Sunday, September 6, 2009

Hanna MacNaughton goes to Baja

(Recently, I had a conversation with Hanna MacNaughton, a vet who used to work at the Toronto Humane Society. We talked about her schooling at the Ontario Veterinary College, her extensive volunteer veterinary work in South and Central America and her employment at the THS. Here's part 1 of that conversation.)

"Chikito was the most pathetic thing. He was in this little run. His skin was sloughing off his back leg. He had this crazy upper respiratory infection he couldn't clear. He was this skinny little pup, really poor looking like he was going to die, so he became my project pup."

Chikito in cast

Hanna MacNaughton, just graduated from the Ontario Veterinary College at the University of Guelph was in Baja, Mexico with her husband John Booth. Both were volunteering at the Baja Animal Sanctuary. It was a trip Hanna had been wanting to take since first year at the OVC.

On a walk to the canyon with Baja Animal Sanctuary dogs

"Always, when I was going through school, I knew I was going to go and work in developing countries. I met my husband in first year, the first day of school, actually, and so throughout school he knew this was my plan to travel and so he kind of had to become okay with it and he was ... he loves animals and he loves to travel too. And so as soon as I graduated, we packed up our car and drove to Mexico."

Pup corral at BAS

It would be a year long road trip through Central and South America revolving around volunteering at animal shelters along the way. First stop was the Baja Animal Sanctuary where a pregnant female Pit Bull had been recently surrendered. The litter she produced was healthy except for Chikito who, besides his debilitating ailments, was only half the size of his litter mates when Hanna saw him and made him her "project pup".

Chikito on the beach

"Chikito, after he became my project pup, he just lay in the clinic every day and watched us. I was so in love with him. He went everywhere with me. He slept with me at night."

Hanna often uses the word "love" when she describes her attachments to various animals - though coming from her, one gets the sense it's not hyperbole.

Ear chew with Sharpies and Madda

There were around five hundred dogs and a hundred cats at BAS when Hanna was there.

One of the Baja cat rooms

The majority of the dogs were just found on the street, picked up when they seemed to be in bad shape. Sometimes people would drop off a box of puppies, others would call and report loose dogs.

"Capturing" two strays from the beach

BAS would turn out to be the best facilitated rescue out of the many Hanna would visit. The dogs were kept in several well kept corrals around the facility. It had it's own medical clinic and it was well supplied with expired drugs shipped down from the States. There were twelve full time permanent staff and various volunteers. And most surprisingly, the animal turnover there was actually very good with vans coming down weekly from San Diego to pick up dogs for adoption north of the border.

Me and my "beach dog" who I now choose as a walking partner every night because we think he is going to lose his eye sight soon. He has glaucoma. One eye is already blind and the other is in really bad shape. We picked him and his black puppy buddy up on the beach last week where they were abandoned. I'm trying really hard to get someone in San Diego to foster him. Then he could see an ophthalmologist and hopefully find a new home before he goes blind.

BAS was started by an ex-pat American woman but it was mostly staffed by locals.

"These people were so dedicated. It was an amazing group of workers. They were all people who had come out of rehab and this was their second lease on life. The main guy who ran it, the guy who was in a relationship with the woman who started it, was out of rehab and he had started working at the rescue and it was his saving grace. It gave him a whole new outlook on life and he fell in love with animals and animals became his passion instead of drugs. So, eventually, over the years, they only hired people from this rehab. It was a people sanctuary too because you know if they were down in the village they'd be exposed to drugs all the time but up there in the rescue, working with the animals, they stayed clean."

They were keen and eager to help but were lacking in vet skills. For example, BAS had just bought a gas anesthesia machine but no one knew how to use it. They had the staffing and the money and drugs to be able to treat the dogs but didn't have the medical knowledge. So, besides doing dozens of spay/neuters, Hanna and John spent a lot of their time training the workers.

"What I thought was so powerful about being there for even a few weeks was that you could teach them and this was long term. A lot of the rescues, you know, you go in there and you spay and neuter but you're not leaving anything behind with significant impact. Here it was like now these guys can deal with any giardia or parvo or skin disease. You just teach them the tools and over the weeks watching us and going through cases, they realized what they can do themselves and what they had to take to a vet."

Hanna and John in surgery at the BAS clinic

Hanna, who has a tendency towards insomnia, didn't get much sleep during the three weeks at Baja. Sleeping on urine stained floors in the midst of the corrals probably didn't help much either. And there was a lot on her mind especially near the end of her stay. She and John would soon be moving onto their next destination but Hanna didn't want to leave Chikito behind. He was still too sickly and required more individual attention than the shelter could provide when there were so many other animals to tend. Hanna wanted to take Chikito with them but in the end John talked her out of it, reasoning that they couldn't take a dog with them from the very first rescue they stopped at. It would just be too impractical to be traveling and nursing a sick puppy at the same time. So, Hanna made it her mission to find the pup a home before they left.

