photoThe MAWS cottage, where volunteers stay while working at MAWS, has started to feel like my second home.  I settle quickly into my routine: Up at 6:15 to go for my morning run (something I NEVER do at home). Scoop frogs out of the dogs’ water bowl (8 the other morning- a record!). Give all the dogs a scratch as I do my stretches, then head out the gate for a half hour of jogging as the sun comes up. The Ring Neck Doves are the first to start singing each morning- usually about 15 minutes before I want to get up- but as I run, the birds start coming to life, filling the air with a wonderful cacophony of lorries, hornbills, plovers, and starlings. My regular running route is partially submerged this year, after heavier than normal rains, but getting my feet soaked as I cross the swamp is refreshing. I get back to the cottage, make my brekkie and coffee, and my colleagues and I all head down the road to the clinic. And so starts my day.

Assessing a dog with Distemper

MAWS, the Maun Animal Welfare Society, is a non-profit organization in northern Botswana whose objective is to provide sterilization, vaccination, and basic medical services to communities throughout the Delta, and by doing so control dog and cat overpopulation and the spread of diseases like Rabies and Canine Distemper throughout the environmentally sensitive and ecologically divers Okavango Delta area. MAWS relies entirely on the services of volunteer veterinarians and veterinary nurses to provide these services. Currently the group operates on about 2500 dogs and cats per year- no small feat considering how vast an area their services cover. (The dog in the image to the left was found showing signs of distemper and had to be put down).

Despite my routine, every year is a bit different in that there’s a different group of volunteers with each visit. Thus far I’ve been extremely lucky in that I’ve gotten along well with my colleagues, both from a work perspective, as well as socially- very important when spending 24 hours a day with a bunch of people you don’t know. At this point in my MAWS career, I’m considered an old-timer with 4 visits under my belt. Mark, one of the other vets, is making his 2nd visit, while Mair and Gaya are both newbies.

I arrived here on March 27th, and the next day I hit the ground running, setting off with the group to Chanoga, a village about 30kms east of Maun, to do an outreach project there. MAWS regularly provides services to villages around the Delta, setting up a temporary clinic carried in the back of the bakke (our trust Toyota truck) and setting up shop for one to several days in a remote area. These projects, I’ve found, can go one of three ways. They can be well attended and insanely busy. They can, despite ample forewarning of MAWS’ arrival on a certain day and time, be met with complete disinterest and few, if any, people attending. Or they can go the way of this project- a slow start with nobody waiting upon our arrival, then a gradual surge over the course of the morning as word gets out that we’re here. Overall it was a successful first day, but we learned that attendance the following day, a Sunday, would likely be minimal. Our planned 2 day project was shortened to one.

Outreach is always a highlight of my trips here, but it’s a lot SONY DSCof hard work packing up the truck, double checking the packing list to ensure nothing was missed (the Rabies vaccine didn’t make it with us on this trip), unpacking and setting up shop quickly, and crossing fingers that people will show up with their dogs and cats. Dogs on leashes made of rope, palm leaves, bailing wire. Cats in bags, cardboard boxes, or swaddled firmly amongst all the people with dogs. Once the mobile clinic is set up we all jump into our designated roles and motor through the procedures du jour in as timely and orderly a manner given the organized chaos that can sometimes arise when a bunch of dogs and occasional cats converge.

Even at a busy project, the interest generally dies down and people wander away, with the exception of the local kids. They will generally hang out for the day, being entertained by our work, and entertaining us in return. Some try to help, many get too close, most just politely watch, and take their dog away when it’s ready to go. At the end of the day, we pack up our truck and head back to town.

Pregger spayWork at the clinic can be just as challenging, although generally without the audience. We request a set number of dogs, and Nation, one of our incredible assistants, will deliver them late in the afternoon so they’re there for us in the morning. Once he’s unloaded the following day’s patients, he picks up that day’s recovered surgical patients and delivers them back to their homes. Having joined him on the occasional house call, how the dogs get to the right home is no small feat. Maun is a sprawling village of random paved and dirt roads, and someone unfamiliar with the area could get lost quite easily. (In the image to the left, Dr Spooner spays a rather pregnant bitch).

Work starts promptly at 8, tending to any hospitalized cases first, then moving on to the spays and neuters. Since there haven’t been any nurses on this trip, the veterinarians have been rotating through the nurse role, tending to all the dogs and cats out throughout their surgery from knocking them out to delivering them back to theClinic dogs-1 recovery kennel. Surgery, I’ve learned, is an easier job by far! We routinely do 20 dogs a day with 2 surgeons working. Plus there are almost always walk-ins needing medical or surgical attention- everything from vomiting and diarrhea to hit-by-car dogs.

