Dust roiled around our heads, momentarily blotting out the sun. I leapt back, keenly aware of two hooves flying towards the sky. Stuck to the neck of this "rank" horse (a term I'll now certainly remember) was a full syringe of rabies vaccine. The horse veterinarians that I had accompanied to Peru seemed so smooth, just calmly talking and cooing their way through whatever storm of hooves and manes they encountered. I, on the other hand, haven't ridden a horse in years, much less stuck a two-inch needle in one. I assured him that the worst of it was over, and that all I needed to do was push the plunger. The syringe bobbed precariously as the horse flexed his neck (I would love to say "bulging neck muscles," or "majestic cords of muscle," but the reality of Northern Peru is that most of the horses are short, malnourished, and a little lame - still dramatic for me, but surely not for anyone who has spent time with well-fed horses!) I reached in and finished the job, and his hooves stayed planted. Now for the tetanus injection....
I've been in Peru for a week now, and I'm in the Piura airport on my way home after a quick stop in Lima
. I decided not to stay for the entire clinic, because my goal was simply to get a feel for the program and see what else might be needed. Perfectly logical, but I feel a little heartbroken to be sitting in the airport while my new crazy gringa vet friends are out vaccinating and castrating, cleaning up saddle sores and deworming and breaking their backs cutting hooves. And all of that for the cost of five or ten soles per horse - less than four dollars - all of which goes to the local animal protection organization. The truth is that although I love my current job (truly, it's perfect for me), I do so enjoy the hands-on animal work. And I don't have much experience with horses, so this trip has been enlightening. Aside from learning to vaccinate and deworm, I've translated for the vets, which has taught me a lot in terms of home-care instructions. Of course, the most common instruction was, "Feed your horse!!" But there were also recommendations about treating sores, preventing cracked hooves, etc etc. The vast majority of our clients were horses, donkeys, and mules, but the vets also attended to the odd cow or dog, and in one town we were brought a lamb that had ripped open its leg on a fence
. The owner had tried to sew it up himself with dental floss. One of our vets was a surgery resident, so she did her best to sew it up, though conditions are so rough - it's incredibly dirty, our ability to sterilize equipment was limited, drug availability was limited, and the "surgery suite" was the inside of the van. And we all know that our impact is small, since during the other 50 weeks of the year, the animals get sewn up with dental floss, without pain control or antibiotics. But at the very least, I hope that we're bringing the concept of veterinary care to the area, so that as good vet care becomes available locally (something we're working on from other angles), people will be more likely to seek it out. The program is complemented by Humane Education programs run by the local group, which will hopefully introduce the concept of animal welfare to the next generation of horse-owners.
This trip has also coincided with World Animal Day, which many Latin American communities celebrate with a Blessing of the Animals on the feast day of San Francisco de Assisi, the Patron Saint of Animals
. Our wonderful host Rosemary Gordon arranged Blessings in several communities, and we were able to attend two, one in Piura and one in Colán. They were so much fun! I'm sure in the US, a Blessing ceremony involves leashes and cages, and maybe some semblance of order. In Peru, everyone shows up with everything - dogs and cats, of course (largely unrestrained), but also fish, pet birds, baby chicks, rabbits, roosters - just every animal you can imagine. During the Blessing in Colán, one naughty dog kept wandering around the church trying to pick fights with the other dogs. No one really seemed to mind, but nevertheless my friend Kris and I grabbed him and petted him through the rest of the mass. It cracked me up when she pulled out hemostats and started tick-picking - do all vets bring their hemostats to church?? After the mass, everyone filed outside, where the parking lot had been wetted to keep down the dust. The priest gave the blessing and sprinkled holy water on all the animals. Rosemary handed out treats
. Unfortunately, and with incredible irony, just before the Blessing was to begin (meaning if it had been 5 minutes earlier, we'd all have been in the church, and 5 minutes later, we'd all have been preoccupied), a black-lab-looking dog decided to wander through the parking lot with a freshly killed lamb. Ok, I feel sorry for the lamb, but the irony really was funny. It kind of looked like he was bringing it to the Blessing.
The area itself is really interesting. It's quite close to the equator, but it's a desert, so it gets cold at night. It's on the coast, and the beach is littered with huge glacier-blue jellyfish. It's a popular tourist spot for Peruvians, but only in the summer months (our winter). The towns themselves seem highly improbable, nestled as they are in a dusty, inhospitable, almost lifeless landscape. A river runs through one valley, providing water for rice and corn fields. Even so, it's hard to imagine how that singular valley supports even the tiny villages that hang on outside the irrigation zone. The entire area depends on its horses for its survival, which makes the animal welfare work all the more satisfying.
So now I'm back in DC, rolling around on the floor with my cat and dreaming about bony horses and dusty landscapes. There's no accounting for what you love, I guess.