By Dr. Katherine Polak
Dr. Katherine Polak, the vice president of Companion Animals and Engagement for Humane Society International, recently returned from HSI’s dedicated veterinary training center in La Paz, Bolivia, the only such center in the country. In this guest blog, Dr. Polak gives us an inside look at how the work being done there is not only helping the dogs and cats of Bolivia, but also increasing regard for the veterinary profession.
Inside the clinic, the air is filled with the beeping of anesthetic monitoring devices and the whooshing of ventilation bags; the energy of the team is palpable. With calculators in hand, trainees formulate customized anesthetic plans for their patients, and the surgeons organize their instruments. Each patient has a dedicated anesthesiologist, and a veterinary surgeon guides the trainee through the procedure. Three surgical tables allow for simultaneous spays or neuters. This is a typical day at Humane Society International’s veterinary training center in La Paz, Bolivia.
The training center is located in the highest capital city in the world, where the air is thin and the mountains are towering. At an altitude of more than 12,000 feet, the conditions in La Paz can be tough—for people and animals alike. Each neighborhood block seems to have its own resident dogs, some of whom are known as “Chapis,” a term used to describe a small dog with thick, often matted hair that keeps them warm during the winter months.
There are upward of 278,000 dogs in La Paz alone, according to a survey HSI conducted in 2019. And it’s clear from the homemade doghouses scattered along the sidewalks that dogs play an important role in Bolivian society; but sadly, Bolivia is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Low-cost veterinary services are scarce for the country’s dogs and cats. Contributing to the lack of accessible veterinary care nationwide is the suboptimal training of veterinarians. Universities lack equipment, training and expertise to properly prepare veterinary students to do humane spay/neuter surgery.
In countries with large, unmanaged populations of free-roaming dogs, such a lack of training and resources has devastating consequences. Poor training leads to botched surgeries and patient suffering, while also undermining the public’s trust in the veterinary profession.
But things are changing: Since 2014, HSI has operated the only veterinary training center in Bolivia to improve the skills of veterinarians from throughout the country, and also across Latin America. Every morning, in the neighborhood of San Antonio, families arrive at the clinic one by one with their four-legged companions in tow. Dogs and cats arrive in every type of carrier imaginable—from cardboard apple boxes to homemade sacks. Inside the clinic, veterinary trainees, who are usually tasked with managing dog populations in their own cities and municipalities, eagerly await the opportunity to learn from the country’s best surgical and anesthetic trainers. Over an intensive three-week period, and after having passed two modules taught online, veterinary trainees gain valuable, hands-on pain management, anesthesia and surgical skills that they take back to their own communities across Bolivia.
For dogs, this opportunity for spay/neuter surgery can be lifesaving. Take a dog named Kitty. Kitty used to be a street dog, battling the elements and dodging traffic in the city’s traffic-jammed roads, until she was rescued by her current owner. But Kitty’s owner wouldn’t have had access to low-cost spay/neuter services or to essential vaccines without the HSI training program. Thanks to the care she received there, Kitty was humanely spayed and vaccinated, sparing her from myriad possible cancers and diseases. And Kitty’s owner couldn’t be happier.
Kitty is just one of thousands of success stories. Over the past two years, we provided low-cost spay/neuter surgeries and vaccinations to more than 9,000 dogs and cats in La Paz. In 2023, we project that HSI will provide low-cost spay/neuter surgeries to more than 5,000 dogs and cats across the city. The impact of the training program has been enormous. Before the program, low-cost spay/neuter was unheard of, and certainly wasn’t accepted by the local veterinary community. Now veterinarians who have graduated from the program and who work in private practice have integrated low-cost services into their practice models. But most trainees found employment by local governments to help manage dog populations. As a result of the training, high-quality spay/neuter programs are run throughout the country, even in the most rural of communities. Select veterinary faculty at the veterinary school in the city of El Alto are also proud graduates of HSI’s training program, who have successfully integrated the knowledge gained into their university’s student training program. Plus, the training has been formally endorsed by the Veterinary Board of La Paz, and it is so popular that waitlists for candidates who meet the criteria can span months.
While there is still a lot of work to be done, HSI will continue to be on the front lines, supporting the growing animal welfare movement in Bolivia and beyond. If you find yourself in La Paz, don’t be surprised if you spot dogs in the street wearing homemade jackets and sporting ear tattoos, indicating that they have been spayed or neutered and vaccinated for rabies. It’s all a part of the growing local animal welfare movement, thanks in no small part to HSI and an incredibly dedicated team.