online to see who could help. I came across an article about RAM (Remote Area Medical) which provided both human and veterinary services in rural Appalachian communities for their animals. I contacted their Director of Veterinary Services, Dr. Eric Davis, and told him what I wanted to do and asked for his help. I knew we could do it better and more importantly, needed to do better for the animals and the community. Eric offered to send a team to Bimini and walked me through the planning and logistics. He mentioned the need for field anesthesia machines, which increased the safety of the animals undergoing surgery. We were able to acquire 2 field ready anesthesia machines with his help. I was lucky enough to find the right people to help and to educate me on conducting safe and efficient field clinics. Never be afraid to ask for help! I purchased traps and asked (begged!) for donations. We realized once or twice a year was not enough to meet our goal of stabilizing the dog population, so we increased our clinics to every 3 months. We also went into the schools and talked to the students about pet care, dog bite prevention, and the need for spay/neuter to control the population. At the end of that first year, there was negative population growth. The estimated dog population, when we arrived, was 1,500-2,000 and the island is 7 miles long and roughly 300 yards across.
Emma: What was your motivation to do that Consie?
Consie: Well, someone had tried to help, but I knew we could do better. You need the community to witness good, safe medicine being performed by professionals to get them to trust you. We continued that program, which we call “Just another Spay in Paradise” from 2000-2003 on the island of Bimini and it was very successful.
Emma: That’s incredible, well done! No one was doing it back then. You know, Eric Davis also gave me advice and a “V-tray” in 2003, when I was starting up. He is an amazing man, with no ego, who has helped so many of us. What did you do next?
Consie: Eric asked me to work with ISLA Animals on Isla Mujeres, MX to help them with their clinic preparations. They didn’t have much experience setting up trapping plans and capturing the community street dogs. We spent the better portion of the year discussing and implementing plans and preparing for the upcoming field clinic. I ended up flying to Isla to ensure that things went smoothly. It was then that I met Dr. Susan Monger, who was coordinating clinics there at the time. During this time, Dr. Davis wanted to expand spay/neuter to other communities in need both in the U.S. and Internationally. The program was moved to HSUS and the name changed to RAVS – Remote Area Veterinary Services – RAVS focused on Native American Reservations, as there are different regulations for vets on reservations, the teams could sterilize cats and dogs on sovereign land, plus at the same time, the students could gain surgical and clinical experience under the direct supervision of seasoned veterinarians. Dr. Monger, the International Director for RAVS. She and I were a good team, I don’t have the medical side – well, not like a vet does – and Dr. Monger didn’t like the trapping or coordinating volunteers as much as she loved the veterinary medical work. I handled the minutiae of non-veterinary details and Dr. Monger handled the infinite number of surgical and clinical details. Together we were the perfect team!
Emma: That had to be an amazing time! Where did you work in while you were in Mexico?
Consie: In 2003, we were everywhere – Isla Mujeres, San Jose del Cabo, Todos Santos…all over! These were training clinics, we would bring in Mexican vets and they would receive 2 days of HVHQSN training, then the clinic would open with a combination of US and Mexican vets. They worked on suture knots, sterile procedures, anesthesia protocols, pain management, etc. The concept, like the old saying goes, was to teach a person to fish…..more and more vets were invited in and it spread. Dr. Monger continues her teaching clinics and training to this day.
Emma: Where did your path take you?
Consie: Again, it’s all those relations ships that develop through volunteering! In 2004, the tsunami hit in Thailand. HSI called Dr. Eric Davis for help and advice. Eric knew I had the field skills and asked me if I would go to Thailand to help in 2005. I did and I met Dr. Egar and another disaster responder, spent 3 weeks going around dropping food, providing wellness, spay/neuter, and vaccinations in the field and in the resettlement camps. We cared for the animals that survived the devastation of the tsunami and that also included some of my favorites, the elephants, as well as other captive wildlife. Hurricane Katrina was summer 2005 and they called me to respond again. I ran ‘vet services’ for the Hattiesburg Emergency Animal Shelter. I was only supposed to be there for 10 days…I ended up making it home after 6 weeks on the ground! The first call I made when I arrived and was assigned the position of managing vet services, was to Dr. Davis, I asked him to send his people. The trust had already been built over time and they were such hard workers with experience in the field. My job was to support them so they could do their jobs. Through my relationships in spay/neuter, I was able to find people who did well in the field, and in difficult conditions. I was in the process of moving from Atlanta to Florida at the time - we were packed up to move. I left Joe with a packed-up house and a bunch of boxes everywhere and didn’t come back for 6 weeks! After Katrina, some serious recovery time was needed, but we finally made the move to Florida…….but not until after Hurricane Wilma. We started out planning our move for the end of August and ended up finally making it to Florida just before Thanksgiving that year!
