Andrea Rhodes works in a small animal practice near Brighton on the Sussex coast. Through the charity Naturewatch she recently visited the Ukraine where she was involved in a small animal neutering scheme.
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How did you get involved with Naturewatch?
I saw an advert in Veterinary Record and on the Worldwide Veterinary Service (WVS) website looking for volunteers to go to the Ukraine for one week to neuter cats and dogs. I applied as I felt it would be a worthwhile experience, and I fancied a change after a long winter.
Naturewatch promotes responsible pet ownership and neutering of cats and dogs. The project started after press reports about stray animal numbers being reduced using shooting and poisoning before the European football matches held in Ukraine and Poland in 2012.
The project was in Kharkov, in eastern Ukraine, about 16 miles from the Russian border. I did an interview for Ukrainian television to promote the benefits of having cats and dogs neutered. I went with Nicola Gladden, who I knew as she has done locum work at one of the practices I work in, although we both applied independently.
What did the trip involve?
Nicola and I were based at a dog shelter just outside Kharkov and worked with three experienced Ukrainian vets and two vet students for five days. It was a pooling of knowledge and providing extra help rather than us teaching them; neutering isn't something that they routinely do, so we could work at a faster rate and get more animals done. The Ukrainian vets anaesthetised the animals using sedation and epidural anaesthesia while we did the neutering.
We reckoned that we prevented 26 kittens being born as most of the cats were pregnant. The cats belonged to members of the public who sat in the waiting room until their pets were ready to go home, whereas the dogs were strays from the shelter.
Naturewatch looked after us extremely well. Natalie, its representative, picked us up from the airport after midnight as we had been delayed in Kiev, and took us to our hotel. She looked after us in the evenings, showing us the city. If Natalie was busy, Lena, one of the vets, took us out. The shelter administrator, Gala, brought a variety of Ukrainian foods for lunch. She even made borscht without beetroot as it is about the only vegetable I dislike! All the staff at the shelter were very friendly and made us feel most welcome.
How did you initially get involved in volunteering?
My first volunteering trip was last year when I went with my daughter, Harriet, who was then a final-year vet student (she is now qualified) to Animalcare, Samos, on one of the Greek Islands. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, made great friends and gained lots of experience.
Volunteering is something that I had wanted to do for years, but didn't have the time until my children were grown up. You could say I'm filling the gap left when they went off to university. I felt that I wanted to use my veterinary knowledge for a good cause (I worked for the PDSA for 23 years, so I'm probably a charity vet at heart). I have spent years making cakes, helping out with PTA events, at scout and brownie camps, and fundraising for various local causes, and I felt that it was time to use my professional abilities to help others. Volunteering gets me out of my daily routine and fires my enthusiasm for the job; it reminds me of why I became a vet.
What do you like about it?
I enjoy it because I like being able to get back to basics and get on with the job that I trained to do. Or perhaps Harriet is right when she says ‘My mother has turned into a hippie who likes going round the world sterilising animals!’
What was your proudest moment?
The proudest moments of my life, so far, were when my son, Andrew, graduated from Oxford with a 2:1 in history and politics, and when Harriet gained a place at Liverpool veterinary school.
. . . and your most embarrassing?
I have spent the past 55 years getting into scrapes. The embarrassing experience of this trip was at Kiev airport, facing a customs official who spoke very little English. I had bought a bargain bottle of gin at duty free and had forgotten that we were changing planes in Kiev to go on to Kharkov. As he searched my bag I realised that he might not let me take a litre of liquid on board the plane, so I smiled sweetly and explained slowly and loudly that I had bought it air-side at Gatwick. He asked for the receipt, which I duly produced. He looked confused and gave me a funny look, but said I could go through. When I looked at the receipt I'd given him, it wasn't for the gin – it was a receipt for a coffee and an orange juice.
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