And such is my life at MAWS. The working conditions can be challenging, but it reconnects me with why I became a veterinarian in the first place. The pay sucks, but as I’ve said time and again, it gives me great joy, and helps recharge my batteries for another year of work back in Vancouver.

















As I sit in OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg awaiting the final leg of my trip to Maun, Botswana, I am reminded that this is where music of the 70s and 80s comes to get a few last plays before being retired. Tie A Yellow Ribbon, MacArthur Park, several hits by Air Supply…you get the picture. I’ve just arrived on a red-eye from Hong Kong after having spent 3 very busy days in Hanoi, Viet Nam visiting my friend Keith who now owns a restaurant there. Some of you may recall Keith from The Kolachy Shop around the corner from the original Yaletown Pet Hospital, on Beatty. He sold the shop, went on a world tour, went to Viet Nam for a week, and hasn’t left yet. And after 3 days there I can see the appeal.

SONY DSCHanoi is a noisy, dirty city of about 9 million people, and I loved every minute I was there. The primary mode of transportation is scooters and motorbikes. Due to 300% vehicle tax, cars are prohibitively expensive, and considering the width of many streets, the size of the load being transported, and the ‘I must get to my destination before everybody else’ mentality of drivers, a car without dents or scratches is a rare thing.

My hotel was in the Old Quarter- part of the original 1000 year old city, and I spent most of time there taking in all the sites and sounds and smells the city has to offer. There is no grid system to streets, as per North American standards, so getting lost is easy. Streets or blocks are arranged by trades- Silk Street, Shoe Street, Metalsmith street- so if you need something, you know where to go. I also saw blocks of feather boas, loud fabrics, bamboo ladders…. Interspersed amongst these shops are a multitude of cafes and pho shops, all of them filled with customers sitting at tiny plastic tables on tiny plastic chairs, crammed tightly together.

The omnipresent curb side cafe

Property in Viet Nam is also expensive, so even in the countryside, buildings are built tall and narrow, and often accommodate several generations of the same family. Tall and narrow applies especially in the city. Very few storefronts are more than 10-12 feet wide, and many are considerably narrower, tucked into alleyways or under stairwells.

Exploring the Old Quarter, rarely was I able to take more than a few steps on a sidewalk. Sidewalks exist, but are usually covered with the aforementioned tiny tables and chairs, or parked scooters, or people selling their wares off the back of bikes and scooters. Sitting watching the world go by at Keith’s restaurant (The Moose and Roo), I determined that if you waited long enough, whatever you may need would eventually roll along on the street in front of you.

One thing I always pay attention to when I travel is the pet situation, and this part of my trip was no exception. This was first time I’ve spent Interesting mix of dogany time in a country where dogs and cats are both kept as pets, and also raised for food. Something we Westerners have a hard time wrapping our heads around. I saw all manner of dog- most small breeds like Chihuahua and Dachshund, but also a Rottweiler and a Husky (not a good dog for a hot humid environment) and an inordinate number of MinPins.

Spaying and neutering is obviously not a priority, but the dogs looked to be in decent health. That said, I saw a single veterinary clinic in my travels, whereas the number of restaurants serving dog (thit on the menu) was considerable. And while my tour guide said he knew of a good restaurant, I declined and went for the snake option instead.

Street foodI didn’t get too adventurous with food until my second full day. Keith was a generous host, and his restaurant makes damn fine Western food. I was encouraged to give it a go by Coloradan I met at the Moose one evening- we met the next morning for breakfast and wandered around looking for a decent place. Breakfast if typically pho- soup with meat and noodles (and cilantro- yuck!). Coffee came from the stall across the street, where we sat on, you guessed it, little plastic stools, knees above waist level. The coffee is strong and mixed with 1/3 portion of condensed milk. Not something I’ll typically drink, but when in Rome…

I left my breakfast date and went on a mission to see Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. It was too far to walk in a reasonable time, so I weighed my options and grabbed the second motorbike driver that offered his services. Typically they offer an hour tour for around 200,000 dong ($10). Tan, my guide, would give me a lift to the tomb for 100,000, so I hopped on. He was a very good driver on a good quality bike, and I felt more comfortable than I expected, so once we arrived at the tomb and saw the line of several thousand people waiting (it was 9AM and the tomb opens from 8-11:30), I decided to accept his offer and see more of the sites.

