Today, the Galápagos Islands are heavily protected. Yet its unique wildlife remains under threat from the rapidly growing populations of domesticated animals, with the increasing competition, predation and infectious disease transmission associated with this. But it’s not only the wildlife that is suffering – the island’s pets and strays also face hardship, with limited access to veterinary care.
Based on the island of Santa Cruz, Galápagos Animal Doctors is a joint venture by Worldwide Veterinary Service (WVS) and Pan Animalia Galápagos (PAG) that aims to address the health, welfare and population of domesticated animals to limit their impact on the fragile ecosystems of the Galápagos Islands. Through expert veterinary care, population management and community engagement, it contributes to conservation efforts and welcomes veterinary volunteers to join them in delivering this service.
The Galápagos Animal Doctors clinic is an example of how veterinary care goes beyond treating sick and injured animals; it helps prevent ecosystems from being disrupted, diseases from being introduced and habitats from becoming overwhelmed and overpopulated.
Recently, we had the opportunity to talk with licensed veterinary technician Melinda “Mindy” Hollinger (Figure 1), who spent a week in the Galápagos Islands volunteering at the Galápagos Animal Doctors clinic.
How long have you been a veterinary technician and how did your career in practice begin?
I’ve been working at Craig Road Animal Hospital for almost 10 years, where I started as an exam room assistant and then moved on to a veterinary technician role. It is one of the largest hospitals in Las Vegas with a dozen doctors, 11 exam rooms, two surgical suites, a dental suite and an advanced imaging system – just a lot of things that have spoiled me.
That is where I met Jessica, who started as a veterinary assistant, and watching her evolution into a vet tech helped inspire me to do the same.
What made you want to volunteer with the WVS at Galápagos Animal Doctors?
The Galápagos Islands have always been a bucket list location for me to visit because of the distinct fauna found nowhere else in the world. So, of course, Jessica and I entered the WVS’s 2021 Wild West Vet Show passport competition. Jessica happened to win, and since we went to the conference together, she decided we would also go to the Galápagos together – a choice I will be forever grateful for.
The Galápagos Islands have always been a bucket list location for me to visit because of the distinct fauna found nowhere else in the world
Can you describe your journey to and experience of the Galápagos Islands?
We were given information to help prepare for our trip, detailing everything we needed, from the vaccinations required and what to pack in our luggage to what to expect on the Islands. I even started trying to learn Spanish in preparation.
We travelled from Nevada and were met in Ecuador by Dr Ben Howitt, who accompanied us for the remainder of the journey. Ben was inspirational, and I had read about him as a driving force behind the Galápagos Animal Doctors.
We arrived in the town of Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz on Friday afternoon and started our volunteer trip with a couple of vacation days. Puerto Ayora was beautiful. Pelicans and herons begged for fish scraps at the docks (Figure 2), and sea lions snoozed on benches. Everyone we met was so kind, greeting us and thanking us for stopping by; there was live music and lots of delicious food.
I had expected something similar to a neuter and vaccine clinic, but I was genuinely surprised at my experience there
After a few days of vacation, it was time to start our volunteer experience. I had expected something similar to a neuter and vaccine clinic, but I was genuinely surprised at my experience there. The clinic was small, run by a crew of three to four doctors. Veterinary technicians didn’t exist there. We really looked forward to helping but weren’t sure how at first.
Can you describe a typical day as a volunteer veterinary technician at Galápagos Animal Doctors, and the challenges you faced?
On our first day in the clinic, we started by monitoring a spay of a little dog named Frida with Dr Sergio. But coming from a hospital with inhalant gas anaesthesia machines, I was out of my comfort zone with their totally intravenous anaesthesia protocols. It was a completely different experience monitoring for that surgery than I was used to. Something I took for granted every day, these doctors did without – and they did it well.
