Published 19 Mar 2012

Veterinarian volunteer Michael Heath tells of his time volunteering in Bylakuppe

I never did meet Oreo Nun but she seemed very friendly and generous. Our two boys, Finlay (10) and Archie (who would turn six while at Bylakuppe) filled me in casually one night that they met her that day in refugee Camp One while shopping. I should have found out her (real) name, as she was kind enough to share her Oreos with them while they played 2-square. She also kept an eye on them while my partner Lisa and I worked in the nearby veterinary clinic established and run by Vets Beyond Borders (VBB).

In December 2011 we were able to make good on a promise made to VBB the year before. At that point Lisa and I had arranged to travel to Ladakh, in the very far north of India, to volunteer at the VBB clinic just outside of the capital Leh. That trip had to be cancelled due to the natural disaster that occurred in August of that year. This time we’d be travelling to the organisation’s Bylakuppe project in the south. While well prepared by Vets Beyond Borders and we had been to India before, this was the first time we’d try to incorporate volunteer vet work with a family holiday. And we’d only know on the flight home to Melbourne three weeks later if desexing street dogs in a Tibetan refugee camp was a good place for the Christmas school holidays!

Baloo with collarOnce we arrived on the project, I decided that something familiar would be a good way to settle in so set about amputating the leg of Baloo, a scruffy mix breed with a confident look in his eyes. Baloo had been waiting with his non-union fracture of the left tibia for two weeks. Dr Natalie Lowry (another VBB volunteer) and the local paravets, Chodon la and Sonam la (‘la’ is an honourific added to people’s name in Tibetan culture), had been taking excellent care of him in the meantime. In preparation for the procedure, Natalie briefed and consulted with Sonam la while I familiarised myself with the surgery area. It was not so different to clinics at home; everything that you would expect but for a general anaesthetic (GA) machine. It doesn’t take long, though, to see that a lot can be done with replacement top-ups of valium and ketmaine, and this would prove effective for the 50 operations that we conducted over the next two weeks. It was, however, the first time I conducted GA while operating, as the only readily available vein at one point was the femoral vein on the leg that was coming off. In the end, the surgery went as planned, we had all got to know each other, and Baloo was walking that afternoon and back bossing the courtyard dogs the next day. In addition, the towel collar we used to prevent him licking his sutures doubled as advertising space for VBB when Finlay and Archie would walk him up to the main monastery temple each morning. A talkative little white kid and a three-legged dog gained all the attention I had hoped for – spreading the word that the clinic was open for operations. This lead to a good stream of consultations for hotspots, vaccinations, vomiting, paralysis, road-accident injuries, distemper and erlichia. Of course skin conditions featured high on the list with lice, ticks, fleas and mange being typical complaints. Surgical procedures included desexing but a third of these were eye lid flaps, amputations, entropian, ex laps, enemas and lumpectomies.

The following days would consist of cleaning, catching street dogs with Tractor Monk, desexings, consulting with clients and their pet dogs, cleaning, other surgical procedures, more cleaning and a few home visits. Rarely would it be in the same order each day as Tractor Monk may have had religious duties to attend to, and consults are welcome when the owners can manage to attend. Regardless of how the day ended, it was always fun, exhausting and challenging. I loved the opportunity to meet Dr Lowry, a new graduate from the US  who’d been at the project for four weeks prior to my arrival. Natalie was familiar with the protocols and local diseases like rabies, erlichia and had just dealt with an outbreak of distemper. She was calm and precise, hardworking and extremely knowledgeable. Natalie would not stop until all the work was done, and even her local internet connection was put to good use each night to solve diagnostic dilemmas: “Of course those pups with acute onset of bendy carpii have ricketts ... just like in Google images!”

Brian, a pre-vet student from Arizona arrived one morning. After 24 hours of flying followed by a seven-hour bus trip,  he came just in time for a busy consulting session of puppy checks and vaccinations, seizures to control, dog lice, a dramatic splenomegaly/anaemia (for which he immediately offered to do a manual complete blood count) and probable distemper case. Through all this Brian didn’t miss a beat, and kept going even when Tractor Monk called to let us know he was available to go out for dog catching. We all took off to ride amongst the temples and libraries to scoop up four adult dogs and a few puppies. Further out of town, where crops of sugar cane were being harvested, Chodon la negotiated with two local Kannada (South Indian) farming families for us to sterilise and vaccinate their dogs and return them the next day.

Catching dogs in nets requires some cunning and, importantly, a plan to allow the dog to run into the net. Tractor Monk would also lend his skill on securing dogs if it was beyond us. There were only two dogs that I regretted catching in the net but even they calmed down quickly. It is the difference between stray dogs and community dogs. The latter may not be owned but are cared for, are generally approachable, in good condition and well socialised. This meant that often monks would just pick up ‘their’
dogs and pass them into the tractor trailer. One litter of four pups, making fools of us as we scrambled to catch them, were scooped up by a nun with some noodle treats and easily handed over. Amazingly, after 24 hours these four pups wouldn’t leave us alone when they were returned (or ‘released back into the wild’, as my boys called what we did on these trips) to their original territory.

