August 30, 2015

Katrina remembrance....

I wanted to post this yesterday, since yesterday was the actual anniversary of Katrina, but oddly enough, we had a windstorm and had no power/internet...anyway, I wanted to post my experience of Katrina, to honor the victims and the memory of what happened...I've posted this before, it was written shortly after I got back from doing animal rescue about  3-4 weeks after Katrina hit, and barely edited...really long, but just wanted to put it into the universe again, so as not to forget...


We started sort of backwards. We arrived in the New Orleans airport and had to drive the hour and a half out of the devastation, into Gonzales (just out of Baton Rouge), where the HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) rescue facility was located. Flying in, we couldn’t see much—we did see one of the bridges that had buckled, and lots of tarps on roofs, but apart from that, it was difficult to discern the severity of the destruction from the plane window. The plane was full of contractors and rescue workers (who else would be going into New Orleans right after the hurricane?), but when we landed, we were lucky enough to spot a girl wearing a PETA shirt, who let us hitch a ride in the PETA van headed towards Gonzales, once we expressed our intention to volunteer with animal rescue. We later found out this saved us about $150 a piece in cab fare—the price gouging was horrendous...but who can blame the drivers--what other chance have they got after their town, and probably their homes were destroyed?

PETA had some business to conduct in New Orleans, so we made a stop there first, and spent a bit of time right near the Superdome and the overpass where thousands were stranded. Getting straight off the plane after a sleepless red-eye flight, only to be thrust into a place where so much suffering had occurred made me numb. I was in shock, because all of the things that I had been watching on the news for so many days were real—each leftover shoe, doll, or water bottle amidst the piles of trash that lay scattered everywhere, belonged to someone who had been through something that I knew I could not begin to even imagine.

We waited in the van until the PETA volunteers were done doing whatever it was they were doing, and then headed to the rescue facility.  As we drove away, we were immersed in the total destruction in New Orleans—homes with entire walls missing, but the furniture perfectly in place, looking more like dioramas than actual places people lived; billboards warped and twisted, bent down parallel to the ground; storage facilities destroyed, with priceless heirlooms and papers strewn around parking lots where the cars were piled atop each other like building blocks.  But as the miles passed, before my brain had time to even start processing these images, they dissolved into the pristine-looking marshes along the bridge over Lake Pontchartrain towards Gonzales.

Gonzales was untouched. Taco Bell and Starbucks were fully functional (and frequented by the HSUS volunteers needing a break) and gas at Shell was not only up and running, but dirt cheap--only $2.25. But the HSUS makeshift shelter was a whole different story. Driving up, the barking of the dogs was audible for blocks. When we stepped out of the car, the heat nearly knocked us over, and the humidity was thicker than anything I have ever experienced (and I’m from Texas). Dozens of volunteers were racing around, dripping with sweat, and dutifully wearing the rubber gloves, despite the discomfort of rubber gloves in 97 degree heat (we were repeatedly cautioned not to touch any of the animals with our skin, given their exposure to the toxic water). The shelter consisted of several barns, with stalls full of wire dog crates, which stank of feces, as there were not sufficient volunteers to walk the dogs more than once a day, and few could hold that long.

When my friend and I checked in, we were assigned to dog walking, but were told we could first take a tour of the area, to get acquainted with it, and it quickly became evident that our help was much less needed walking dogs than in the vet area. This was made apparent to us, by the fact that as soon as we neared the vet area, we were frantically summoned to work by a FEMA vet, who had us reorganizing the intake area, and taking temperatures of ill animals. We were then told to walk an older dog who was suffering from heat stroke, but as soon as we got him out of his cage, he was overtaken by the heat, and we raced to find someone who could help. Fortunately, the Louisiana SPCA had an RV, with A/C, and welcomed him inside.  We raced back to the veterinary area to obtain his records--with so many animals, keeping track of them was essential--and after a bit of chaos trying to find our way back to the RV, he was reunited with his paperwork, and when we peeked in on him, thankfully, he was doing just fine.

Although the Humane Society shelter in Gonzales was terribly understaffed, my friend and I had both done enough rescue to know that there was probably more work that needed to be done “in the field."  We agreed that we wanted to get out and do rescue, or some sort of other work because, though understaffed, Lamar-Dixon was generally under control--pets were contained, vets were handy for emergencies, so hopefully all the animals that made it there had at least the bare necessities for survival, unlike animals still out on the streets or locked in houses, most of whom had gone weeks without being fed or having access to any obvious clean water source--those were the animals we urgently wanted to get to.  Fortunately, a vet with the HSUS had seen us working and could tell that we both had animal rescue experience, and he seemed to have read our minds. He asked if we were interested in getting out into the community and told us to attend a meeting later that evening if we were. We spent the rest of the day cleaning cat cages and then headed to the meeting.

We were told that the Navy had established a makeshift shelter in St. Bernard's Parish--one of the hardest-hit areas.  There were about 200 dogs and only four Navy guys trying to take care of them; they were in desperate need of help. The HSUS wanted to send out 10 people for 4 days. We decided it was perfect and signed up. We worked a bit longer, then headed in—though we only worked about 12 hours that day, neither of us had slept at all the previous night, and the heat was particularly unbearable the first day (I nearly passed out several times—literally), and we knew we had a very big few days ahead of us. (Neither of us actually ended up sleeping, though, incidentally—you just can’t, because, though your body is completely exhausted, you feel a constant guilt for not helping—and the constant barking of the desperate dogs doesn’t help).

The next morning, 6am, we headed for St. Bernard, right next to New Orleans, adjacent to Lake Pontchatrain.  There was a surprisingly large amount of traffic heading towards New Orleans, but after exiting the freeway it was all gone—no one could be seen in any direction; everything was frozen. The stench immediately penetrated the car and was almost unbearable, even with no windows open. It smelled of toxic chemicals, oil, death, mold, feces—everything horrible that you can imagine, all mixed together. Everything was destroyed—none of the images on television could begin to convey the magnitude and scope of destruction. Parking lots were all empty of cars and full of the contents of the recently-flooded stores they belonged to. Flood lines, along with oil lines (the refinery in St. Bernard unleashed a large oil spill in the area) marked all the buildings, sometimes up near rooftops. And there was simply no one around (which, incidentally, made the 4 Gator Aids I drank before leaving—hoping to avoid the dehydration that struck me the previous day, not thinking about the fact that I was going to spend an hour and a half in an air-conditioned car—all the more painful, since there was nowhere to stop…fortunately, a National Guard checkpoint had a port-a-potty…as shallow mentioning this sounds, I do, only because this is what your mind clings to, in the midst of such devastation, because the horror is just too much to comprehend.). We knew when we were getting close because, once again, we could hear the dogs barking from what seemed like a half a mile away. But we had no idea of just how bad it would be.

Pulling into the parking area of what had been dubbed Camp Lucky, there was a 2’ tall plastic light-up Jesus and several other nativity statutes, survivors of the flood, strewn about, which provided a momentary distraction from what we were about to encounter. Stepping out of the car, even was we braced for the heat and stench, they were unbearable (even though it was only 7:30 am). Everything there was covered in this toxic sludge, the remnants of the toxic water that had once covered the area. There was no running water, but there was a military water truck which roared, and combined with the hundreds of dogs barking, made it impossible to hear anyone without shouting, and even then, everyone needed to repeat themselves. Ordinarily, just standing in this environment would be too much to take but we were set to do hard physical labor, and the animals—they were living this.

Inside the barn, there were 6 rows of cages with about 250 large dogs and 30 or so cats. The building was collapsing and the cages were completely full of feces—with only 4 men running the place, they were simply retrieving the animals and caging them; they had no time to tend to them once they were captured. Flies and mosquitoes buzzed around by the hundreds and the floor was littered with the flattened-out, water-decomposed, hardly recognizable bodies of small wild animals that had died there—in one place, in the dog-walking area, there was a mother opossum and several babies, all within several yards of one another…such horror.

We were to walk the dogs, bring them back, get their paperwork done, and try to find a cage that had been cleaned to put them back into. This was rare, though—there were not enough people to walk the dogs, let alone clean cages as well, so after a several minute walk, the dogs were forced back into the dirty cages where they had spent days. In spite of this, the dogs were AMAZING. Even as avid of an animal person as I am, I was shocked at how unbelievably grateful they ALL were. None of them were aggressive at all—even though about 2/3 of them were pitties, many were clearly previous fighters—they were all so full of love and affection, just wanting someone to pet them and give them some attention. Even when they were being shoved back into their filthy cages, they did not bite; they just looked up with disappointed, bewildered eyes. They were all covered in the toxic sludge. Many of them had severe chemical burns all over their bodies. Most were emaciated, though not as badly as I would have expected, primarily because the military had been leaving food and water out in many areas.
The military was amazing. They took orders from us and were so genuinely concerned about the animals well-being—many of them rescuing dogs themselves and putting their names on the dogs' papers, as potential adopters, if the real family could not be found. The dogs that were the worst off were the ones that had come from inside homes or had been chained to the porch, because they had gone weeks without food and with no way to escape to try to find it. Cats were not faring as well as the dogs. The heat was much harder on them, and, being cats, they did not handle the stress as well. New animals were streaming in constantly—there were animals EVERYWHERE, even three weeks into the disaster, there were hundreds of dogs running in the streets, stuck on roofs, everywhere. My friends and I rescued three dogs while walking to the shelter the following morning, without even trying to, because they were simply everywhere.