Something I took for granted every day, these doctors did without – and they did it well
These vets didn’t need the blood machines I so heavily relied on at home because Dr Erika Medrano manually read a blood smear before performing surgery on a suspected pyometra. Dr Nicole set up a cat on IV fluids (Figure 3) by calculating a drip rate rather than using a fluid pump. I expected their abilities to be limited by their access to supplies, but their capabilities were impressive.
I was even shown how to castrate a cat, and took part in doing so myself, guided by the head vet to ensure best practice standards and patient safety (Figure 4). He was a handsome orange and white cat named Garfield, and this was a completely new experience for us as veterinary technicians!
In the afternoons, the clinic saw consultations for all sorts of conditions. One dog was there for a gastrointestinal upset, one for its skin and one for suspected seizures. I regret not starting to learn Spanish earlier because there was a language barrier at times. However, though I may not have caught and understood every word, I could pick out familiar concepts as the doctors gathered the histories of the patients and made their recommendations. Chicken and rice is the best diet for an upset belly, whether in the United States or the Galápagos!
In the end, I didn’t have to know exactly what was said by the owners because I could feel the appreciation radiating off them as they thanked the doctors for what they did.
Were there any other volunteer veterinary opportunities to take part in outside of the clinic?
Services weren’t limited to owned pets – they are partnered with a few rescues in the town, from dogs to horses. So one day we visited a local dog rescue, Juanchita Al Rescate (Figure 5), where we were greeted by the muddy pawshakes and drooly kisses of 19 rescue dogs. Here we performed physical exams and treated for ectoparasites, and I fell in love with a little dog named Esmeralda, who was such a good patient while I drew her blood for a 4DX snap test.
Coming from Las Vegas, my ectoparasite knowledge was minimal. But I learned about the prevalence of tick-borne diseases in the Galápagos because sweet Esmeralda was positive for ehrlichiosis and anaplasmosis, but happily asymptomatic.
What was one of your most memorable experiences volunteering with WVS?
On our last day in the clinic, I felt like I was getting the hang of things, especially when a cat with a urethral obstruction came in. Blocked toms were something I frequently come across at home, though there were differences.
We sedated the handsome orange kitty (why is it always the orange kitties that decide to block?), then Nicole and Ben were able to relieve the obstruction and flush as much grit from the bladder as possible to decrease the risk of re-blocking. But because the clinic was not equipped to hospitalise the cat with an indwelling urinary catheter, the continued care was up to the owner to closely monitor the cat for urination.
The owner seemed to take everything to heart, listening closely to the plan. I realised then that there was a level of appreciation from these owners that I hadn’t felt before. In that small clinic, it felt like we were making huge differences in the lives of the animals, their owners and the community. I really enjoyed being a part of that. I was able to leave a part of me there in the form of a handprint on their wall of volunteers (Figure 6) as one of the first veterinary technicians to help at that clinic.
In that small clinic, it felt like we were making huge differences in the lives of the animals, their owners and the community. I really enjoyed being a part of that
What aspects of the trip did you find most rewarding?
The trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. During our trip, I saw all the legendary animal species of the Galápagos Islands: the giant tortoises and turtles, blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas and land iguanas. We enjoyed the sun, sand and water of the islands. We took in all the flavours of Ecuadorian cuisine. The island culture was lively and fun – the vacation aspect was so exciting.
But most of all, it was an eye-opening experience for me as a veterinary technician. I learned that I take many things for granted in my animal hospital. I have a new appreciation for my anaesthetic and bloodwork machines and our readily accessible supplies like needles, syringes and even leashes.
I was pushed out of my comfort zone and was able to experience so much more. I feel so much more confident in my abilities as a technician because I learned my adaptive capabilities in new situations
The trip made me into a stronger technician. I learned how to titrate and monitor total intravenous anaesthesia, something I had never done before. I was pushed out of my comfort zone and was able to experience so much more. I feel so much more confident in my abilities as a technician because I learned my adaptive capabilities in new situations. It really was an incredible experience that I will always remember. It changed my life.
My goal is to return someday and do a longer volunteer experience because I gained so much from this experience.