“You are a terrible actress!” These words were directed at me on the second day of filming a documentary for the Worldwide Veterinary Service (WVS) in Peru. Fortunately I am a better veterinarian and I am happy to stick with my day job. I could say that the WVS /Amazon Cares trip was “the most amazing trip of my life”! In the context of having participated in more than ten WVS trips over the past 2 years to a variety of locations this is hardly insignificant. What made this the most memorable trip?
I arrived in Iquitos, Peru having flown from Australia through the UK and the USA. It was a five day journey through five continents and I was shattered. I was last in Iquitos in 2007 (picture on left)on my first WVS trip. It was amazing to be back – to see the brown river snake through the trees as the plane landed and feel the rush of humid air as the doors opened. I was straight to work neutering dogs at the clinic with the familiar team Esther, Miguel, Harry, Behtjane and Molly and the WVS team. There is really nothing like neutering a stray dog in the jungle. The 30 degree heat and 80% humidity mean it is a race to complete the surgery before the parasites or your own sweat land in the surgery field.
The next day we were in Belen market. The bustle of people, the tables of freshly caught fish and raw meat, rolled cigarettes as thick as your finger, bowls of fat squirming grubs for sale, the smells, the colours and the noise are overwhelming even for the experienced traveller. It has always been one of my favourite locations for a neutering clinic with the surgery tables set above the meat market and an audience of vultures hanging over the eaves. It did not disappoint and I was pleased to see the number of people attending the clinic. This has been a significant change from 2007 when we had to scour the market and collect dogs with nets. It is a testament to the hard work and education that Amazon Cares has carried out in the community over that time.
Luke and the camera crew arrived the next day and now the vultures had company. If the team was overwhelmed by the location and the heat there was now the added pressure of working with a lens trained on you. With beads of sweat dripping off the end of my nose all I could think was “my mother is going to watch this” and women are meant to glow not sweat like a horse in work!
The WVS team headed to Caballo Cocha for an outreach clinic leaving Molly and I with the extreme camera team! The first stop was the Amazon Cares Jungle Shelter where Luke and Molly were able to assess the animals and talk about plans for the continued collaboration with WVS. For me it meant learning how to “STAY OUT OF SHOT” and wondering “what are all those acronyms and TV jargon?”
The next day we were at the Amazon Animal Orphanage, a sanctuary for rescued orphans of the bush meat trade, run by Gudrun – an Austrian expatriate. After a couple of hours Luke had won hearts all round except for “the little bitch” Toni a capuchin monkey who had a reputation for pick pocketing and generally causing mayhem around the centre. Tony had been a pet and her upper canine teeth had been clipped by her previous owner. These were infected and draining sinus tracts ran down her cheeks. Despite her protests Luke was able to anaesthetise her and remove the offending teeth. Gudrun later reported that Toni’s opinion of Luke did not change and to show her gratitude she destroyed all the medication we left for ongoing treatment. Luke also removed a nasty mass from one of the macaws and Gudrun reported that he was flying better since the op and was fortunate to escape an opossum attack later that week. It is always satisfying to learn that our interventions have a positive impact on our patients.
During the excitement of the animal orphanage Marc (the producer) and I had tracked down a dog with nasty mammary tumours. The owner was desperate to relieve her dog’s suffering. Luke and I examined Sabrina the next day and debated the benefits of surgery for this old girl. She was in obvious discomfort due to the tumours which affected both sides of her mammary tissue and were over 15cm in length and 10cm in diameter. We weighed up the anaesthetic risks and the possibility that the tumours had already spread to other organs and given the fact that Sabrina was in good health we decided to go for it. It was a long surgery as the tumours on the right side extended over 30cm and we had to remove the lot. It started to rain in the middle of the operation and the family provided a makeshift tent over Luke and me as we hurried to finish. The surgery went well but it was a difficult procedure in extreme conditions. At home we would have had the benefits of preanaesthetic blood testing, xrays, ultrasound and a sterile theatre but here we had a minimal pharmacy of drugs, a kitchen table in the garden and clinical experience to guide us. I got my second taste of “performing” for the camera and despite some much needed coaching from Luke was still unsure why the cameraman wanted to film me staring at nothing for two minutes earning the unforgettable exclamation regarding my acting ability. The surgery progressed despite the camera crew and I was pleased to learn that the filming does not interfere with the process. I was a little more exasperated to learn that the less important things like walking in and out of a door or getting in and out of a taxi often require multiple shots! Who knew?!?!?!