A day or two into our trip, we found out that the shelter was not started by the Navy, as we had originally heard, but by a man we met who had lost everything, and spent 8 hours on his father-in-law’s roof, after going to his house to try to rescue him (his father-in-law, and the rest of his family, were all fine, thankfully). This totally unassuming man could not stand seeing all of the dogs loose, so he recruited three of his friends to build makeshift kennels, and catch as many dogs as they could. Unbelievable, with all that this man had been through, that he had the kindness and wherewithal to  be able to do this. It is so trite, but so true—these situations really do reveal the true heroes among us. Amazing.


Walking down the streets was indescribable. There was no one, anywhere. There was no wildlife. The first birds returned the day we left. There was no electricity, no sounds of refrigerators or air-conditioners. No cars. No movement. There was just total silence—museum silence—and the echo of my footsteps as I walked down these streets where people used to live. Periodically, a person would emerge out of nowhere, walking aimlessly, with a dazed look on his face.  Residents were still in such shock that most of them could only repeat a few words—one man was stuck on “I’m 48—I’ve lived here my whole life. I’ve lived here my whole life.” There was nothing to say to them; all you could do was offer a look of compassion, and some entirely useless well-wish. Then they passed by, and it was back to nothing. Sometimes, a military convoy of 40 humvees, full of marines with huge machine guns would come barrelling through.  Then nothing again.  There was complete lawlessness. It is impossible to convey, but being there, there was just a sense that all of these basic, intuitive things we take for granted—all of these things that our society rests upon, were gone, totally gone, instantly with the storm.

The situation in the barns was so overwhelming, it was simply impossible to take breaks—despite the miserable conditions and the blisters covering everyone’s feet. Breaks occurred at odd moments, 2 minute intervals every couple of hours, when the situations presented themselves with a spot to sit or kneel, or a bottle of water appeared. But immediately after sitting, the guilt set in, and I found myself walking another dog, cleaning another cage. The feeling of total helplessness was inescapable, so my focus shifted to little things, in order to maintain sanity (though tears were present at all times—just when it seemed impossible to cry any more, they reappeared)…little things like making sure a certain dog got an extra-thorough bath; bringing a bag of ice to a particular kitten in extreme agony. The small things that gave me a sense that my presence was helping someone, even though there was nothing that could be done about the majority of the suffering.  I found a particularly emaciated pitty, and worked diligently to make sure she received adequate veterinary attention I gave her fluids, as she patiently stood on the vet table, and gave me puppy-kisses (I never got a good picture of her, unfortunately).

We worked late into the night, in the pitch-black, lit only by small flashlights. We were lucky enough to be allowed to sleep on the navy boat, the USS Shreveport, complete with showers—thank God. One could go without sleep—it was impossible to sleep anyway, and even it came, it would only have been for 3 or 4 hours before it was time to return to work—but not without a shower. Between the toxic sludge and the sweat from the heat, it was difficult to even continue working near the end of the day due to my own filth.

The next few days were much the same, but the tasks had shifted. Instead of just maintaining the shelter and rescuing new animals, FEMA had found a shelter in Los Angeles that was willing to take up to 200 animals (which were quickly replaced with the animals being rescued), and the military (who had taken a great interest in this shelter), had found us a better location across town—not nearly as badly flooded, and with concrete, rather than dirt floors, and running water. So the goal now was to transfer all of the animals to ship-able crates, and onto the military trucks--some to be evacuated, others to be transferred to the better shelter.

Nearing the end of the last day at Camp Lucky I, during a rare sit-down break, after the second-to-last group of animals had been taken to Camp Lucky II, word came that the levees had breached again, and that we were all going to have to evacuate the next day, by 4pm, and the navy ship, with the military, were shipping out that morning at 6am—meaning we would have no trucks to get the hundreds of animals at Camp Lucky II out, and that the thousands of animals that had yet to be rescued, and that we saw every day running around, were going to endure another flood. At just this moment, someone yelled at the other end of the barn, that a Chihuahua had gotten loose. I leaped from my chair, and sprinted around the barn—where the energy to do that came from, I don’t know; I had certainly used up my adrenaline quota for the day already. Everyone else was chasing the dog the other way, towards me, so when he saw me, he turned, and froze…he then cautiously approached one of the other girls, and she grabbed him, and he bit her. She held on, though, and he made it just fine.
When I got back to the barn, I just couldn’t take it anymore; I completely broke down. All of these was bad enough what was going to happen to all of the ones we hadn’t caught, but with all of the ones that we had caught and cared for—no one had any idea how we were going to get them out without the military trucks, and after all this, all they have been through, we just couldn’t release them back out into the imminent flood...but what were we going to do? Obviously, I wasn't involved in planning logistics, and there was nothing I could do, but the whole thing was just so awful; I just couldn't take it. The other volunteers comforted me; the camaraderie there was indescribable—those of us who stayed at Camp Lucky (several people couldn’t handle it and left on the first day) bonded beyond words.


The next morning, our last morning at 5am, we began at Camp Lucky II, the new shelter we had transferred the animals to the day before.  We awakened to the most wonderful news possible: to everyone’s great relief, the travel arrangements had been worked out, and the animals were all to be shipped out, by 4pm, with vehicles sent from the Humane Society's shelter in Gonzales. Some were sent to San Antonio, some to Florida, the rest to the temporary holding in Gonzales—but they would all survive.
On our way out, we passed several groups of dogs roaming the streets, and a small tuxedo cat, with a blue collar, who crossed in front of us. There was nothing we could do about them.

Back at Gonzales, we decided to just take the rest of the day off. Though we wanted to help, the HSUS shelter was a luxury resort compared to where we had been, and our week of hard labor had rendered us too exhausted to be of use at that point anyway, so we ate and relaxed for a couple of hours, and then headed for bed.

The next day, of course, we agreed that our energy level was back up, and we could have stayed another week, easily, which made it that much more difficult to leave. We cried most of the plane ride home, and it has been terribly difficult to re-connect to things up here. All of us have had insomnia, nightmares, and a constant feeling of still being in a disaster area.  It is impossible not to feel guilty for not being there longer, or doing more. Even now, weeks later, I cannot think of anything other than the animals we left, and of all of the suffering and fear…I don’t think it will ever leave me. 

June 15, 2011

Wooti Part 3 (yeah, there are going to be a lot of parts...)

There are many ways that one can color a story—a black and white outlining of the facts, an abstractly colored emotional portrayal, a flat, narrow narrative, highlighting only the good, the bad, or the dramatic.  In continuing this story, I find myself tugged in two different directions, by two of my primary objectives—portraying the events as honestly as possible, pretty or not; and expressing my overwhelming respect, gratitude, and awe for those who acted entirely selflessly and made enormous personal sacrifices to save one dog’s life.  As consistent as those two ideas seem, they are actually rather at odds.  An honest portrayal, from my perspective—that of a citizen of the wealthiest country in the world (well, sort of), who has had over a dozen years of experience working with animal welfare and veterinarians, when told to an audience of primarily Americans/Westerners, who may not have had first-hand experience with life in developing countries, and may not entirely be able to appreciate just how difficult things are there…well, telling the story that way runs the risk of insulting the people for whom I have unequivocal respect, gratitude, and indescribable appreciation for the skill level they have obtained, and the compassion they have demonstrated in choosing to be the pioneers of animal welfare in their country, amidst huge obstacles, concrete and cultural.  But, by telling a flattering story, glossing over all of the rough parts, I would paint a picture of a world where much less work is needed, and run the risk of undermining needed efforts to improve the situation—and it would fail to convey just how noble all of Wooti’s guardian angels in Ethiopia are, and how significant the work they are doing is.  Anyone who knows me can probably guess which of these two portrayals I decided to go with: honesty all the way (well, to the best of my recollection).  But, in order to tell it this way, I feel I must paint a little background scenery and establish some context, because context is everything.

