Mosquito Bites and Stray Dogs
Combatting Animal Overpopulation in Panama

by Galleet Khouban

September 17, 2013

Veterinary student, Galleet Khouban, spaying a cat
UC Davis veterinary student, Galleet Khouban, spent her summer in Panama gaining valuable hands on experience.
Galleet Khouban

Summer vacation is a time which, for the typical vet student, means scrambling for coveted externships, padding up resumes, and strengthening technical skills; I wanted to experience something a little bit different. Last summer, I spent two glorious months practicing blood draws, running diagnostics, and manning isolation wards. This time around, I decided to travel to Panama, the land of frizzy hair, mango trees, and thousands-upon-thousands of stray animals. It is a beautiful location and, while my Spanish is muy rusty, it was truly a life changing experience.

I joined Spay Panama, an organization that aims to reduce the number of stray animals by diligently spaying and neutering any animals that arrive on its premises. This is crucial in Panama where you can barely walk a block without seeing a scrawny, flea-ridden dog crossing the street Frogger-style.

The moment I stepped off the plane in Panama City, I felt a rush of adrenaline. I worked my way through hordes of people in the airport terminal by following the arrows that showed pictures of suitcases and relying on my weak grasp of the language. After getting through customs and finding my way downstairs, I found a cab driver whose attempt at English supplemented my mangled Spanish, and together we found the home of my hostess, Patricia Chan.

Patricia helped me settle in and gave me a tour of Spay Panama’s facilities. Just behind my bedroom was a surgery suite fit for eight surgeons to work at the same time. Adjacent to the surgery room was the prep room/clinic. The hospital was open to all Panamanians; it offered free to low-cost treatment for homeless and low-income families. As Patricia explained how my time would be spent, I began to feel overwhelmed. The hospital was open every day for appointments and all night for emergencies. We would spend half of our time on premises performing sterilization surgeries as well as other potentially life-saving treatments. The other half of our time would be distributed in the poorer areas of the country, where we would assist in blitzes. A blitz is an all-day event where eight surgeons, one anesthetist, and a handful of assistants get together to spay and neuter as many animals as possible in one day. This requires a 4 a.m. wake-up call to travel to a predetermined location, usually somewhere in the sweltering heat and humidity, with little-to-no shelter from the sun, where we would set up induction, surgery, and post-op tables. Together, we would spay more than 300 animals in one day. Then, with blistered feet and sorry hands, we would pack up and start anew the following day.

After Patricia's explanation of our duties, I was feeling a little apprehensive and wholly unprepared. I settled into my room for the night, with three cats on my cot and the sound of thousands of mating bullfrogs in the background.

The following morning,I had a nerve-wracking start, and I was prepared to fail in a magnificent, Lucille-Ball-performing-a-Vitameatavegamin-skit fashion. But surprisingly, I didn’t. Did you know that all of that ”stuff” we’ve been learning in veterinary school is actually applicable in real life? Really, I’m not even joking.

My anatomy skills helped me spay and neuter more than 30 animals. Memorizing all those drugs the night before an exam means I can say, with some semblance of confidence, yes I would treat that acute uveitis with a corticosteroid like prednisone. I, of course, did have some slip-ups, notably when I palpated a female dog and mistook her small fetuses for some very compact feces. ¡Ayala vida!

But it really was an amazing trip. Beating the humidity, the gnats, and the frizzy hair, we spayed and neutered over 600 animals. We treated hit-by-cars, did amputations and treated multiple cases of jaundice and tick-borne diseases. By the end, we were sweaty, had sores on our feet, and were mosquito bitten, but it was so worth it. It is easy to get overwhelmed in school and lose sight of my goals when I am drowning in lectures, discussions, and exams, but volunteering in Panama reminded me of why I got into veterinary medicine in the first place.

Spay Panama is a Humane Society International partner organization. Learn more about HSI»

Galleet Khouban
Galleet Khouban


Galleet Khouban is a third year student at UC Davis SVM. She is interested in birds of all shapes and sizes, and is the president and co-founder of the Poultry Medicine Club. She also serves as the Zoetis Student Representative for UCD.