Vetwork UK is a small English charity established by a group of vets with experience in community animal health and welfare projects in Britain and abroad. One of our aims is to explore and highlight the roles animals play in people’s lives, and by doing so to help identify ways of improving the lives of both people and animals.
From time to time, Vetwork UK is asked by students or new graduates requesting advice on working overseas or for assistance in designing holiday projects.
Vetwork UK does not have projects to visit. Many other organisations do (see later), although there are various reasons why projects may not be easy or suitable to visit: some are remote and difficult to get to (eg any project in a war zone); some may find it logistically difficult to deal with outsiders (eg if the project involves remote travel where space in vehicles is limited); others may have little to see on the ground (eg because it is a small, low key community project, or because the work is seasonal); and some may just be wary about entertaining an unknown foreigner who happens to have the time and money to travel the world.
Joining a project or practice will help you to structure your visit, may provide you with a specific piece of research to do, may help give you a feeling of legitimacy when talking to local people, and may make it easier for you to report back to your college or supervisor. However, it is quite possible to explore the world quite productively without being part of a project, and being independent can be an asset when talking to local people and following up the things that you hear about.
The following notes are intended to be applicable whether you join a project or travel independently.
Student years are an opportunity to challenge assumptions and investigate the world. The veterinary course is so full that there may not be the time during term to think beyond the technical aspects of veterinary science. However visits to farms, practices or projects, or just travelling around, whether at home or abroad, all provide opportunities to find out more about how animals and people inter-relate, and to think about the role of veterinary medicine in society. The following notes are intended to provide assistance, ideas and guidance in doing this.
- ‘Mapping the territory’ provides a framework to thinking across the whole spectrum of animals and to exploring how they fit within the local community.
- ‘What to do’ suggests some specific foci of investigation.
- ‘How’ gives simple methodological guidelines.
- ‘What now’ considers possible outputs and outcomes from your travels.
- ‘Some different types of projects’ lists a few from the range of animal related projects that are out there.
- ‘A final word’ has a few words of caution about travel.
Mapping the territory
Human-animal interactions work on two levels:
- spiritual or conceptual – ‘what people think or feel about animals’;
- and physical – ‘what people do with animals’.
It is easiest in a short time, especially if there are language problems, to concentrate on what people do with animals. However, it is likely that people will allude to their feelings about animals in some way.
Try to get a feel for how people interact across the whole spectrum of ‘groupings’ of animals:
- wild animals – do they watch birds, visit game parks, enjoy wild animals in any way; do they hunt them (for food or pleasure); do they eat bush meat; do they consider them to be pests?
- zoo animals – do they visit zoos; are zoos places for keeping gift animals; what do they think of zoos?
- domestic – what purposes do domestic animals serve?
- productive animals – what products do they get from animals (meat, milk, blood, hair, honey); do they still have contact with farm animals in any way; have there been changes in farming or herding practices in their lifetime or experience; what do they think of changes in husbandry practice?
- work animals – what work animals; what work do they do, eg pulling or carrying?
- guards – do they keep animals for guarding?
- assistance – are animals kept to assist people, for example guide dogs, hearing dogs, pat dogs?
- companion – do they keep animals purely for companionship (which species); do they value the companionship of any of their working, productive, guard, or hunting animals?
- experimental animals?
- recreational animals – do they keep homing pigeons; do they show animals; do they race dogs or horses etc?
- anything else?
Investigate what research is being done around animals. What aspect of animals is being researched – production, draft, health? Who will benefit – people, pets, production or wild animals, etc? Whose priority is this research?
Look at animal health and welfare services. Traditional and/or new? What structure? How does it work? Who pays? What animals? Who designed the service? Who controls the service? Who decides who can use what or do what? What training? What local involvement? If there are any expatriate staff, what are their roles?
Look also at what organisations are working with animals in any way. Are there international or national voluntary organisations (or non-governmental organisations, NGOs)? If there are local ones, try to visit them and find out about them as these can be tremendous resource.
What to do?
During a short visit it is not going to be possible to cover very much in any great detail. The above section suggests something of the extent of the territory of human-animal interactions, but it will not be possible to explore all of it in a short time.
To enjoy your visit and have it feel useful and satisfying, it is best to set yourself an achievable goal. It may be best to choose one strand that can act as a pathway for exploration. The following are some possible strands. They are all to some extent inter-linked, but it may be that focussing on one will help you to define a short area of study. The most valuable thing you will come away with will be the changes in your perception of the world and the little things you will have learnt from talking to local people, so do not feel your trip needs to be information rich. Try to resist the urge to always do something active.
This touches on the spiritual and conceptual part of our interactions with animals but also has a concrete dimension. An example would be to explore attitudes to wildlife. There are all sorts of angles on this, particularly if travelling in a place where game parks are a politically sensitive subject. Try to find out what people actually do – do they watch birds or visit special places etc. Remember that people may not be prepared to talk honestly about their feelings, particularly if they live next to a game park and you are seen to be involved with it in some way. Most interesting might be to get a feel for how people in towns, or in rural areas away from game parks, think about wildlife.
2. Changes over time.
Find out how local people perceive change. This may be to farming in general, to the diversity of local bird-life, or with respect to a specific project. Ask old people how things have changed in their lifetimes, ask young people what they learn from the old and how they think things will change in the future.
3. Root causes.
Try to explore root causes of change. If problems (eg disease patterns) have changed try to understand what has led to this. As well as technical solutions, are there ‘public education’ solutions and how are these being addressed?