For those of us who are fortunate enough to have been born in a developed country, it is difficult to truly comprehend just how much we have, and how much we take for granted, unless we step outside the confines of our world and into the world that most human beings inhabit.  But to understand people’s actions, to understand people’s motivations, we must bear in mind that the luxuries we have been afforded also provide us the luxury of easily displaying compassion—it is much easier to care for another, when all of your own needs are met (that is not to say we always do this, but it is easier), and, conversely, it is harder to understand how others could not care for each other, without being motivated by cruelty.  I am not saying this to imply that we should feel guilty for what we have, but just that it is very important to be sensitive to the magnitude of difference when drawing conclusions about life in other cultures.

In an earlier blog, I expressed a high level of praise for the way animals are treatedin Ethiopia, broadly speaking, and I stand by that.  However, having said that, almost every companion animal I encountered in Ethiopia would easily be deemed to be in a situation of criminal neglect or abuse, were that animal living at the same quality of life in the US.  But the thing is, in Ethiopia, food security and access to clean water are significant, far-reaching issues.  So if a family feeds their dog well, it is entirely possible that they, themselves, will starve—literally.  Access to healthcare is very, very, very limited.  We take it absolutely for granted that if we get a cut or a scrape, we can slather on some antibiotics and slap on a Flintstones bandaid and not give it a second thought.  Not so in Ethiopia—even items like antibiotics and sterile bandages, which you and I would consider basic first-aid, are not especially easy to come by, and are costly, let alone access to more advanced healthcare.  And infections kill.  All the time.  It’s easy to forget, living in the US, because the treatment seems so elementary, but in developing countries, a bad cut can be the end.  Deworming medications are also very difficult to obtain, so even something that we would consider to be fairly rare, benign, and easy to treat, can grow in someone’s intestine, and produce significant illness, with no medical recourse—or even necessarily the knowledge that medical treatment is needed or available.  Not to mention the fact that Rabies is a legitimate issue there—so much so, that the government lines the streets with poisoned meat on a monthly basis to kill stray animals, because so many are rabid (most Ethiopians are appalled by this governmental practice, and some of the people who helped Wooti are working very, very, very hard to implement alternative humane population control and vaccination strategies, though it is an enormously uphill battle).  And although I have a Rabies vaccine, it is not something that is available, even to veterinarians, in Ethiopia.  So if someone gets bitten by a rabid animal, s/he will die.  Additionally, most Americans are well aware of the cycle of violence, and of alternative anger management and disciplinary techniques—this is not, in any way, to say that abuse isn’t a huge problem in the US, however, most of us have access to information, support systems, and treatment facilities, and, though a lot of abuse happens behind closed doors, it is generally deemed socially unacceptable in our culture.  This is not the case in Ethiopia.  Partly because of cultural differences, partly because of lack of education, and partially because, again, life is just incredibly, incredibly hard, acts that we would consider abusive are commonplace.  Corporal punishment is prolific in schools.  It is not out of the ordinary to see a man hit his wife and children.  This is NOT intended to excuse the behavior—just to set the context. 

So, what does all this mean?  It means that people are afraid of dogs—and fairly justifiably so, for the reasons stated above.  It means that if people see a strange dog, they may be inclined to react with fear or self-defense, to kick or throw rocks—and why would they not, if it’s okay to behave this way towards women and children?  It means that people’s animals may be starving, both for food and affection.  And it means that almost no one has seen a well-cared-for animal, and experienced the love and bond that can exist—because of the dire situation there, many dogs are aggressive and do bite.  So when people act violently, fearfully, or in other ways that make you and I cringe, it is crucial to understand the motives.  People are not motivated out of evil or cruelty; they are not knowingly trying to cause suffering.  They are simply acting out of survival, and replicating the behaviors that have been learned, and that seem to be ubiquitous there.

So, please bear all of this in mind as I continue with my story.  Context truly is everything. 

The minutes crawled by achingly slow, like a child begrudgingly dragging his feet on his way to bed, as alternately anxiously fiddled with my cell phone and swatted at the flies chewing at Wooti’s leg, trying to avoid thinking about all of the potential problems we faced, a task that was becoming progressively difficult by the second, despite the fact that Wooti was remaining remarkably calm.  As high-stress as the situation was for me, it had to be a bit of a relief to him—even though the surroundings were unfamiliar, he had a nice, quiet spot with shade, and me, very obviously trying to help him, but no one else there bothering him.  In retrospect, it was highly unusual that Wooti and I sat there alone for so long—every other time I would visit the university, I would almost immediately be greeted by helpful students and professors, curious about my presence, and offering the typical Ethiopian hospitality.  But this time, it was just Wooti and I.

As is typical, both in this story, and in life, just as I was about to start formulating a “Plan B” (though even now, I have absolutely no idea what that would’ve been), the doctor came walking up behind me, jovial and kind, just as I had remembered him.  He was dressed in his white lab coat, and apologized for being late—though we hadn’t had a meeting time, since I was unsure how long it would take to locate and transport Wooti—and asked me what I had found out about the dog’s family.  When I told him the dog was a stray, he became visibly wary, and gave me a warning that would soon become all too familiar—the dogmatic response from everyone that I would encounter from then on out: This is an African dog.  African dogs are not like American dogs.  They do not like to be pet; they are not safe; they will bite you.   

Though I greatly appreciated the doctor’s concern for my safety, I could immediately tell that it was going to be a challenge to get the care Wooti needed.  So, I went over my animal welfare and veterinary credentials again, while I kneeled and pet Wooti, and explained that, in my experience, an aggressive dog would not have allowed a strange person to pick him up, carry him in the back of a bajaj for 20 minutes, and sit quietly beside that strange person in a strange place for another hour, without so much as a growl, particularly with such a horrendous injury.  Still kneeling, I beckoned for the doctor to pet Wooti—“See, he is a very nice dog!  Woosha betam konjo!”  The doctor smiled and politely declined, and my heart sunk—what if the clinic wouldn’t work on this dog just because he was a stray?  Should I have lied and said he belonged to someone?

Fortunately, the doctor asked to see Wooti’s wound.  Trying not to panic or sound too desperate, or do anything that might in any way provoke Wooti—since it was clear that a single growl might have meant the end of his chance for veterinary care—I slightly pulled his leg forward.  The doctor bent down and studied it closely.  “Do you think we could stitch it up?” he asked.  My heart sunk again—Wooti’s leg was very obviously dead, and, though I am not a vet, it was very obvious that amputation would be the only option.  I had to think quickly before my response—you see, when dealing with other cultures in situations like this, it can be very, very, very tricky.  Clearly this doctor was very well-studied, to be the head of a veterinary college; clearly he was in a position of prestige and power.  But also clearly, I had more hands-on experience than he did—by a long shot.  By expressing my opinion, I would run the risk of insulting him, alienating him, or hurting his pride, if he was the sort of person who put a lot of weight in his title—again, something which could mean no chance for Wooti.  But on the other hand, if I didn’t express my opinion, we could wind up doing more harm than good, and with Wooti’s life at stake, he needed the correct treatment—and he needed it then.  But on the other other hand (or perhaps a foot?), if a leg amputation was beyond the capability of the university staff, it was also possible they would insist on euthanasia—and I knew this dog was not ready to die.

But, once again, anyone who knows me, can probably guess which choice I made—honesty first, always.  So, I made a point of humbling myself, and praising the doctor for his education and stature—just in case he was the sort to put a lot of stock in that—but insisted that amputation was necessary.  “See how this leg has no muscles, and the bone is sticking out?  See the other leg—you cannot see the bone.  This means the leg is dead—I don’t think sewing it up will bring it back to life.”  He looked more closely and pointed out that there was some puss oozing from the wound, which there was.  I agreed, but pushed again for amputation.   

Once again, luck was in our favor—the doctor turned out to be one of the least title-concerned people I have encountered, entirely open to others’ opinions—when qualified—and he agreed to let another doctor—a surgeon, who just happened to be teaching a special class, and was leaving that very night, to go home to his village, 10 hours away—take a look.

I thanked him, and he set off to find the other doctor, and once again Wooti and I were left to bide our time, and I was left trying to stave off a whole new set of worries.  Though Wooti had sat calmly for nearly two hours, he was beginning to grow restless, trying to stand.  I attempted to keep him seated, but it seemed as though his trust in me was starting to fade, and he gave me a sideways glance and began to growl.  Admittedly, though I knew the “African dogs are different from American dogs” thing was a myth, I couldn’t help but feeling a hot flash of fear, just because any dog in his condition would probably be reaching the end of his rope.  So he stood and I stayed close, inadvertently clenching my hands and praying that he would stay calm long enough to convince the doctors to do his surgery.  He hopped around amidst the sparse patches of tall, dry grass, sniffing the ground for food, and I stared out into the Donkey Sanctuary—a covered area with a cement floor and a few gated stalls, speckled with various caked on bodily fluids, and some troughs, and began to contemplate what difficult work this must be, if this is the premier equine treatment center in the country. 

