Sandra, a vet from the UK, volunteered on our Sri Lanka project in September 2017. She threw herself into the day to day working of the project and proved herself to be a real asset to the team. Read her account of the first working day on the project.
The long awaited day was finally here, the first day of Mission Rabies in Sri Lanka. I was not quite sure what to expect, apart from expecting to go out and vaccinate dogs (as they say 'keep it simple', right?)
An early start saw us jumping/ rolling/ stumbling/ falling or even crawling out of our mozzie nets and ready at the breakfast table at 5am local time (silly o'clock back in the UK), all donning our bright yellow Mission Rabies T-shirts.
Once fed and watered, suitably clothed for a day of walking, and slathered in sunscreen we were picked up at 6am and taken to the nearby HQ where we were met by Sam and Mark from Dogstar Foundation who played a major part in the organisation of this project. We also met the cheerful and welcoming local team members who we were teamed up with.
After a quick briefing, we were allocated our various teams and once all equipment for the day was loaded into the respective cars, off we went. There were three teams (called Moon, Saturn and Jupiter) to vaccinate door to door (i.e. owned dogs) and the Flying Squad (driving around in a canine ambulance, how appropriate!) to find, catch (by means of catching nets) and vaccinate street dogs.
I was part of team Moon and we were a larger team today, as there was no surveying to be done. We were three volunteers, Amy (Mission Rabies staff), Ranga, our local team leader and his side-kick, who helped with catching any elusive owned dogs.
It was an interesting drive to the location for the day, heading past the hustling and bustling fish market, crossing numerous bridges and then navigating the never ending sea of tuk tuks, cars, lorries, buses, pedestrians and of course street dogs, that constitute morning rush hour in Negombo. Despite the apparent chaos on the road, the near constant chorus of horns being used to indicate an imminent driving manoeuvre (who needs an indicator, right?!) everyone seemed cool, calm and collected and there was not even the slightest hint of stressed drivers to be seen.
Once in our location, we agreed on the various roles within our team. I was to be the vaccinator for the day and as such got to carry a little cooler box with the Rabies vaccines and vaccinating any dog presented to us, provided it was healthy. Another job title was painter - this was the person marking each dog with paint on the head to enable easy identification of vaccinated dogs from a distance. This was very important from a surveying point of view, as we had to ensure that 70% of the local dog population in any area was vaccinated to ensure herd immunity.
Then there was a data collector, in charge of the team mobile phone. This person kept a close eye on the maps of the area to be covered for the day, ensuring that we walked down each and every road on the map (and any others that were not on the map). In addition to this, the data collector did just that: collected data. This involved using the Mission Rabies app and logging every dog encountered. By logging the dog, further information about the animal was captured, including the exact location, whether or not it was vaccinated on the day (and if not, then why not), sex of the animal, neuter status, rough age group, whether owned or not, how it was kept (chained, free roaming, kennel), overall health status, any signs of disease (e.g. TVT), skin condition etc. I was thoroughly impressed at the data that was collected and how this can be used to monitor trends over time, but also to assess what further work needs to be done.
Ranga, our local team leader had the PA system and put it to good use, spreading the word that we were around, vaccinating dogs against rabies, free of charge.
During the course of the day, we walked and walked, road after road. As we combed the local area, we saw many a dog, vaccinated here, there and everywhere, old dogs, young dogs, puppies. Some were better socialised than others, some in better condition than others. Owners were friendly and welcoming and despite the obvious language barrier, it was clear that our efforts were appreciated.
Snack time came around quickly, and allowed us to taste some local cuisine in a small roadside cafe and replenish our energy stores, before heading out again.
I must admit, walking through the semi-rural area in Katana was fascinating. Being able to see the houses close up, seeing people going about their daily routines and of course being able to observe the flora (coconut palms and lush green vegetation) and fauna (cows wandering in the streets, the odd pig tied up in a garden, leggy 'road runner'-lookalike chickens) was incredible. It was also interesting to observe dog behaviour at its best, in so many different situations.
The heat was something that needed getting used to. The heat would have been manageable, but combined with high humidity it was a different physical (and even mental!) challenge to be dealing with. I think we were all literally sweating buckets and staying hydrated was definitely a priority!
The dogs were mostly very similar in shape and size, with the odd purebreed dog thrown into the mix. It is clear that the relationship between people and dogs is not generally like the ones I am used to in the UK. Many owners are scared of their dogs and do not appear to understand the body language of their pet. Having said that, when rabies is a real concern and potentially an everyday risk, it becomes much more understandable where this fear may be rooted. Dog handling skills are also not always what I am used to and we did find ourselves gently advising owners on how best to restrain a dog at the time of vaccination. Occasionally, we had to use the dog catching net to restrain a dog for vaccination. I was impressed by the ability of the local team to use the net and also the consideration they showed for the dog in the net, ensuring that time in the net was kept to an absolute minimum.
Lunch was eaten in the field and a tuk tuk delivered us our lunch packets. A local gentleman invited us to eat on his veranda. As is tradition in Sri Lanka, we thoroughly washed our hands before eating and then quite literally dug into our rice and four veg curries. Getting to grips with eating by hand took longer for some, but it was good fun to embrace this eating habit. We had a slightly earlier finish on day one and left our zone at 2pm local time and headed back to HQ. Despite the early finish, our team alone had vaccinated just over 100 dogs, which we were very happy with. At HQ we sorted all our equipment out and ensured that supplies were restocked as needed, before heading back to our accommodation.
The evening was spent having a well-earned cold shower, washing our t-shirts ready for the next day, enjoying an authentic Sri Lankan dinner cooked by our host and of course exchanging stories and photos taken during the first day. It was still very warm and very humid and I was not surprised that we all started heading for our mozzie nets soon after finishing dinner.
I can't wait for what the rest of the project will hold!
If you've been inspired by Sandra's experience, why not take a look at our other upcoming volunteering opportunities!