We left the next day for an outreach clinic downriver. There really is nothing like being on the Amazon. It is a massive motorway, the M1, of the rainforest and instead of lorries, entire trees float past you. The sky is a cathedral like dome of colour extending it appears more than 180 degrees around you and at night the Milkyway is a highway of light above you. If you ignore the insects, the heat and the fact that you bath in filthy river water at the end of everyday it is idyllic! Sabrina unfortunately did not recover well from her operation and we took her with us on the boat for ongoing treatment. Despite our efforts she sadly passed away the next day. The team including cameraman, soundman and producer shared Luke and my disappointment and we buried her on a small hill overlooking the river. A much needed swim in the piranha infested waters of the Amazon washed away some of our cares that evening.
We ran an outreach clinic for the villagers of Yanamono at a library in the Amazon established by an American expatriate - Nancy. We were able to provide some basic treatment for a large number of animals and arrange for ongoing treatment for some of the more chronic cases. Amazon Cares has been coordinating clinics to this part of the forest for a number of years and it was great to see the eagerness with which people sought care for their animals.
The next day we were due to vaccinate a number of buffalo in the area that have been affected by rabies from bats. Nothing could have prepared us for these animals. The buffalo were unhandled and their keepers feared them. After lassoing the animals the fun started as we attempted to get close enough to the raging animals to give the much needed injection. I deferred to Luke’s experience in this area and whilst he tackled buffalo and rolled in the mud I kept my distance preferring to wait until they (Luke and buffalo) were on the ground before assuming my role as vaccinator. Bloody great hero that I am!
I quickly learned one of the less pleasant sides to filming. Continuity! The audience needs to think that everything happens in one day - apparently!!!! So I was forced to wear the same clothes for 4 days. Despite my protestations and whining Marc would not let up and once again images of my mother’s horror haunted me as I put on the same clothes to be filmed repeatedly getting on and off the boat or walking up and down a hill. I am still incredulous regarding the necessity of these shots!
That evening we were lucky to see the elusive pink river dolphins and were graced with the most beautiful sunset I have ever seen. It lasted for at least half an hour of ever increasing beauty. As flames of red, amber and pink flicked the night sky and were reflected in the still waters of the Amazon we all enjoyed a much needed and well earned beer (Molly drank her first bottle of beer!) It had been a hard but worthwhile and rewarding trip.
The final day of the film crew’s visit was undoubtedly the best. Despite tiredness, illness and tension we visited a rescue centre for endangered manatees. The manatee is an aquatic mammal threatened by habitat destruction and hunting. Daryl Richardson founder of the Dallas World Aquarium has established a rescue centre for these endearing animals. Luke and Daryl discussed the importance of education in protecting these animals and their environment and introduced a new manatee to the established group. They are beautiful, gentle, soft creatures and it was a privilege to be a part of the process of rehabilitating them back to the wild.
The WVS team returned from Caballo Cocha that day after a successful neutering and vaccination clinic and the film crew began their epic 30 hour journey home via Lima and Madrid. Despite my own adventures I had missed the team and it was great to be back to “real” veterinary work in the communities. We spent the remainder of the time running neutering and outreach clinics before the team began to head home. Carolien (vet nurse) and I were pleased to be able to spend a day on Monkey Island (another rescue centre for orphaned primates) making some recommendations for parasite control and we hope to be able to continue assisting them in the future.
Iquitos is how I imagine the Wild West. There are no horses or cowboys but it is extremely remote and full of characters looking for something. For most people who come to Iquitos they are looking for self discovery normally with the help of the hallucinogen ayahuasca. I didn’t need the help of psychogenic substances for my journey of self discovery. Working with an amazing and professional group of people in both the WVS/Amazon Cares Veterinary Team and the film crew reminded me why I spend a great deal of my time doing these trips and how rewarding they are!