Fortunately, it wasn’t too long before the visiting surgeon, also bearing a long white jacket, arrived with the head doctor, and Wooti hadn’t managed to hobble too far.  Much to my relief, the surgeon came to us, so rather than asking me to try to coax Wooti back to our original spot, I simply had to keep him in place.  The surgeon was more direct—skipping small-talk and immediately inquiring what I knew about the dog, what my credentials were, and giving me the same “African dog” speech.  He agreed with my assessment: the leg needed to be removed.  But he had one additional stipulation: “This looks like bone cancer.  If it is bone cancer, he will die in five or six months, even if we remove the leg.  We will not know it is bone cancer unless we send the specimen to the lab, but in my opinion, it does not look good.” 

This assessment caught me quite off-guard—I hadn’t considered, or even really heard of, bone cancer causing the skin to burst and create an injury like this, and such a terrible possible prognosis for a dog I had already become quite attached to, was a bit too much for my already frazzled emotional state.  Fighting back tears, and thinking back to my experiences—and the fact that this assessment just did not seem right to me—I said that I wanted to try.  Even if he only had a few months left, at least we could make them good. 

The doctor agreed, and told me that he had done leg amputations before.  He said that in addition to his training in Ethiopia, he had an internship in India, where they did a great deal of actual surgeries—rather than just studying them in text books—and that leg amputations in dogs were very common, because of frequent car accidents.  This bolstered my confidence, and I asked what we needed to do to proceed. 

Much to my dismay, the doctors said they would need several hours to prepare, and take care of other business—of course, being an impatient American, this news added several more rubberbands to the giant rubber band ball of stress in my stomach, but I agreed.  I explained that even though Wooti is a very well-tempered dog, it was my experience that making animals wait in unfamiliar situations can add to their own stress and cause them to become agitated, and expressed concern that if we didn’t act now, we may not be able to handle him, and we may lose our chance.  The doctors did not discount my opinion, but said that it simply was not possible. 

Unfortunately, several hours had passed since I initially brought Wooti to the Univeristy, and I was obliged to go to a meeting for my NGO—and I had missed many meetings in the past, as a result of my ongoing visa battle, and knew that I’d have a hard time explaining missing another one, especially over this, something that almost no one in Ethiopia would understand.  Additionally, the doctors told me that I needed to go to the pharmacy to attempt to obtain the medication to anesthetize him, as well as his pain medication for post-surgery.  They also told me that because this was a stray African dog, I would be entirely responsible for his restraint prior to and after surgery, because none of them could afford to get hurt.  I immediately agreed—fortunately, I had handled many, many, many, many large, sometimes aggressive dogs, and, though I had a special attachment to this boy, I knew I could do it.  And even if I couldn’t, I had no choice but to try—I couldn’t be the reason this dog wouldn’t survive. 

I explained that if I was going to leave to collect Wooti’s medications and attend my meeting, and no one else would look after him, Wooti would run away, so we needed a place where we could safely contain him.  The doctors glanced around the field, and fixated on a small metal wire crate, sitting in the blazing sun, and pointed.  This time I had no problem expressing myself—NO.  I explained that between the size of the crate, the heat, and the fact that he would not even be able to stand, there was no way that this dog would be even remotely safe to handle after several hours in there—that is, even if we could get him to go inside in the first place.  After a bit of begging, the doctors agreed, and asked me if I had any ideas.  At this point, my respect for these gentleman was swelling—not only were they not caught up in titles, not only were they willing to heed my advice and experience, despite my lower educational background, but they were even willing to solicit my suggestions.  People like that, who are genuinely willing to put ego aside and do what is in the best interest of caring for a stray dog, are very, very, very hard to find, in any culture.  For a moment, I was speechless—taken aback by their inner beauty.  But I rapidly snapped back into problem-solving mode.  I asked if there were any rooms that he could stay in, inside, where it’s cool, but big enough that he wouldn’t feel too confined, since he had never been indoors before (I can categorically say that—even if he hadn’t been a stray, animals are not kept indoors in my village).  The head doctor gestured toward a nearby building, and said there was an unused room.  I immediately asserted that we had to use it, and began trying to coax Wooti in that direction. 

At this point, his patience was extremely thin, and as I was trying to work with him, before I could say anything, a student, at the doctor’s direction, showed up with some raw steak, and lured Wooti in the room.  I knew how dangerous feeding an animal prior to surgery was, but at that point, it was too late to say anything, and since the doctors had been so cooperative, it wasn’t worth pressing my luck.  I ran into the room with Wooti before they shut the door.  It was a large room with concrete walls, floor, and ceiling, and though it had a wall of windows, it was remarkably cool—and also caused a daunting echo. 

Wooti had thrown himself down on the cool floor, and lay panting.  I know it sounds silly, but his expression was that of a certain serenity—he looked entirely at peace and trusting, but simultaneously unsure of what would come next.  I know it sounds like I’m projecting, but anyone who has met this dog will know what I mean—this dog is wise. 

Wooti may have been confident, but I was still entirely overwhelmed—with each step we took, another, bigger one seemed to lie ahead, and the ante had been upped.  This surgery was going to happen, and I was going to be responsible for a lot more of it than I had expected.

May 30, 2011

Wooti: Part 2 (still more coming)

So.  Here’s Part 2.  It probably won’t make as much sense if you haven’t read Part 1, but that’s a lot of reading, so your call.  It’s longer than the first, and I don’t think this one is as “riveting” as my last one (thanks, ladies of Facebook ;o), but it is what it is… Also, sorry for another “cliffhanger” ending—it just felt like a good stopping point.  Also also, sorry for the boring, boring, boring details…I have to confess that a large part of writing this is the catharsis, and this particular day is one in which each of the minutes felt like hours, so I kind of can’t help but to tell it that way, interesting or not.

Because I hadn’t slept that night, I was dressed and ready for action before dawn, but lingered in the darkness of my compound until that quiet moment, just before the sun wages its fiery war against the night, using the sky as its battleground for the onslaught of a new day.  Though I had the entire night to formulate a plan of action, no magic bullet or shining beacon had come to mind, and I suppose a part of me was hoping for a last-minute epiphany; besides, it would not have been safe wait alone for a minibus on the dark street, nor would it be useful, since I couldn’t begin my search until daybreak anyway.

Armed only with the note in Amharic from the veterinarian, which explained what I was trying to do, I set out.  Fortunately, I caught a minibus easily—which is not always the case, since the part of town I was headed towards was on the far, far outskirts of town, which means fewer busses travel there.  Also fortunately, since it was still quite early, my fellow passengers weren’t feeling especially chatty, so I had a few more moments to pray and prepare.

As I departed the minibus and set forth down the dirt road, I was relieved to see that despite the early hour, it was already buzzing with activity—I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Ethiopians are some of the hardest-working people I’ve ever encountered, and this is particularly the case in the agricultural areas, where farmers work their crops by hand in what appears to be a 12-month growing season.  This was good news for me, as it would be easy to conduct my search to determine if the dog had a guardian.

Initially, it was a little tricky—since dogs are not especially highly regarded, the first several people I spoke with, while perfectly happy to chat, did not seem to understand at all, even with my note, and I found myself spending more time talking my way out of generous coffee invitations than making any headway with the dog.   But, as luck would have it, as I was speaking with a kind elderly woman who ran a small market out of her house (and insisted on giving me a lollypop, which she had seen the students share with me in our earlier walks), I heard a familiar voice from behind, and turned to see one of my students beaming back at me, “Hello Chelsea!  You come to class?  Class at 4?  Yes?” he asked, visibly concerned that he had somehow missed our class, or that we were having class early that day.  I dispelled his concerns, and showed him the note.  “Ahh, this is the dog with the—“ he gestured toward his leg, “burning leg.  From yesterday.”  He then began speaking with the elderly woman and then told me that she said she had seen the dog around, but that he had no owner, and should probably be killed because of the pain.  Finally—an answer that I could use, without the concern that I was misunderstanding (and with the added bonus that it was the answer I wanted—this would be a far simpler process if it dog was, indeed, a stray).

Despite the fact that the boy was only 14 or so, I knew that his time was immensely valuable to his family—most farmers barely make enough money from their crops to provide basic necessities for their families, and most children’s morning chores are of immense importance—for example, making the several mile walk each way to get the family’s water for the day.  So, despite the fact that my student was of enormous help, I did not feel it would be ethical to ask him to continue.  But, fortunately for me, once again, Ethiopian hospitality came to my rescue, and the student insisted on joining me until my quest was complete (it is an extreme insult to decline such an offer in Ethiopian culture, so after checking several times to be sure it would not cause problems for his family, I agreed, secretly incredibly relieved).  Thanks to his help, we knocked on steel gate after steel gate, mud wall after mud wall, and kept getting the same answer—essentially, the dog is a stray; kill him.  After about a mile’s worth of questioning, I felt confident in this answer, thanked my student profusely, and told him that I was done searching. 

