If you told me ten years ago that veterinary medicine would bring me to the most southern tip of South America, I probably would have laughed and said well that’s a dream come true! It is always attention-grabbing when you hear people say, “Dreams can come true if you work hard enough”. We hear it all the time growing up so most of us spend our lives working hard so we can live the dream! My name is Feliza Lopez, and I am a Licensed Veterinary Technician from New York. I have worked in general practice, shelter medicine, emergency and critical care, and internationally. I’m an advocate for my profession, a community representative of educators, caregivers, and healers. I believe in compassion toward animals and people and as Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Thanks to Dog’s Trust International, I was sent to Chile in June to help launch a new campaign alongside the Global Alliance for Animals and People. The campaign was centered on capacity building, focused on surgical and anesthetic technique with the intent of setting up monthly spay/neuter campaigns in remote regions of Chile. Through my personal involvement in US-based organization Veterinarians International, I have had the good fortune of working alongside the GAAP founders Elena Garde and Guillermo Perez in Guatemala for the past two years. Through our collaboration on this project, we provide a similar service to the community of Todos Santos. So when they asked me to come help them launch this campaign in Chile, well I was beyond thrilled.
A New York City train ride, two plane rides, and a communal shuttle bus later with 24 hours in between I found myself in the beautiful city of Valdivia. Stray dogs, tourists, university students, Chileans, sea lions, and vultures lounging next to each other at the dock – that is the co-existence seen right away at the bridge connecting Valdivia to Isla Teja. Isla Teja is an island in the city of Valdivia, surrounded by three rivers: Cau Cau river to the north, Cruces river to the west and Valdivia river to the southeast. This is where The Global Alliance for Animals and People has found home base. I never realized how much attention is desperately needed to the epidemic of stray dogs and cats in Latin America. I couldn’t imagine living in New York with hundreds of stray animals everywhere.
Monday morning in Chile is like anywhere else, everyone goes straight to work. Veterinary medicine is also very similar in most parts of the world. We spent the entire day going over campaign, anesthesia, and emergency protocols. Overall I felt that I was able to complement the protocols already in place and I learned a lot more about what goes into planning campaigns in remote regions. Details, details, details and being prepared! After work I walked back over to Valdivia and enjoyed a delicious Chilean feast for a quarter of New York prices.
Tuesday was the big day before the big day. The team worked together in the clinic for scheduled procedures as if we are on the field. Once we got through procedures we prepared for the campaign. Packing up an entire veterinary operation into the back of a pick-up truck isn’t as bad as you think. Then again the GAAP are pros. My heart still skipped a beat taking down the isoflurane vaporizer and carefully packing oxygen tanks. Guillermo and I went for lunch in town and I was enamored by the Chilean scenery. It is easy to see why anyone would want to live in Chile.
Wednesday was the big day. We were all packed and ready to head to Corral. Most likely on purpose, but I had no idea that we would have to bring the truck on a boat to cross the water into Corral. Seven a.m. and were flocking to Corral with veterinary equipment, locals, birds, and the waves behind us. It was like a scene on the National Geographic channel. The ocean filled with jellyfish, volcanoes in the distance, and all the beautiful colors of the sun rising – absolutely breathtaking. Corral is a town, commune, and seaport in Los Rios region, Chile. It is best known for the forts of Corral Bay, a system of defensive batteries and forts made to protect Valdivia during colonial times.
Upon arriving to Corral the veterinary team from the municipality greeted us and showed us their veterinary clinic. As we unloaded the truck I couldn’t help but notice the beautiful landscape, colorful boats used by the locals, fisherman preparing for the day, and all the stray cats and dogs roaming the area.
Seasons in South America are opposite of North America. So while everyone was enjoying the start of summer we were in the middle of winter. As soon as our team finished setting up clients started to arrive.
Our campaign was live! I can proudly state that everything went as planned. Our biggest challenge was keeping the patients and ourselves warm. Thursday’s voyage to Corral was just as exciting as the day before. We were already set up so we had some time to go into town for traditional empanadas and cafecito. Our second day was another success. The hardest part was packing up and saying goodbye.
I would say my favorite memory in Corral was when Elena and I were walking back to the municipality and we saw our patient, a small poodle, going home with her very happy owners, an elderly couple. I felt very proud knowing that we were part of such a positive experience. Practicing sound veterinary medicine, encouraging responsible pet ownership, and contributing to the population control of stray cats and dogs in Latin America was the goal – and we succeeded!
On Friday we spent the day debriefing. We went over campaign details, anesthesia, and emergency protocols again. I also had a small project I was working on the whole week ready for display. I made a custom board filled with guidelines specific to the GAAP to help team members prepare for future spay/neuter campaigns.
If there’s one thing I have learned in my decade in veterinary medicine it’s that it can’t be all hard work and no play. The trip wasn’t over yet and Elena and Guillermo had another surprise for me. We drove to Pucón for a little rest and relaxation. Pucón is a town in central Chile’s Lake District, lying on Lake Villarica overlooked by the snow-capped Villarrica volcano. The surrounding terrain ranges from lakeside beaches to temperate rainforest. We arrived fairly late and exhausted to Pucón so I didn’t see what was right outside our hotel window until the next morning.
Volcan Villarica in all its glory! On Saturday we drove to another popular location to really soak our sore muscles. The Geometricas Hot Springs are immersed within the majestic beauty of Villarica National Park, near the town of Coñaripe. We enjoyed relaxing for hours in the hot springs with wood-fired pizza, pumpkin soup, and a bonfire waiting for us whenever we were ready. The drive there is captivating, make sure to keep an eye out for alpacas!
Driving through the Andes you will likely feel more connected to the earth – I know I did.
As the GAAP has said collaborations are all about building relationships. I was absolutely honored when asked to come all the way from New York to Chile to share my knowledge and passion for the profession with the staff members. The animals of Chile and I are eternally thankful to the Dogs Trust charity for being wonderful sponsors and collaborators. The GAAP’s mission is to improve the quality of life of underprivileged animals and people in Latin America. They hope to accomplish this through research, education, veterinary health care and social programs. I look forward to seeing colleagues interested in contributing to this mission and campaign travel to Chile. It is an experience that I have been unable to find the right words to describe. I’ve said it before but there is nothing more humbling than being able to provide ones expertise to a community that wouldn’t have access to it otherwise.
Working with the GAAP on behalf of Veterinarians International to travel the world and save animals is living the dream! I can truly say that my hard work paid off.