By Scott Fugit
We stepped through the open concrete entry into a dimly lit crowded room. Small groups of people surrounded stainless-steel tables while standing in fur and bandages. Others held flashlights high. The air was heavy with many odors, something like the carne section at the local mercado, plus wet dog. We had just entered the front-line battle in the campaign to reduce pet overpopulation in Cuenca.
Happy Dogs was in action. It was their 10th free spay and neuter clinic and 16 dedicated volunteers were riding herd.
The pet-population formulas vary. Depending on the breed and other factors, a healthy female dog can have two litters a year, with one to 12 pups per litter. Each surviving pup, before they are a year old, can do the same – it’s not hard to see the problem.
Inge Palmer, the founder of Happy Dogs in Cuenca, saw the realities of the city’s dog population during her first trip here in 2011. “The need for a sustainable spay and neuter program in Cuenca was obvious. But the cultural roadblocks, family economics, and the absence of local veterinary care all posed challenges.” Proven need met determination, and a love for animals. Palmer formed Dos Amigas with a friend, which morphed into Happy Dogs in Cuenca in June 2012. Initially taking several dogs at a time to a vet, she knew it was only a start.
“Transportation was a major problem for neighborhood pet owners. We had to get mobile. In March 2013, we held our first weekend clinic in Los Trigales and started taking our services to the people.” After nearly a dozen similar efforts in numerous outlying barrios, Happy Dogs in Cuenca has now completed nearly 1,000 spays and neuters. As those involved in the effort say, it’s not ovary yet.
Work starts the afternoon before. Several cars and trucks full of equipment pull up at the community-provided location, often a church, a community hall, or even a private home. The clinic has been announced at community events, notices posted with contact information, and appointments made on a first-come basis. Usually with little light, sometimes without water, the spaces are “very simple but adequate,” is a generous description.
The first step is always a thorough cleaning before set-up begins. And there is gear, lots of it: tables for prep and surgery, sterilizer, gauze, and other cloth supplies, instrument kits and medicines, garbage cans, blankets, etc. The complete set-up takes several hours, the same for breakdown and cleanup once it’s all over. With the 100-120 surgeries, it adds up to a lot of work over a weekend, done at an intense pace.
“Originally there were five of us with one surgeon,” says Palmer. “We now run three operating tables with a crew of sixteen. Each and every one of them is a dedicated hundred-percent volunteer.”
Amid the constant activity, conversation turns to the dogs of Cuenca. “It’s often difficult to tell if the street dogs have owners or not,” says Dee Fugit, clinic visitor and retired after 25 years at the Idaho Humane Society in Boise, Idaho. She is in Cuenca vacationing for the second time.
“They lounge on the sidewalk in front of a tienda, or they’re cruising like they know exactly where they’re going. Rarely do they have collars or tags,” Dee says. “Who knows what their situation is? They possess amazing street smarts, at least the survivors do. I even saw a cat crossing the street with the crowd, in the crosswalk.”
Cuenca also has a healthy population of pampered pooches. The lucky ones are very lucky. It’s not hard to find toy breeds in little outfits being carried through the mercado or Plaza del Flores. “The small breeds seem to fare the best,” says Fugit. “If they’re a cute Shih Tzu or a small white poodle mix, their chances look pretty good for a pampered life.”
Outside the clinic, the waiting group of owners and pets is growing. Intake is stage one. Each dog is weighed and a medical history recorded. They get a number and a sticker. A local student volunteer is the important point man. In his native Spanish, he carefully explains the process to each pet owner, often a family.
“Half our volunteers are gringos, but having local Ecuadorians involved is particularly important.” As she talks, Palmer carefully helps with a small terrier as part of stage two, pre-op. The animal will get an IV and be intubated using a breathing tube. “Our local volunteers help us bridge cultural gaps and give confidence to pet owners about what we do.” Once the sedative is administered, Palmer gently moves the terrier to the operating table. “Without our Ecuadorian volunteers, Happy Dogs would not be possible,” she says.
Compared with many places in the world, Cuenca’s environment is favorable to strays. There’s warm weather, plentiful green spaces, and most importantly, food. With street vendors, outdoor mercados, public eateries, and occasionally edible trash, some dogs can afford to be picky. A small piece of coconut is ignored, while roast pork earns a companion for three blocks. But competition always develops, and then problems occur, such as fog fights, sanitation issues, mating behavior, and bite cases involving people. With more dogs come more problems. Enter Happy Dogs in Cuenca.
Back inside, a dozen animals are under care in the five-stage process. Something different is happening in every corner. At HDiC, time is money — hard-earned donated money. So after careful preparation, surgery is next, and quickly. But are 120 surgeries possible in a weekend? With just three surgeons?
Need spawns innovation. Christina Bernardi, Doctor of Veterinary Science at University of Cuenca, leads the clinic’s surgical team. “We use a side-entry technique for spays on all cats, plus medium-sized and smaller dogs. A small incision is made in front of the hip, usually on the left side. It’s common in Peru and Argentina,” she says.
Average time per surgery is eight minutes compared to the traditional 45. Less drugs are used and the animal’s recovery time is quicker. This means that, after fur is cleaned and brushed, nails are clipped, and they’re given antibiotics, vitamins, and a prescription for pain meds, the pets are going home with their owners. Two hours to a happier dog.
How about the boy dogs? Ouch. Sensitive question. Of course, local culture complicates both spay and neuter efforts. “Most dog owners here have never considered altering their pet,” says Palmer. “Our efforts are also educational.” But the fact is, HDiC neuters very few male dogs. “The local men cannot stand to see it. Culturally, it’s a radical act.”
Fugit adds, “Honestly, it’s not much different in the U.S. As part of my job, I explained the benefits of fixing male dogs — like avoiding hundreds of puppies, minimizing health problems, and improving aggressive behavior. I always told the owners, ‘It’s a dog, not you.’ Here in Ecuador, I’ve recently had five conversations defending neutering. Four of those discussions were with Americans, and all were men.” When it comes to neutering their male dogs, as those involved in the effort say, men can get “teste.”
As in everything these days, there is a bottom line. Palmer says, “We go to poor areas where people could never afford to fix their pets, and we do it for about thirty dollars per surgery. It’s all based on donations and volunteers, so we always need more of both. We’ve formed new committees, like gauze folding, a fundraising group called ‘Cuenca Bitches,’ and the comida committee to organize clinic meals for volunteers.” She concludes, “There is always need, but we are truly grateful and amazed to have come this far.”
It’s mid-afternoon before the clinic crew takes a break. They will do another 30 surgeries after lunch. As we say our goodbyes and drive away, a local man lowers his groggy shepherd into the bed of an old Ford pickup. He smiles broadly and waves.
Passing through the outskirts of northeast Cuenca, we count 15 dogs. Three of them are chasing a small boy on a battered bike. We agree that the task that HDiC faces seems overwhelming. Still, the city’s street-dog populations are “already much better than when we started.” We have heard it repeatedly. It’s obvious that optimistic determination, plus a true love for animals, form the heart of the effort. At Happy Dogs in Cuenca, they always keep the main goal in mind: to improve the lives of Cuenca’s pets and people.
Photographs by Dee Fugit.
Happy Dogs in Cuenca appreciates your support. Please help fund their efforts using the donate button at their website: https://happydogsincuenca.wordpress.com/about/.