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.