A few months after Katrina, Hurricane Wilma hit Mexico, in the exact areas where we had done spay/neuter. HSI sent me in to assess the situation in Isla Mujeres and Cancún. I then got more involved in disaster response, I was a contract responder with HSUS and then with the ASPCA. But, I missed the spay/neuter on the islands. Then I met you! My heaven is trapping street dogs which I did for Operation Potcake. I, of course have 2 Potcakes, Martha and Paul. I also adopted a Hurricane Dorian survivor from Grand Bahama, a Potcat named Five. He survived an incredibly devastating Category 5 hurricane, hence his name Five.
One thing led to the next. I think it was Dr. Grant on Nassau that put us in touch because he knew I had the field experience. Operation Potcake was in 2013 and we fixed what - 2,315 dogs give or take? Not too bad, eh? I ran the trapping, and you the 5 clinics. It was the biggest event held thus far for spay/neuter and it was based off my Bimini project! This past June I was asked to go to Chernobyl to trap dogs. Because of all those positive relationships and connections that I had made over time, I am lucky enough to be asked to trap animals in the craziest places! International work is very different, you are careful to not step on any toes but provide help, respect local customs and beliefs and not try to take over - it is very important to be humble and aware of our impact, both positive and negative in the communities we are trying to help.
When we did Operation Potcake together, the plan and execution of it was spot on. The challenge there has always been the Vet Board, and they still are. OP was the first time anyone had approached an island that way - with mapping, multiple clinics, and a street dog trapping teams. We exceeded our expectations in the first week and had to hustle to raise more funds, we raised it and then did far more dogs that second week. Then, BAARK picked it up, they do what they do with what they have, it’s difficult with that Vet Association.
Emma: It was an incredible project, did you know that BAARK has fixed 10,000 animals since then? So cool.
Consie: I applaud the amazing BAARK volunteers for the perseverance and unwavering dedication to the Potcakes and Potcats of the Bahamas. They see so much suffering with the street dogs and cats. They have so many challenges to face with their small army of volunteers. I can only wish that the Vet Association and the “those that be” in government would allow outside groups like AB to come in and continue to help. The approach we developed in the beginning of multiple high volume multiple community clinics, spaced 3-4 months apart, could have made a huge difference for the Potcakes and Potcats trying to survive on the streets and in the bush…….I’ll continue to hold our hope that it happens for my beloved Potcakes and Potcats.
Emma: What advice do you have for anyone who is thinking about joining this field?
Consie: It’s all about relationships and networking. Over the years I have said my dream is this or that, and they come to help every time. It’s not like everyone can do this, but everyone can do something. People don’t understand the level of compromised animals we deal with. I think that can cause real anguish for some people. I have had incredible experiences in spay/neuter and I don’t care if I am sweaty, working long days or through the night, or crawl under dilapidated buildings, get peed and pooped on……often! We do what we have to do and get it done.
To talk honestly with them and tell them what it truly means when we deploy to places - that their judgment is not needed and preconceived notions must go - or else they will just get angry and frustrated. That often you will be received with hostility, but you must keep going. Using phrases like, “I can see that you love your dog” to start a conversation, even though the dog is not in great shape, it gives them permission to love their dog. It might not be something one does in their culture, to overtly love and care for their dogs or cats. You can’t impose our beliefs on them and expect a warm reception. Quite honestly, if you cannot do that, this is not for you. Seriously, when your entire tent blows away in the middle of the night, you had better be able to laugh (Barbuda 2018).
Our volunteers come from every walk of life, we are all very different, but when you find the ones that make the sacrifices to help these animals and can laugh through all the craziness……..well, it’s magic, just pure magic.
Emma: What about for disaster response, how to do you get into that?
Consie: You volunteer at the bottom and you prove yourself and expand from there. You cannot just walk in and expect to get a paid position. You have to self-learn, take courses. There are very few paid jobs and it’s often part-time work. Disaster work is feast or famine so to speak. Hopefully, we are never needed, but when we are, you need to know what you are doing and be both physically and mentally prepared for the work and what you are going to see. Really is who you know, it is all about relationships and building trust. I have always believed that people are much happier when they are volunteering and volunteering without any expectations.