Welcome back to Buckley Veterinary Hospital’s monthly pet care column. This month we would like to introduce our newest veterinarian, Dr. Kristen Davignon, as she share her veterinary experiences in Africa as part of the International Veterinary Student Association and Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe. Davignon is a Washington native and a graduate of the Washington State University school of veterinary medicine. She has special interests in ultrasound, acupuncture and emergency medicine. This piece is her first-person perspective on her efforts volunteering as a veterinarian abroad.
By Dr. Kristen Davignon
In August of 2008 I stood in Zimbabwe and watched the first black rhinoceros walk silently out of the bush following a ranger. The sun was rising as the 2,500-pound rhino named Gomo peacefully entered the small pen. He was going to be the first of six to be dehorned that day at Imire – “the meeting place” – a 10,000 acre, multi-functional safari, sanctuary and refuge 105 kilometers east of Harare in Zimbabwe.
Like many reserves and conservation parks, Imire has started removing the horns on their rhinoceroses to help prevent poachers from killing the endangered species for the $40,000 worth of horn they can sell.
I was a second-year veterinary student and definitely had not been taught how to sedate and remove the horn from a rhino.
Through the International Veterinary Student Association I was able to set up a summer externship in Zimbabwe working with a small-animal veterinarian, Dr. Alan Park, and a wildlife vet, Dr. Chris Foggin. The first part of my trip was spent in the city of Harare working at a small-animal surgery clinic owned by Dr. Park. It was surprisingly similar to most veterinary clinics I had volunteered and worked at in the U.S. The clinic had a surgery suite, radiology (x-rays), and small lab area to run basic blood work. We saw a variety of cases from ear infections and torn toenails, to more region-specific diseases like babesia (a tick borne disease).
After a few weeks in the city I traveled south to Imire to work with Dr. Foggin on the rhinos. The black rhinoceros population, which once numbered in the hundreds of thousands ranging from Chad to South Africa, had dipped below 2,500 by 2004. The breed was pushed to the brink of extinction primarily by illegal poaching for their horn. A major market for rhino horn has historically been in the Arab nations to make ornately carved handles for ceremonial daggers. Additionally, the horn is used in traditional Chinese medicine due to its reputable ability to revive comatose patients, cure fevers and aid male sexual stamina. The effectiveness in treating any illness has not been confirmed by medical science.
Veterinarians in Africa began darting and removing the horns annually in an effort to prevent poaching. A pretty straight procedure, right? Anything but. If the rhinos are partially tame, they can be corralled like Gomo and darted with a potent opiod sedation from the ground. If they are wild rhinos, they must be darted from a helicopter. Once sedated, it is a race to roll the rhino onto its belly and measure, mark and remove the two horns. The base of the horn is much like the human finger nail; cut too close and the stump will bleed. Once done, the sedation is quickly reversed. All our rhinos that day were successfully dehorned and were safe from human hunters for another year until the horns grew back. The trip was an incredible experience.
Four years later, I returned to Zimbabwe as a veterinarian. This time I registered as a vet in the country and worked with Veterinarians for Animal Welfare Zimbabwe. The program worked out of Dr. Parks’ clinic to round up and spay/neuter stray dogs and cats. I also taught at an educational camp for Zimbabwe students called Rifa in the northern country on the border of Zambia. A group of students come once a week to learn about basic anatomy, local plants, animal behavior and bush life. At the end of the week we dissected an Impala (African antelope). Rifa’s goal is to teach the future generations about conservation, preservation of farm land and beauty of the wildness of Africa.
While Africa is home to strange animals, diverse cultures and numerous wars, they share more similarities with me and the rest of the world beyond what I had anticipated. Zimbabweans have compassion for animals, the drive to protect nature and a desire to safeguard the very land that makes its country unique.
Buckley Veterinary Hospital welcomed Dr. Davignon into its medical family in August, just prior to her taking the second trip to Africa in September. She has returned full-time, alongside Dr. Wood and Dr. Libra.
Thank you to our readers – we welcome you back next month. As always, send questions, comments, or suggestions for future columns to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.