For What it's Worth: My Work as a Volunteer Veterinarian with HSVMA

March 7, 2011

by David Turoff, DVM

Mare in Peru
This mare was to be sold for slaughter, due to her extensive injuries.
David Turoff, DVM/HSVMA

As a volunteer veterinarian for HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS), I make three or four trips a year to Central and South America to do veterinary work in remote, impoverished communities. One recurrent trip I participate in is to the northern coastal Atacama Desert region of Peru, just south of the Ecuador border.

This time around, a group of about ten veterinarians and veterinary students went to a different village each day to work with the local horses. On one particular day, we were entering a village and came across a group of people gathered around a horse, who was lying on the ground, lifeless. We stopped to see what had happened and found that the mare was not dead, but did have a compound fracture of a major long bone in her leg.

Searching for a humane solution

We were told that the break had occurred about ten days earlier and had been splinted, ineffectively, by the villagers (a horse with this kind of injury would not have survived even with the best medical care and an unlimited budget in the United States). The mare had gone down and was now unable to rise.

Given her condition, the owner had sold her to a meat-processing facility about 30 kilometers away, and the driver from that facility was there, proposing to hoist the still-living mare by her hocks on chains and transport her hanging upside down to slaughter.

We were appalled at this prospect and bought the mare from the meat truck driver for ten percent more than he had paid for her. Although it was necessary to euthanize the mare, we could not do so in the conventional manner with an overdose of barbiturate, since we had no way to bury her and her carcass would have been toxic to the dogs and buzzards who would inevitably have scavenged upon it. As we did not have access to a gun, our best option was to exsanguinate the mare (we anesthetized her before doing this with drugs that would not render the carcass seriously toxic).

Light at the end of our tunnel

I include all of this detail only to explain the truly foul and awful mood with which we then began our work day. Shortly after we set up at our work site, a man came by, deposited a cardboard box by the side of the road and took off. We went to open it, and there were two very sick puppies in it, who obviously were going to need to be euthanized as well.

Pedro Turoff
Dr. Turoff's canine companion, Pedro, is just one of the many good things to come out of working with HSVMA-RAVS.
David Turoff, DVM/HSVMA

After the already brutal start to our day, none of us had the heart to do it, so we put them in the shade with some food and water, gave them subcutaneous fluids and decided to euthanize them at the end of the day. Of course, by the end of the day, a veterinary student had decided to take one of the puppies home, and I took the other, which is a fairly difficult task to pull off from the northern desert of Peru and not something we would likely have done had it not been for the incident with the mare.

Once home, the student named her dog Pedro, and—completely independently and without consultation—I gave mine the same name. When we got the two dogs together for a reunion about a year later, we had to call them Pedro Uno and Pedro Dos to avoid any confusion.

Four years later, after overcoming some serious medical problems, both dogs are now thriving. Pedro Uno is the light of my life and goes everywhere with me. And while I’m aware that the good lives we have given these dogs doesn't compensate for the suffering of that mare that day, I’m reminded every time I see Pedro that it’s worth my time to participate in these trips and be a member of HSVMA, which supports and facilitates this good work.

Dr. Turoff is a longtime volunteer with HSVMA-RAVS. In his "spare time", he runs Foothill Mobile Veterinary Service in Placerville, Calif.