SONY DSCHe dropped me off 5 hours and many miles later, having spent an incredible day exploring Hanoi and the suburbs, crossing to the other side of the Hong, or Red, River on a bridge that was heavily damaged by bombing in the VietNam war, sufficiently that it is only used by bicycles ands scooters. For our first stop on the east bank, Tan took me first to his home so he could grab breakfast. His wife cooked up a couple eggs for me as well (with cilantro) and his two sons (4 and 2) sat beside us, one playing with my iPhone and the other playing with my beard. Next stop, Bat Trang, the village of all things ceramic. It’s hard to imagine how anyone can stay in business amongst hundreds of other shops selling very similar products, but since it’s been around a few hundred years, it seems to be working.

Then on to Le Mat, the snake village. Along the lines of the adage ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, legend has it that the snake god shared with the people that if they were bitten by a snake, they could prevent the toxic effects of the venom by rubbing the wound with the leaves of a certain plant. The name of the plant has been lost over the years (a bit of handy information to keep on hand, one would think), but a tradition has developed where eating the flesh of the snake will make you stronger- the more venomous the snake, the stronger you will become, so the cobra has risen to the top of the snake menu in that part of the world. One can enhance these effects by eating the heart of the snake, and by drinking its blood and/or bile mixed with a local alcohol. I know my limits.

Cobra 5 WaysWe dined on a lunch of fresh cobra, including cobra stir-fried with mushrooms (but no cilantro-yay!!!), barbecued cobra, fried cobra skin, and ground cobra bone mixed with sesame seeds and spices (all of which were quite tasty, although the meat is a bit on the rubbery side). Lunch was followed by tea and cigarettes with Thanh, our host and cobra wrangler, then we hopped on the bike and backtracked to the Old Quarter. Tan’s knowledge of the city and local history is exceptional, making for one helluva good day. Keith and I finished it off with dinner at a local restaurant one street over- his lovely wife Tien had stay and watch over the restaurant. The food was exceptional, and 5 courses, a couple beer, leftovers and some takeaway for Tien, came to about $20.

Keith, Tien and Rob at the Moose and Roo

Yesterday was spent backtracking through town supporting the local economy with my last few dong on things I’d seen while wandering aimlessly the previous few days. Had it not been for Keith and his lovely wife, Tien, living in Hanoi, I don’t know how high up my list of places to visit it would have climbed. Having spent a few days there, I can safely say I will be back.


Next post: Botswana- Round 4

Winter Hazards for Dogs and Cats

January 7, 2013

Happy New Year, and welcome to the long grey period other parts of the country call winter. Although we do have bragging rights to the mildest climate in the dominion, we also get to brag about lots of wet, cloudy days, and the highest population of people in Canada who don’t have a clue how to […]

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Tis the Season…

December 12, 2012

The festive season is upon us once again, and with it, all the traditional food, festivities and decorations that go along with it. We all want nothing but happiness during the season, but along with the fun come some dangers that you may not think about if you’re not looking at it all from a […]

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A Weekend on the Delta

June 11, 2012

Day 7- April 20- An Early Reward for Hard Work We woke bright and early, looking forward to our trip to Vumbara. We checked in on our two overnighters at the clinic- both were doing well and were to be discharged later in the day. Richard picked us up promptly at 8:30 and we made […]

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Dr Spooner’s Excellent Adventure- 2012 Edition- part II

May 20, 2012

Day 4- April 17- We Hit the Ground Running I find myself getting back into the routine. We all met at the MAWS clinic for 8AM- all our patients were already present, having been dropped off the day before- Nation goes and picks up dogs from the surrounding villages mid-day, by which time our surgeries […]

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Dr Spooner’s Excellent Adventure- 2012 Edition

May 10, 2012

Through trial and error I have come to the conclusion that the most effective way to write a blog, even if it isn’t immediately posted (due to dodgy internet connections in the country in which one finds oneself, for example), is to write as events unfold. My blog from my trip to Botswana last year […]

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African Adventure Part II- It’s about darned time!!

December 6, 2011

Now that we were old pros by MAWS standards, we were deemed ready for a few days of work away from the clinic- “trench medicine” by our spoiled brat North American standards. It would be an easy couple of days- Bronwyn, a MAWS supporter, had donated the veranda of a house on her property as […]

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Pet Identification Made Easy

October 24, 2011

You are right to be concerned about proper identification should your dog or cat become lost. Nothing brings such a rush of angst more than the disappearance of a loved pet. With proper identification you can greatly increase the chance your pet will be returned to you. Let’s take a moment to briefly summarize the […]

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Veterinary Professionals: Local Care, Global Responsibility

October 4, 2011

If you ask somebody what a veterinarian does, that person will likely tell you that veterinarians (with the support of their health care teams) are responsible for the health and welfare of pets and farm animals. Across Canada you will find hard working practitioners applying their skills in their own unique communities. Diagnosis and treatment […]

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