As my student began walking home, I was once again overwhelmed by a sort of aimless anxiety—I had no idea where to begin looking for the dog, or what to do when I found him.  Clearly, if I found him, I couldn’t carry him all the way to the main road, but this part of town was so remote, there was no public transport, and even if there was, even most tame dogs would not put up with being held that long, and I had no idea if this dog was even really tame.  So I started to turn around, scanning all directions of the cactus-dotted countryside and mud house-lined street, and (I swear, this dog is magic), at that very moment, the dog came limping around a corner.  He did not approach me this time—he was more concerned with trying to find a morsel of food left on a pile of bones—but I walked towards him, and he remained at ease. 

As I was nearing him, a man dressed in a business suit—extremely out of the ordinary for my village in general, and Debre Zeyit in particular—asked me what I was doing with the dog, and spoke in very good English.  I felt a pang of anxiety—what if everyone else had been wrong, and this dog was “owned,” and his “owners” wouldn’t agree to my assistance?  So, rather than show my hand, I asked if the dog was his.  Thanks to all that is holy, he told me the same thing everyone else had.  He said he was just visiting the area, but that his family there had actually expressed concern about the dog, and he felt it was best for me to end his suffering.  Of course, I had no intentions of taking that course of action, but nonetheless, it was a huge relief to have one final confirmation—in a language that I, myself, could understand—that there would not be any repercussions for taking the dog. 

(Writer’s interjection: Perhaps it seems that I dwelled too long on this particular portion of the story, but it actually becomes very relevant later, so I wanted to properly set the scene.  Or perhaps I’m just toying with you all by making this extra-tedious to trudge through… :oP)

So.  Now I had sufficient evidence that the dog was stray, and I had the dog.  But what next?  The sun had climbed the sky quickly, and was beginning to bear down, squelching the morning cold, so I took off my jacket, and kept an eye on the dog as he continued stumbling through the road, searching for food, and I continued stumbling through my sleep-deprived-mind, searching for a plan.

I was momentarily distracted by an elderly man, who saw me eyeing the dog, and, without even looking at me muttered “give him bread” as he clutched his cane and walked slowly past me.  For some reason, this struck me as strange, so the words stuck in my head, until I heard something I never imagined: the sound of a motor.  Not a large truck motor (the road was near a military base, and large military humvees would occasionally woosh by with the thunderous noise of their engine), but the slightly higher-pitched-almost-going-to-break-down sputtering noise that could only come from a bajaj.  And there it was, maybe 200 feet away, racing by, on a small path that crossed with the main road.  I immediately began yelling and waving my arms in the air like a total nutcase.  Fortunately, I had already made enough of a spectacle of myself, that the whole neighborhood instantly surmised what I was trying to do, and, though I was too far away to catch the drivers’ attention, one of the residents of the area was able to stop him. 

I ran to him, and asked if he could return to this spot once he had dropped off the people he was transporting, and take me and the dog to the veterinary college.  Before he could say no, I offered him more money than he would probably have thought to ask for the ride, so he agreed.  To my dismay (I hate reverse-racism), the people already in the bajaj said they were very close to their desitnation, and insisted on getting out so I could have the bajaj right then.  I tried to dissuade them, but, once again, Ethiopian hospitality far exceeds the comfort levels of many Westerners, and I had no choice but to oblige.  The driver immediately started off towards the dog, and I rather frantically yelled for him to stop (since my reputation as a lunatic was already fairly solid, no harm in sealing the deal).  I feared the noise would scare him off or cause him to become unhandleable—and as it was, I was extremely anxious about the prospect of picking him up. 

With the bajaj at a distance, and the entire neighborhood watching me, I walked toward the dog, reasonably convinced that in the next thirty seconds I would either faint, or be maimed to death.  But the dog soon to be known as Wooti was hardly ferocious.  He had plopped himself down near a wall, and slowly stood as I approached him—but not in a threatening manner, as he was slowly wagging his big poofy tail.  It was clear that he knew the whole neighborhood was watching, and since everyone had been staring and pointing at him all morning, he seemed to be quite aware of that fact.  Taking a deep breath, I asked him, out loud, whether I could pick him up.  I told him, again, that I was going to help him, and that it was going to be scary, but he needed to be brave.  I know it sounds crazy to talk out loud like that—in fact, probably this whole thing sounds crazy to a lot of people—but as with the first time we touched, I was taking a leap of faith for him, and I needed him to do the same for me. 

So came the “now or never” moment.  I reached out and pet him on the forehead, then slowly leaned over him, and grabbed his waist, careful not to touch his wound. To my astonishment, he didn’t struggle in the least, or even make a sound.  Shaky with relief (day two of stupid adrenaline rush), I speed-walked to the bajaj, and clung tightly to the dog (unfortunately this particular bajaj had no doors, so in addition to the obvious risks of transport, came the risk of him slipping out the side).  For the first time, I felt his bones protruding into his chest—his fur was quite long, and concealed just how emaciated he was. 

A strange man had decided to accompany us, and, though I would have much rather gone alone (I suspected he was trying to get me to pay him for his “help”—my suspicions later proved to be true; all he got was cab fare home, though—Ethiopians find it just as insulting when their fellow people try to fake hospitality for profit from “rich Farenji,” and it is beginning to be a large problem there), I didn’t have the time to object so he sat in the front with the driver, and our trip commenced.

To my surprise, once it became apparent that the dog was not going to struggle during our twenty-plus minute journey along bumpy, bumpy, BUMPY rocky roads, the doorlessness of our bajaj turned out to be a blessing.  In addition to inviting a cool breeze in the usually greenhouse-like passenger area, it also failed to keep out the obnoxious noise of the engine, which, in turn, allowed me to once again forgo the socially obligatory small-talk with the stranger who forced his way along.  (For the record, I typically enjoy these sorts of interactions—indeed, they are actually among my favorite things about traveling in Ethiopia…just not when I’ve got a wounded dog on my lap, and the other party to the conversation is unquestionably creepy.)

Instead, I was able to focus on the gentle creature in my arms.  The extent of suffering he was experiencing was slowly becoming apparent to me, making my soul feel as limp and ragged as his leg.  Though functionally dead—muscles dissolved, and totally stiff—his leg was still oozing a small amount of reeking puss, which covered the fur on his chest (when he lay down, his leg was frozen into a position where it rubbed that spot), and the stench was so immense that even the wind from the bajaj did not make it dissipate—and it was all concentrated right beneath his beautiful black nose.  He was filthy and covered—covered—in fleas and ticks, some of which I began picking off, and some of which decided I was an incredibly inviting piece of fresh meat. 

Drowed in my thoughts of what agony this poor creature must be in, I was shaken as the bajaj lurched to a halt.  We had arrived at the arched entryway of the veterinary college.  Because we had an animal, we were instructed to use the back entrance, where the horse and donkey hospital is located, so the driver diligently drove around, and our trip was completed.  Wooti and I disembarked, and I paid the driver the promised sum, as well as enough to cover the stranger’s ride home, and we parted ways, as the dog and I entered the back of the campus.

Now, dogs aren’t kept as pets in Ethiopia, at least not at all in the same way they we keep pets here in the US.  Things like collars and leashes and muzzles…well, they’re not easy to come by, to put it mildly.  So though I had been lost in the quiet moment, of processing Wooti’s suffering, I quickly found myself once again forced to use “creative problem solving”: how to contain an unfamiliar dog with no restraint devices in a large field, while simultaneously searching for the doctor.  So, I hovered over the dog, and herded him towards the concrete office building 50 or so yards away.  We found a spot of shade, and sat in the gravel, and I held one arm over his body, keeping him close to my hip.  As I pulled out my phone to try to reach the doctor, an onslaught of flies—literally dozens—came out of nowhere, and immediately began preying on Wooti’s arm, unmercilessly swarming him as he panted, and half-heartedly licked at his wound, trying to keep them at bay (I say “halfheartedly,” because, as terrible as they were, he seemed defeated by them—he had clearly been fighting so long, he knew there would be no relief.  He was here with me, and I knew he wanted to go on.  But it also really, really seemed that he had lost hope.).  As the ringing sound from the doctor’s line persisted in my ear, I plucked a long weed from the ground, and began fanning Wooti’s wound—he may have surrendered to the flies, but I couldn’t.  The robotic voice of the automated phone message began chiding me, alternately in Amharic and English “The person you are trying to call is not answering.  Please try again.” 

I tried several times, but the only answer was the condescending phone lady with a British accent.  We had been waiting for nearly twenty minutes, and I began to worry—the doctor had sounded incredibly compassionate and credible, but sometimes, just as students say “yes,” when they really mean “no,” because they don’t want to disappoint, people make promises that they cannot fulfill—what if this was just another one of those?  I couldn’t bear the thought, and dismissed it immediately.  So we waited. 

