Pets on an Island ParadisePublished December 15, 2008
Companion animals play important roles in peoples' lives across the world, even in a paradise like the Cook Islands. The rise of tourism on the Cook Islands has created a need to make some changes in the way island companion animals live. Access to veterinary care has been a key component in that change, but veterinary care is not what you imagine from your experiences with veterinary clinics in North America. A different culture Joi L. Sutton, DVM, has spent two months of five winters volunteering in the Cook Islands. Sutton, like many of her colleagues, forgoes salary and pays her expenses to visit "paradise" and provide veterinary support to a community that can't afford it. Seven hundred miles southwest of Tahiti and 1,000 miles east of Australia, the Cook Islands have a population of just under 22,000 people, half residing on Rarotonga, the largest island. The Esther Honey Foundation, Sutton's base of operations during her stay, is a landmark on the coast of this island. The Foundation treats mainly companion animals, but doctors have treated pigs, goats, horses, birds and an occasional fruit bat. "Animals, including most companion animals, in the Cook Islands are living in third world conditions," Sutton says, "even with some pockets of affluence and wealth around them." Cook residents feel only a loose sense of ownership about the companion animals around them. Most dogs do not wear collars. When residents bring a dog to the clinic, or when Sutton goes out to treat a dog, a resident usually says, "This dog started hanging out at my house." During the time she has worked in Rarotonga, Sutton recalls having seen two dogs on a leash. Veterinary needs The most significant veterinary health issue is malnutrition, especially for female cats and dogs. Sutton comments, "It's hard enough to maintain good nutritional levels for these dogs and cats in the face of gastrointestinal parasites and fleas without having litter after litter of young." "The biggest contribution vets can make in the islands," says Sutton, "is spaying the females. This improves the overall health level of the animals and helps control the population. For male dogs, the most significant contribution is de-sexing," Sutton continues. "De-sexing decreases the fighting among the males and their tendency to chase cars." Volunteers and Donations Sutton is one among the 135 veterinarians and hundreds of additional veterinary professionals have volunteered for the foundation. Not only does the Foundation maintain the clinic, but it also provides housing for visiting personnel. Traveling by freighter and plane, veterinarians and other volunteers reach animals on other islands that have never seen a veterinarian. Since late 1995, volunteer doctors have treated over 20,000 animals and spayed or neutered just under 9,000 cats and dogs. In addition to the volunteers that come from other countries, local businesses and government also supports the Foundation. What began as a small effort by a few dedicated people has blossomed into a community facility that provides education about pet care as well as care for local animals. Donors have provided a sophisticated anesthesia system as well as x-rays that assist in the care the EHF Animal Clinic provides--the only veterinary facility in the island nation. If you are interested in learning more about or supporting the work of the Esther Honey Foundation Animal Clinic, please visit www.estherhoney.org. Author Carol Frischmann has spent many days in island paradises. On her regular work days, a Doberman Pinscher and three parrots supervise Carol's writing, including her most recent books, "Conures" and "Attracting and Feeding Backyard Birds," available through her website, www.thiswildlife.com, or your local bookstore.