4. Financial considerations.
Who is paying for the projects, services or research that you see? How economically sustainable are services or projects? Are there intangible benefits (eg ‘strengthening rural communities’) that justify subsidies? What do these mean and how can they be measured? Who has decided how money should be spent? Ask project or research people if funding considerations have affected the content or the methodology of the work that they are doing?
5. Local specialists.
Find out if there are any local people who are considered to be particularly good at anything related to animals, who are particularly respected, or who are considered to be specialists or healers. If so, try to spend time with them learning from them. Find out which farmers are thought to keep the healthiest animals and try to talk to them.
6. Animal welfare.
Are there things that local people do to protect the health and welfare of their animals. As examples, the Samburu in Kenya will only make droving sticks from flexible woods as they know that hard woods could damage the animals; Turkana have resisted using their cattle for plowing because they say it would be dis-respectful; Maasai traditionally limit the amount of water they will load onto a donkey. While the concept of animal welfare may be scoffed at, most traditional animal keepers have welfare related husbandry practices, and these give an insight into their attitudes to animal welfare.
The only guide we have to how an animal feels is through the way it behaves. This aspect of animals is relatively neglected in western veterinary medicine yet is likely to be fundamental to local knowledge about animal health and welfare, particularly by herders who spend so much time with their animals. Local knowledge of animal behaviour and how it is interpreted is an area of knowledge that has not been widely explored. It would make an interesting area for study, perhaps alongside ‘animal welfare’ above.
These guidelines do not pretend to be an introduction to social science research methodologies. Be aware of the following and find out more.
1. Be modest in your aims.
Choose only a small area of ‘study’ though obviously explore as much else as you want in passing.
2. Learn by listening to local people.
Be aware of who you are talking to. Age, gender, social position, education, language bias, occupation, ethnicity will all affect point of view. Try to talk to a representative cross section. If you cannot, do not worry, but note and record this so that you know whose views and knowledge you are drawing from.
3. Learn some ‘participatory’ skills.
‘Participatory’ skills act like kindling. They keep conversation alive until it catches fire. The most obvious is to do something with someone. Ask if you can spend a morning herding with someone, if you can have a go at something they are doing, or if you can help in any way. There are also more structured things, like mapping and ranking, that, when used most effectively, will appear in a discussion quite naturally because they will help everyone to clarify and explain whatever it is they are talking about.
Participative skills and exercises are best learnt practically but ‘RRA Notes 20: ‘Livestock’ April 1994 (Order No 6089) (produced by IIED (International Institute for Environment and Development), 3 Endsleigh Street, London WC1H 0DD, UK; fax +44 (0) 171 388 2826; http://www.iied.org) gives a good introduction to some of the ideas and methods. If your college library does not have a copy, ask it to get one.
It is a useful exercise to write up your experiences when you return, and possibly try to get them published. If you have done a particular, supervised study, you may have the information necessary to write something for a reviewed journal. However, equally valuable would be to write a more reflective piece describing what you had learnt from your travels and how your preconceptions had been changed. In order to do this, try to write something before you go away so that you can refer back to it when you return, as it can be difficult to notice subtle changes in yourself. Some of the veterinary magazines and newspapers may be interested to publish an article.
If you visit local organisations, write something about them so that others know of them. If they are doing good work, find out if they would mind if other students visited them in the future, and make sure you have their contact details as it can be very difficult to contact local organisations from back in the UK.
Don't forget it is not just about reporting on your experiences to your UK colleagues and supervisor on your return. Whilst overseas think about how you will feedback on your experiences to the community with which you are working; consider how best you might do that.
Some different types of projects
The following are some of the range of different types of projects or people that deal with animals, which you might want or be able to visit. Some projects may be a mix of the following.
- Farmer extension projects
- Ethno-veterinary knowledge projects
- Community animal health projects
- Local specialists
- Private veterinary clinics
- Alternative medicine practitioners
- Draft animal projects
- Working equine animal projects
- Welfare organisations
- Animal birth control projects
- Charity clinics
- Community wildlife management projects
- Wild animal rescue projects
- Wild animal research projects
- Assistance animal projects
- Animal therapy projects
- Veterinary research institutes
- etc etc
For practical information on working overseas we recommend visiting the Overseas Group section of the British Veterinary Association (BVA) website: http://www.bva.co.uk/overseas/Working_volunteering_overseas.aspx
This has guidance and detail on: logistics; legal issues around veterinary registration overseas and transporting medicines; some country or regional specific information; a list of charities or organisations who sometimes take volunteers as well as information on BVA Student Travel Grants.
A further useful source of information for Veterinary Students planning overseas extra mural studies (ems) can be found on the Royal Veterinary College website: http://www.rvc.ac.uk/Global/docs/Guidance-for-overseas-EMS.pdf
A final word
The world is changing. People are more aware of the huge distances between the rich and the poor. Tourists and travellers are for good reason usually considered to be rich. Remember how lucky we are to be able to make these fascinating journeys (even when you are sweating it out alone with malaria in some remote hoteli). Accept it when people seem less than pleased to see you – a local vet perhaps who after 5 years training is stuck in a remote outpost with no transport, drugs, equipment or access to training in participative rural appraisal, training techniques or how to set up a community animal health programme. Try to offer something back in conversation, practical help, or entertainment – brush up on your juggling or origami - play with children.
Vetwork UK takes no responsibility for those who choose to travel with the ideas from these notes in mind. We suggest you take out a decent insurance policy, while thinking perhaps how we can work to provide a basic level of health care to all people and animals, whether they can afford an insurance policy or not. The problems are mainly not technical.
Contact Vetwork UK
You can contact Vetwork directly via our contact form here
We can also be contacted via post:Vetwork UK
Little Clacton Road