May 29, 2011

Wooti: Part 1 (more coming)

For those who don’t know, thanks to the work of some astonishingly giving friends, both old and new, I brought a dog, Wooti, back to the US from Ethiopia.  I’ve been aching to tell his story, but it was one of the most intense experiences of my life emotionally, so in the months since my return, I’ve made a habit of putting it off.  But I think it’s finally time.  So here goes...Part 1 of a still-to-be-determined number of parts.

It is easy to see how light distorts the world around us and toys with our impressions of it: the darkness of night contrasted with the flickering of sunlight through trees is the very difference between an eerie, predator-filled forest, and a wonderful place for a picnic (or in my case, as a true Pacific Northwesterner, real comfort lies somewhere in between, beneath a comforting blanket of clouds and fog…but that’s neither here nor there). 

Just as light alters our perception of the world, emotions have the capacity to warp our experiences and memories, burying them beneath darkness and shadows, or painting them in bright hues, keeping them at the forefront of our minds.  Despite the enormous amount of support and help I received with Wooti’s, and despite the fact that our effort to get him safely to the United States was successful, for me, the memory of the weeks leading up to his rescue, is one tinged in darkness, which is why it has taken me so long to tell his story.  Even though I know that Wooti and I had so many people sending thoughts and prayers (and money, and logistical help), there were many long nights spent holding him and crying, terrified of defeat, and overcome by a sense of lonliness and helplessness like nothing I’ve ever felt before.  Now that, of course, is probably really just evidence of just how lucky I’ve been, that this is among the most troubling experiences I’ve had, but, nonetheless, it is the reason that I have waited months to tell Wooti’s story—because the memory has been sucked into an emotional black hole, and every prior attempt to resurrect it has resulted in my own downward spiral into that dark place.  (And, as I said in my last entry about Wooti, not only is it about him—incredible, incredible him—but it’s about all the pain and suffering that I’ve seen and feel helpless to fix.)

Nonetheless, Wooti’s story is a remarkable one, and I want to share it, though I hardly think I’m capable of doing it justice, and I’m quite sure it’ll take more than a single entry.  It’s a story in which every single thing that can possibly go wrong, fall apart, or fail does, and every single thing that can possibly miraculously come together at the eleventh hour somehow manages to.  It’s a story of people from all over the world coming together, and committing extraordinary acts of generosity in order to save a life.  And it’s a story of a really, really lucky dog (and his human companion—me).

My memory of the street where I found Wooti was not always so dimly lit.  Prior to our the emotional jolt of our first encounter and the tremors that followed, it was actually glittering and glowing, inhabited by the smiling, laughing faces of my students and the echoes of the first time we really bonded: the memory of our walk home after my first day of teaching, kicking up dust as we sang the iconic World Cup song, Shakira’s “This Time for Africa,” (and the slightly awkward fact that most of us only knew the chorus, which wasn’t quite lengthy enough to carry us through the entire walk home, a fact that didn’t keep the kids from throwing their voices together as they repeated the chorus over and over again with undwindling zeal).  Or the memory of my favorite student who struggled a great deal with her English, but had one of the most beautiful hearts of anyone I’ve ever met.  She waited on this road to meet me every single day, with a new bit of conversational English, which she had clearly composed and rehearsed, and was nearly ready to burst until she had the chance to proudly recite it for me.   Honestly, the majority of my memories from this particular pathway are unequivocally positive—yet the darkness creeps in, and I feel a knot in my throat when I think of it.

It all started one day when I was walking home from class, surrounded by my swarm of students, buzzing around me singing songs, practicing their English, and asking questions about the day’s lesson, as always.  It was the same road I had treaded daily for weeks, entirely familiar.   But that day was a little different.  While engrossed in the emotional flutter of my joyful students, out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of a dog with a nauseatingly horrendous injury, lying on the opposite side of the road.  And to be perfectly honest, he was a welcoming sight. 

In the interest of full disclosure, I have to admit that I had actually seen Wooti once before I committed to helping him.  It was a brief, fleeting sighing, as he limped in and out of view weaving his way through the maze of shanty homes at a far distance.  But though I only caught a glimpse of him, he was burned in my mind.  I couldn’t have told you his coloring or size, or any other identifying characteristic; all I remember was his leg.  Despite the years I’ve spent in animal rescue, handling cases of extreme abuse and neglect and disaster response, I had never seen anything like it: a nearly foot-long gash of exposed flesh, which split his front left leg vertically, entirely through to the bone, and left it hanging from his body like a weighted-down rag.  It was absolutely horrifying. 

Now, I am sure many people reading this are shocked that I could simply walk away from a situation like this—he could have died, and it would have been my fault for being apathetic.  And you’re not wrong—I’m extremely ashamed that I didn’t respond immediately.  But everything is different in foreign countries—human healthcare is rare, let alone veterinary care.  Because cats and dogs are not treated as kindly as they are in the US (broadly speaking), many are not safe to approach—and even an extremely tame animal can be dangerous to handle when badly injured.  And, as I have mentioned before, in order to do an sort of work in developing countries, you must develop a certain tolerance for the intolerable.  Frankly, the sight of him caught me entirely off-guard, and left me entirely overwhelmed.  So I kept walking.  But his image haunted me, and I made a promise to myself that if our paths should cross again, I would do everything in my power to help him.

Nearly two weeks went by, and, though my eyes combed the area where I had seen him each time I passed it, my efforts were of no use, and I began to give up hope—with such a terrible wound, there was no way he could survive, I rationalized—and buried his memory away in the dark recesses of my mind, where I hid away all of the things I knew I would eventually have to deal with when I returned to the uncomfortably comfortable US.

So, when I saw him, nearly two weeks later, only yards away from me, lying in a small patch of precious shade, my very first reaction was a small amount of selfish relief—from the guilt I had been carrying over my own inaction.  I was being given a second chance at helping him, and, far more importantly, he was being given a second chance.  My eyes met his warm brown eyes from across the path, and it was as though they penetrated into my thoughts.   He immediately stood and limped toward me—directly toward me, ignoring the students taunting him and throwing rocks (I had been working with them, trying to teach them about humane treatment of animals since arriving), as though he had been waiting there, just for me.   As he approached me, my stomach turned to stone, as I saw het full extend of his injury—indeed, his bone was exposed, and his flesh was covered in flies and maggots, and it appeared to have been that way for some time, as his muscles had atrophied.   

I’d like to say that I handled this with bravery and selfless heroism, but I have to be honest—my relief faded fast, as I felt the blood drain from my body, and my first thought was an explicative.  I knew there was no way I could leave him like this, but had absolutely no idea what I could do, and also knew that if I didn’t do it, absolutely no one else would, and this dog would die a horrible, horrible death.

My students immediately sensed how upset I was, and I began peppering them with questions—did any of them know who the dog belonged to, did any of them know where I could get veterinary care or how?  They all said he was a stray, and did not know how I could help him (well, actually they all kept saying “yes,” but further questioning revealed that they didn’t understand what I was trying to ask—it’s actually a common frustration when working with students: because of cultural differences, as well as corporal punishment if a student answers incorrectly in class, rather than saying “no,” “I don’t understand,” or “I don’t know,” students answer nearly every question with “yes.”).  

As I tried to elicit answers, and my mind raced to find a solution, the dog stood about three feet from me, and the students all told me to stay away (there is a large misconception in Ethiopia that all dogs are violent and diseased—while many are, I have enough experience with animal behavior and access to healthcare that I am confident in my ability to gauge a situation—this dog was not going to hurt me).  Instead, I called to him.  Our eyes still were locked, and the tension was palpable—it was clear that each of us was equally fearful of the other.  But we were willing to take the risk.  He, very cautiously, limped closer, and I, very cautiously stuck my hand out, and after a moment of recognizing each other’s voluntary vulnerability, he sniffed my hand and licked it, and I gently stroked his forehead.

His deep brown eyes could not conceal his pain, and as we continued to look at one another, I made a promise to him, aloud that I would do everything in my power to help.  The intensity of the moment was broken by the students, unable to understand it, due to cultural differences and ideas about animals.  He began to limp back, to his spot in the shade, as the flies harassed him incessantly, but I did the only thing I could think to do—I quickly reached for my digital camera, and took a photograph of him and his injury.

At that moment, all else faded away, including my students, and I lurched into action, and began running toward the main, paved road, where I could catch a bus.  Time was short, both in the immediate sense—it was nearing evening, when everything shuts down—and with regard to this dog’s life.  The only possible resource I knew of was the veterinary school.  It was on the opposite side of town.  I had no idea whether they provided services to the public, or whether they would be capable of handling something like this.  But it was the only resource I knew, and, if this was to be like anything else I had tried to accomplish in a foreign, developing world, I knew I had to start somewhere, and they were the only people I knew of who might be sympathetic to the cause. 