And that, she managed. She told all the volunteers at the rescue about Chikito's circumstances and one of them decided to take the pup home with them back to San Diego.

All seemed well but two days later, the adoptive family phoned to say that Chikito had been seizing and was now in emergency. Hanna and John got in their car and started driving to San Diego but by the time they arrived, Chikito had already died.

They discovered later that he had distemper. Distemper is one of those things that a dog can catch and fight off into remission but the opportunist virus hangs around and when the animal is stressed it can re-emerge. If the distemper comes back strong enough, it attacks the nervous system and kills the dog. For some dogs, the stressor could be something like surgery. For Chikito, it was the move to San Diego.

Distemper is something we hardly ever see here in Canada because most dogs are vaccinated against it but it would soon became apparent that it was a huge problem in the countries Hanna was going to visit. Even at BAS, once the symptoms for distemper were known, they realized that several of the other dogs there had also experienced recurrances of it, though not as severe as Chikito's, especially after coming out of surgeries. They'd be fine at first but then develop tics like constant jaw clamping or twitchy legs.

Distemper is also highly contagious so, as it turned out, it was a very good thing Hanna and John didn't take Chikito with them on their travels to all the other shelters.

There was a lot of work yet to do and Hanna didn't sleep those last few days at the Baja Animal Shelter. It was sad when it came time to leave but she knew she'd be back again for another three weeks on the return leg of the trip.

Hanna and John then took a few days off camping to get some R 'n R. Hanna slept a straight 60 hours.


Miz Minka said...

Thanks for this post, Fred. I had heard of medical doctors doing volunteer work in other countries, but never of veterinarians taking their skills and talents across borders. How wonderful!

And it's too bad about Chikito.

I once had a mutt named Chiquito, a little black & white troublemaker that had no problem leaping on the kitchen counter and unpotting all the plants on the window sill over the sink. :) I still miss him.

Evil Shannanigans said...

That is amazing what your friend does. My dream is to open a dog rescue, and these two are a real inspiration
Wonderful story and pictures!

Melanie Laking said...

I've worked with many vets over the years. I've been an animal care worker at both the Toronto Humane Society and at the Veterinary Emergency Clinic.

Hanna is by far the most dedicated veterinarian that I have ever had the pleasure to meet. She is one of those rare people that gives animals unconditional love. She is a special woman and every animal she treats is very lucky that she decided to become a veterinarian.

Thank you for sharing some stories about her travels, her thoughts, and her work. I look forward to reading more.

Meaghan Edwards said...

What a heartwarming story. Thank you so much for posting it.

Biscuit said...

She's wonderful! I want to be Hanna when I grow up.

Social Mange said...

What a wonderful couple, thank you for bringing their charity to light. Distemper is a killer, and feline distemper (panleukopenia) runs rampant in shelters, killing the unvaccinated cats slowly and horribly.

Lynn said...

Thanks Hanna, for your passion and your work. And thanks, Fred, for telling the story. Sometimes I get to thinking that the world is such a mess. It's easy to get overwhelmed. But stories like this remind me that we just have to keep chipping away at our own little corner of it. When I started reading the story, I thought it would be one of great sorrow, but instead it gave me hope and joy. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for telling that story Fred. I admire Hanna, even if she is funny looking.
She didn't wait for others to act, she acted, she organized and documented, she had the courage to lose her job at the THS, the integrity to report the alleged ethical and professional indiscretions of other veterinarians and technicians, the zeal and tenacity to encourage others to tell their stories, the courage to go to the newspapers, the patience to deal with animal-lovers who are medically ignorant and a little loopy and mistake good intentions for concrete work and results.
Veterinarians are a self-governing profession who are more or less dedicated to the preservaton of fair competition rules (making money) among practitioners, rarely taking ethical stands, sometimes standing up against low cost spay/neuter clinics that threaten to undermine the profits of other competing vets. It is a profession which does not demand that Vets keep up to date in their field, no matter how long since they were at school, where it is inherently difficult to show neglect of animals or incompetence due to the fact that animals do not talk and autopsies are seldom if ever performed when negligence is suspected, who often employ cheap but incompetent technicians rather then Registered Veterinary Technicians in their clinics, who have a general lack of communication and consulting of other vets for second opinions, and because of the more or less primitive state of animal medical knowlege. Veterinarians like Hanna McNaugton, Amanda Frank, Carolyn Parker, Filipic, Attard, and others point to a future when Veterinarians will abide by their professional standards, demand excellence, and not stand by, let alone abet in animal suffering and cruelty, when they will live up to the moniker "professional".