On the Road with Disaster Vets in Burma

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Veterinarians notice things walking around in this world that you and I do not. In December, I traveled to the far north of Burma with a team of disaster response vets who work for the World Society for the Protection of Animals (WSPA). Two months earlier, the region around Sittwe, the capital of northern Rakhine State, had been hit hard by tropical Cyclone Giri, and the WSPA sent its vets in to help the thousands of livestock – and the people who own them – affected by the storm in the impoverished agricultural region.

It took us two days and two planes, one boat, and a flotilla of minivans and motorbikes to get to the isolated villages in Rakhine that needed help. Along the way, Dr. Ian Dacre, a New Zealand native based in Bangkok who was heading the operation, pointed out that a lot of dogs we encountered had missing eyes. True. He also pointed out how the dogs in Sittwe seemed to be in better shape than the dogs in Rangoon, Burma’s capital, and when one canine walked by with an uncomfortable-looking sore on her bum, Ian said, “Now that’s something you don’t see everyday. She’s got a venereal tumor.” And so I learned that dogs get STDs. And that being a dog in Burma is probably not much fun.

The fact that disaster vets like Dacre exist is not an obvious thing until you think about it. Humans and animals live side by side, and in every major natural disaster, be it a flood, an earthquake or a cyclone, both domestic and working animals are impacted as severely, if not more than, their human cohabitants. Animals’ death and illness in disaster can create both emotional and financial strains in already dire humanitarian situations. After Hurricane Katrina, for instance, many residents in New Orleans refused to vacate their dangerous homes without their pets. In last year’s floods in Pakistan, the death of more than a million livestock animals crippled farming communities throughout the nation.

After Cyclone Giri ripped through Rakhine State in November, Dacre and his WSPA colleagues began to coordinate with Burma’s national veterinary program in Rangoon to see how they could help. They had been here before; Dacre’s team was part of the response to Cyclone Nargis, a devastating storm that hit southern Burma in 2008. (The nation’s ruling junta was lambasted after Nargis for the poor warning it gave residents in the area and the unwillingness to accept much needed international aid.) In part due to a warning system set up after Nargis, and in part due to the fact that Giri was simply not as severe, only 157 people were killed in November, but some 30,000 people had to evacuate, and thousands of pigs, cattle and poultry left behind died. By the end of the year, it was estimated that about $30 million worth of damage had been done to Burma in Giri. “In the U.S., that’s like having a building fall down,” says Dacre. But in rural Burma, he says, it’s huge.

The WSPA’s work in Burma is part of a new emphasis that the organization is putting on emergency response as natural disasters, particularly in Asia, are getting more intense with climate change. Rakhine State, shaped like a chili pepper, is a sliver of low-lying land exposed to whatever weather system decides to sweep in over from the Bay of Bengal. Watching the undeveloped beaches and blue deltas snaking through the brown land from my seat on Myanmar Airways, it was easy to see why southeast Asian coasts like these are among the most vulnerable places in the world to rising sea levels and the intensifying storms they bring.

The kinds of veterinary relief that the WSPA delivers in disaster zones depends on the circumstances. One of the primary goals for Dacre and his team on the trip I joined was to get 10,000 units of a vaccine for foot and mouth disease, which is present in Burma, into the cyclone-struck area to protect the cattle there from disease that new replacement animals from other parts of the country might bring in. Unfortunately, the vaccine for foot and mouth has to be kept cold, and keeping those 10,000 units in large, ice-filled coolers from the time they left the lab in Rangoon until they were injected into the livestock was a logistical marathon of pit stops for ice, hiring porters to carry to the heavy coolers, and bumping along dirt paths in motorbikes, vaccines in tow.

After a long day of holding open-air vaccination clinics in two different rural villages, Ian was still disarmingly positive. “Everyone okay?” he asked, surveying the other vets who had been holding down cattle for injections alongside him. “No injuries?” Even when he sat down to look at the number of animals who had received injections — and saw that it did not match up with the number of vaccines that had been used — his patience did not crack. “If we don’t have the numbers right, all the work we’ve done today, from an epidemiology perspective, is for nothing,” Dacre said calmly. “Then no animals are helped. And that’s why we’re all here, right? To help animals, right?”

Later, at the Sittwe domestic airport over instant coffee before leaving for Rangoon, a patchy, thin dog moved from table to table, her hip bones jutting out in sharp relief. “You’re looking pretty skinny,” said Dacre to one in particular before returning to the ongoing conversation about setting up the team’s follow up trip to Sittwe the next month. There would be more connecting flights to be arranged, more hotel bookings to be made, budgets to be drafted, and ice to be bought. And like this time, the animals would be the easy part.

Watch the video I shot about the WSPA’s work in Burma here.