Because it was the evening, rush hour had set in (yes, there is rush hour, even in Debre Zeyit), and the bus moved so slowly I was nearly overcome by agitation—the fading sunlight of dusk was creeping through the hills, almost faster than the car inching along, and I found myself nearly in tears as I attempted to maintain the obligatory small-talk with my fellow passengers, so as not to come off as a racist Farenji.  No one would have understood the panic and sense of urgency that I felt, had I tried to convey it to them, and of course that made it all the worse, until I felt the emotions erupt in an unnecessarily forceful “WIRRAGE ALLAH!” (“STOP HERE!”) when we finally reached my destination (which was, of course, nearly the last stop).

I jumped off the bus and ran to the security guard (nearly all buildings in Ethiopia are complete with a gated checkpoint staffed with security guards—good for employment, perhaps, but remarkably obnoxious in situations like this).  In my best attempt at feigning calmness (the appearance of being anxious or overly excited is almost a sure-fire way of not being permitted to enter, or granted a request, as my fruitless attempts at salvaging my 2 year visa had taught me), I showed the guard my photos, and used as much Amharic as I could to state my case to be allowed to speak to a vet (the guard spoke English, of course, but as in most cultures, a demonstrated effort at learning local language and customs goes a long way, and in a situation like this, every possible precaution must be taken).  To my great relief and amazement, after a few moments of deliberation, the guard not only allowed me to proced, but actually gave me the name of the lead veterinarian at the college, and directed me to his office. (The directions were useless, of course, as I am notorious for becoming lost and disoriented combined with the fact that I was a giant ball of nerves). 

Dripping with sweat, partially anxiety-induced, and partially from the heat, I power walked around the neatly-landscaped campus, stopping everyone to ask if they knew where the doctor was, until the person I was asking was, in fact, the doctor himself, on his way home.  I frantically told him the dog’s story (I would love to say I was the image of grace and composure, but even by then, I had worked myself into a tizzy), showed him the pictures, and asked if he knew what to do.  I told him I was quite sure the leg would need to be amputated if this dog was going to live, and that I would pay for whatever he needed.   The doctor was very taken by the photos and story (it is uncommon for people to show interest in stray animals in Ethiopia), and invited me into his office.

We entered the large, multi-story, pale cement building (adorned with the familiar “x”’ed windows to protect wild birds), and entered his large office, sparsely decorated by US standards, but otherwise, not entirely unlike an office in the US, with a desk, several chairs, and some framed photos of family—it was one of the nicest offices I had seen there (this was before most of my more intense drama with Immigration).

He offered me coffee, which I (somewhat reluctantly) accepted (I didn’t want to keep him, and honestly I was fairly emotionally fried, and knew a lot more stress was imminent).  We discussed the case further, as well as our past experiences working with animals.  He instructed me to bring the dog to the office the next morning, and, somewhat bashfully informed me that I would have to pay for the dog’s care, and that it could be quite expensive.  Knowing that in the US, amputation is in the thousands, but also knowing that the US dollar is worth more in Ethiopia, but also also knowing that veterinary care in Ethiopia is rare (and therefore perhaps more expensive), I attempted to coax a number out of the doctor, because the last thing I wanted to do was short the school, and I assumed I’d need to Western Union some money to myself.  After throwing out a few numbers, I finally got him to give me a figure—it would be between $3-5 USD, plus the cost of all medication, which I would have to purchase myself (which might be an additional $5 USD or so).  Yes, you read that correctly—I did not forget any zero’s or omit any digits.  I suppose I shouldn’t have been so surprised, considering that when I was in my bus accident, the total cost for my hospitalization and stitches was about $1 USD.  But still…that was one huge relief, to say the least (and, in an unrelated note, shows just how much of an impact we can have in other areas of the world, even if we feel poor here in the US).

At my request, he also composed a note in Amharic, asking if anyone knew who owned the dog, and explaining that I was trying to help him—at this time, I had been dealing with the Ethiopian immigration office for weeks, and was, frankly, kind of terrified of the government, and didn’t want to find myself accused of theft on top of everything else (really, I wish I had been more selfless in all of this, but I must tell this story honestly).

I asked him if he knew how I might transport the dog, and he (again somewhat apologetically) informed me that they did not have an ambulance service, but that if I could get the dog there, they would do what they could to help.  I felt bad that he was so self-conscious about their facilities—to this day, I have nothing but awe and respect for what he, his staff, and his students are doing, and the progress they are making in their community—so in addition to doing my best to display immense gratitude (it can be difficult with cross-cultural barriers, to try to determine what resources exist, without sounding presumptuous), I made a point of saying that I’ve never, ever seen an animal ambulance in the US, either.

I left his office still ridden with anxiety (and, now, caffeinated anxiety—three cups worth), eager for the next day, but also terrified. Needless to say I did not sleep that night.  I had absolutely no idea whether the dog would still be there in the morning, since he had disappeared after the first time I saw him there; I had no idea how to physically get him to the vet, which was easily 10 miles from the part of town where I found him; I had absolutely no idea how he would respond to being held or restrained; I had no idea whether the clinic would be able to safely treat him, and I had no idea what I was going to do with him after the procedure.  I just knew I needed to do something to help him, and I knew in my heart that he wanted to live. 

January 10, 2011

Thank You

I have always said that the people that I am blessed to call my friends are truly the best people in the world, and right now I am so overwhelmed and humbled by just how true it is. I wish I had a forum that seemed more sincere than a blog or Facebook post to communicate just how appreciative of everyone who has committed time, energy, money, and prayers to trying to get Wooti home to the US with me. But the truth is, this means so much to me, there is no way I will ever be able to put my gratitude into words.

I can imagine it might seem unusual—or even selfish—to some to put so much energy into one dog in the midst of so many atrocities, so much hardship and suffering. But that’s precisely why helping this dog is so important. For those of us who come to work in the developing world (and for aid workers anywhere, for that matter), we are immersed in situations in which the level of need is literally unfathomable—both in its scope and magnitude. Every day I must walk past literally hundreds of people and animals who are malnourished, have inadequate shelter, extremely limited access to water, many with visible health ailments and no access to healthcare. Every day children approach me in tattered clothes, who have clearly not eaten a good meal in weeks, begging for money. Every day I see horses and donkeys being whipped and beaten, skin and bones hauling carts that are far too heavy for their physical condition. And, frankly, there isn’t anything I can do about it.

Now you all know, I am not about negativity—I believe in the power of positivity, optimism, and empowerment, and I believe that we all have a significantly greater impact than we realize, and that every person has the power to facilitate change. But the reality is that no single person can save the world, and that in order to begin the process and instigate change for the better, we must bear witness to atrocities which we cannot solve, and have faith that our actions will have an impact in the long term, even if the immediate results seem rather intangible and small compared to the scale of need. And in order to do this; in order to function amidst so much hardship, one must develop a certain tolerance for it—if you allow yourself to truly comprehend life experiences of everyone around you, it would be crippling. So just as a surgeon must form a certain detachment from his patient, when working in the developing world, you must numb yourself to those around you. And though doing this does make you grow stronger and work more effectively, it also suffocates a part of your soul; a piece of your humanity feels as though it has become frozen, shriveled up, and died off, when you realize you can look an impoverished person in the eye and not immediately break down into tears.

But every so often you have a personal connection, you encounter a situation in which you actually feel a solution is within your grasp—a tiny piece of the puzzle that you can actually put into place, a small bit of salvation that you can actually deliver. And for me, when Wooti came limping up to me, looked me in the eye, and silently pleaded for my help, this was one of those moments. Not only is this about Wooti; it is about hope. It is about that little piece of humanity, a small reminder that things can change, things can get better, that if we focus our help and time and energy, we can genuinely save a life—even if we have to do it one life at a time.

To be perfectly honest, I’m not yet ready to write a formal memoir of Wooti’s experience, because I am still so terrified that we will not be able to bring him back, and the thought of me abandoning him, allowing him returning to the streets after becoming so accustomed to a full belly, peaceful sleep, love, kisses, snuggling—every night we sleep forehead to forehead, and sometimes he wakes me up to give me kisses on my nose; he hates going outside, and loves the warmth and comfort of a home—well, this thought is simply more than I can handle right now. And along with the thought of not being able to help him, comes a mental flood of all of the terrible things I’ve been blocking out, first for him, then for everything else around me—the idea of him going back to the streets, to a cold world where he had to scrounge for every bite of food, the world where he was left with a gaping wound for over six weeks, where he will be mocked and kicked and called worthless because of his lost leg, and will live out the rest of his days sad and lonely. This, compounded with everything else here that I can’t help; it’s just too much for me to bear. (I actually started to cry just writing this…). I need to see a happy ending. And it is only because of your suppot that Wooti has any chance of salvation—with your gifts of time, energy, and money, you’ve given me hope, and him the possible chance at a good life—and those are greater gifts than you can ever imagine.