I was delighted by the devotion local owners had for their dogs. They were just besotted with them and so extremely grateful that there was a vet service available in their neck of the woods. One such devoted owneris Mr Gyaltso la whose Geki is a largish white puffy Pomeranian-type dog popular with Tibetans. Mr Gyaltso left Tibet 40 years ago as a teenager. He had been a monk but is not so now. He and his wife love Geki and insisted we keep her for post-op care following an exploratory laparotomy, distressed that he would be unable to care for her himself. His joyous smile at seeing his Geki again and being able to take her home was one of the most rewarding moments I have had in veterinary science. (He actually crept into the surgery and snuck up to cuddle her while we were still consulting.)
Bylakuppe is a burgeoning district around 230 kilometres west of Bangalore and home to the largest population of Tibetans outside their homeland to the north, beyond the Himalaya. The Indian Government allocated the undeveloped region in the early ‘60s to Tibetans forced to leave their homeland by the forced annexation of Tibet by China. Over the past 50-plus years they have rebuilt their lives, and revived and sustained their culture. In Bylakuppe, Tibetans in exile have also built schools with both religious and state accreditation, established productive farms, cropping and hospitals. Part of this monumental undertaking has also been the replication of monasteries destroyed or diminished in Tibet, including Sera Monastery, which is a huge Buddhist university with two main sections or colleges: Sera Je and Sera Mey.
VBB’s project is generously hosted by the Sera Mey Monastery hospital and clinic. They see the benefits of having service onsite, the rabies  vaccinations, in particular. One of its directors, Karma la, told me that there had been no human rabies cases for over 12 months. The clinic operators provide rooms, kennels, food and accommodation for volunteers, and access to x-rays and a pharmacy for the project work. Despite (or because of) this generosity, donations are needed to keep the project running, and volunteer vets and nurses are needed to fill the almost year-round roster.
Monday afternoon and Tuesday are days off on the project. This allowed us to contribute to another charity called Tinso, whose name means ‘repaying kindness’. It is a welfare foundation whose aim is to provide care for the aged population of the area. In Purang  camp, a small outer settlement of Bylakuppe, live some of the earliest Tibetan refugees who left Tibet in the late ’50 and early ‘60s. Some, now in their 90’s, still live on their farms and do manual work. Others are not so able: a wheelchair donated by a client at our Black Rock Clinic in Victoria is now being used in the Camp by a 93-year-old lady who hasn’t been able to leave home until now. Money is raised to hire transport to provide day trips to the monasteries, and we were able to see the completion of a small open-sided hall suitable for use in the very hot South Indian summers.

Archie with pupMy youngest boy, Archie, had his sixth birthday at Tinso. On the day, we first joined the committee meeting for the Tinso Foundation, handed over the wheelchair, had speeches then a massive momo (noodle dumpling) lunch. Adjoining the hall is a small but beautiful kindergarten and Archie had his birthday cake in there with the local kids. I wondered how to thank the ladies who cooked lunch and Arch  suggested we give them his cake. In return for the Cake Sharing Festival, the aged Tibetans performed a special dance and song while Archie was placed in the highest chair. The song is traditional to nomads of the western plains of the Tibetan Plateau and describes the  circumambulation of holy Mt Kailash. What we experienced was a timeless performance by some of the last nomads of that area. It had been some sixth birthday for a boy from Beaumaris.

Despite working longer than normal hours and living on site, I have never felt more refreshed after a holiday than I did on our trip to India. It was satisfying to help control the dog population, prevent common diseases like distemper and rabies, and being able to see the results in the streets the next day. It was invigorating working with such impressive newcomers as Natalie and Brian, and seeing Sonam la and Chodon la come to grips with a completely new line of work. We won’t forget Tractor Monk’s understated cool. Being a no-alcohol zone was probably also beneficial, as was perhaps not using euthanasia as a solution to any health problems. This was a valuable experience for my career and my family.

So, three weeks later and the boys ARE wanting to return. And many stories just happen in India while on holidays: I am pleased and a little proud to say that they thrived, put on weight eating momos, read lots of books, helped care for the dogs, played badminton, became adept at hailing autorickshaws, giving directions and asking “How much?”, converting prices from rupees to dollars. Archie finally got the hang of bargaining; early on he thought that I didn’t have enough money, so would quietly offer me his pocket money. Finlay found the roof top where we did our hand washing a perfect spot to catch the morning sun to read. They learnt which little shops run by which monks had the best Bubbuloo bubble gum. Which cafes in Camp One had the best momos, best pizza and best supply of chocolates. Buying a Xmas tree in the markets of Mysore. An eagle landing next to Fin while he launched paper airplanes from the roof of the hospital. Catching frogs while waiting for dinner to arrive. Of course, befriending Tenzing, aged seven, and learning each others games despite no common language was a joy to watch. Not an Ipod, Wii or TV in sight. In fact, Archie was asking when we were coming back to Bylakuppe before we had actually left.

Thanks to Jenny, Mandy and Sally from VBB for allowing us the opportunity to do this. We will be returning as soon as locums, school holidays, flights can be arranged.

Michael Heath
VBB Volunteer Veterinarian