Right now, our biggest problem is the logistics—we barely have ten days to finalize his transport details, because if I can’t get him to the airport, no one will, so even if we were able to book a flight a few days later, it would be too late. Please continue to send your thoughts and prayers Wooti’s way—even if not for him, then for me. If we are able to help him, it is entirely because of the dedication and compassion that you all have shown for Wooti and for me, and for that, I will never be able to properly thank you. You all are my inspirations and I truly love each and every one of you.

Humbly yours,

I am SO beka…!

Anyone who is Ethiopia-bound, now or in the future, heed my warning: if you learn only one phrase in Amharic, make it ishii, beka! Literal translation “Ok, enough!” Pragmatic translation “No, seriously, I’m FULL!” Now, you might think a more useful phrase would be something like “Where’s the bathroom?” or “I’m thirsty,” or “I’m sick.” But I went weeks without knowing those phrases, and did just fine (charades and Pictionary are among the better preparatory measures one should take prior to departing for a country in which one doesn’t speak the language; one who possess the dual qualities of being well-versed in the art of pantomime and having no shame/qualms about looking ridiculous in a crowd of strangers can go a long way, I assure you, particularly in a place like Ethiopia, where people will bend over backwards to accommodate you). No, the phrase that you need to get by in Ethiopia is ishii, beka! You see, in Ethiopian culture, there is an almost unfathomable practice of hospitality toward guests—not only guests in a home, but guests in a school, even simply guests in the country—and as such, if you have any interactions with any Ethiopians at all, you will almost certainly be invited—in a non-negotiable sort of way—for a coffee ceremony and dinner. On a regular basis.

Now, dinner at an Ethiopian’s house is a truly special experience. While some people are more casual, the whole process is typically quite elaborate, beautiful, anf humbling—at least from an outsider’s perspective. After a warm reception with ladies shaking right hands and kissing opposite cheeks three times (think cliché classy Italian—where I suspect this tradition began), and men shaking right hands while bumping right shoulders in a sort of half-hug, the guest is ushered to the table. A pitcher and basin are brought out, and the host pours water over the guest’s hands as s/he washes them (in some cases, the host will actually wash the guest’s hands). Then comes the food. So much food…SO much food.

For those who have not had the pleasure of indulging in an Ethiopian meal (there are Ethiopian restaurants in almost every major US city—seriously go try some!), it’s a truly beautiful communal sort of experience, and even the food itself is indicative of this. Food is served on a large (and I mean LARGE—sometimes a yard in diameter) platter, covered in one or more pieces of injera laid flat. Injera is a sort of thin pancake made out of fermented teff flour—the best description of it that I’ve come across is a giant sour dough crepe—that actually pretty accurately describes it. Various highly aromatic, exotically seasoned wots (stews) are spooned in separate piles atop the injera, almost mimicking bright splotches of color on a painter’s palate—and equally enticing; you can hardly wait to delve in and make a taste-painting in your mouth. After the food is presented, rolls of injera are passed around, and you are quickly ordered to be, be! (eat, eat!). In the US our traditional eating habbits are somewhat alienated—our separate plates alienate us from each other, our utensils alienate us from our food. In Ethiopia, this is not the case. Food is consumed without utensils—a piece of injera is torn off, dipped in some wot, then rolled neatly into a bite-sized spiral of goodness (all done with the right hand, incidentally, as the taboo of eating with the left hand is still widely practiced, though exceptions can be made for farenji such as myself). People reach across the table for the far-away wots, lean against each other as they laugh and eat, tear off pieces of injera on their side and pass them around if they see another side is running low on injera. It is even customary to roll a piece of injera with wot, and feed eachother—directly from one person’s hand into another person’s mouth. With this level of intimacy and connection with food, it is nearly impossible not to feel the intense bond of human connection to those with whom you share a meal.

But in addition to this human connection, is the food. So, so, SO much food. Even though the initial quantities of injera and wot typically far exceed what one could comfortably consume, it is customary to continue serving more and more—so just as you think you have managed the incredible feat of finishing, the host slips away and reappears with more—at some points it literally seems endless. And this is where the magical phrase “ishii, beka!” comes in handy. The only way to end this seemingly endless stream of food is to say “ishi, beka.” Of course one “ishii, beka” is hardly going to be enough—Ethiopian hospitality is far too generous for that, plus, it is customary to feign fullness so as not to impose on your host, so your first (few) ishi-beka’s will be met by (several) insistant “be, be!”’s (eat, eat!). but, if you persevere, and hold strong, several utterances of this phrase, should be enough to render the meal complete. Without this magic phrase, the food will not stop, I assure you, and a very beautiful meal will turn into a very painful evening (and those of you who know me and my eating habits should know that if I say it’s too much food, it’s too much food!!!)

So, take it from me—if you ever have the opportunity to visit this fine country and partake in a home-cooked meal, by all means DO it, but do not, under any circumstances, refrain from utilizing “ishi, beka!” unless you intend to eat your bodyweight in injera. Seriously, you’ve been warned.

American Girl

As you’re entering Addis Ababa from Debre Zeyit, there’s one spot where, out of nowhere, the crudely constructed, intermittently paved road rises up into a white concrete spiral overpass intertwined with several other entirely modern paved roads, soaring above a well-maintained green grassy lawn and past a high-rise apartment building. For a tiny split second, a fraction of a turn as the road weaves around the entrance to the city, all of the surrounding slums slip out of view; there are no chickens or sheep crossing the road; no burning piles of garbage—nothing but the Western—no, American—style entirely artificial concrete-mask can be seen.

Growing up—and, indeed, up until my recent travel experiences—I always perceived such obliteration of nature as oppressive and suffocating. And from an intellectual standpoint, I still entirely do. But in the same way that most granola-crunching vegan hippies still have a special place in out hearts for Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese, in spite of finding it repulsive on several levels, this tiny spot is the place that I feel the most at home here. That is not to say that I don’t love my village—the natural beauty of the lakes and mountains; the warmth of my compound and indescribably kind host family; the little bit of joy I get when I hear the sound of a lizard scuttling into the bushes as I step past him on the cobblestone street—or to say that I don’t love it here, or haven’t established the sort of routines which differentiate living somewhere from merely staying there. Indeed all of those things are true. But, for me, for better or worse, the world in which I was raised was imprinted on my soul, and—almost in spite of myself—whenever I pass this spot, even if I wasn’t paying attention prior, it almost feels as though for one moment, my entire being releases a sigh of relief.

And, in a strange way, I’m almost glad that I feel this way. You see, despite my dislike of some political policies in the US, despite the fact that so many of my most deeply-held views are in an overwhelming minority, I am, undeniably, an American. And as much as I like to assimilate into local culture; as hard as I work to genuinely experience life as it is for people here (and intend to do in future travels—I definitely have the travel bug!), it really is true that for me (and I know I’m not alone in this), this sort of travel is more draining than one might expect, or even realize, because as many gripes and frustrations as I may have with some things about the US, culture runs deep. It’s not just food, art, expressions, language. It’s communication, social structure, gender roles, and so much more.

And I am proud to be an American. I’m proud of our history, I’m proud of our tolerance (it definitely feels lacking at times when you’re in the thick of it, but when you leave and experience the homogeny that is required to be accepted in many other cultures, the racism you’re subjected to as a foreigner, it is quickly evident how much more tolerant we are of individuality, and of sub-cultural identities). I’m proud of our activism, and of our freedom to speak out. I appreciate the fact that we value privacy and time alone. Although I think we could benefit a lot from helping each other out a bit more, and losing the “stranger danger” mentality, I also appreciate that friendship is voluntary, not socially required—in the US, people are friends because they genuinely like each other, not because it would be rude not to be (obviously we all have a few “convenience” acquaintances, but we appreciate the distinction between acquaintance and friend—just because you happen to sit by someone on a bus in the US, doesn’t mean that you’re expected to hang out with them every day and get scolded for having other friends). I appreciate that in the US we are allowed to stay in for a night if we don’t feel like being extraverted.

Of course, I also appreciate the opportunity to escape, to learn, and to reflect on these nuances, and fully recognize that my preferences are a result of my upbringing, not the result of some empirical right or wrong, better or worse-ness of my culture over any other culture. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to explore, and am frankly not ready to return home (I’m not comfortable discussing what happened with my visa in a public forum until I’m safely back in the US). But just as an emotion like sadness or happiness will persist, regardless of an intellectual awareness that the emotion is illogical, cultural identity is firmly rooted, and even in the face of obvious evidence of cultural relativism, I am, through and through, an American girl.

Well she was an American girl
Raised on promises
She couldn’t help thinking there
Was a little more life
Somewhere else
After all it was a great big world
With lots of places to run to…