Part of Ilona Otter's job with an animal welfare charity in rural India is to provide practical training for local vets. However, finding suitable CPD for herself required a different approach
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I TRAINED as a vet in Finland, my home country, and worked there in a mixed veterinary practice for seven months before I decided I wanted a change of direction. A long-term interest in developmental issues meant that I had been thinking for some time about volunteering in a developing country; I chose India and I joined a small charity, the India Project for Animals and Nature (IPAN), in Tamil Nadu, south India (www.indiapan.org). For the first five years I continued to work three to five months a year in Finland.
I have been working in India for 10 years now and I'm in charge of the Worldwide Veterinary Service's (WVS's) international training centre in Ooty, south India. Established in 2010, the centre provides practical training for local vets and charity workers in best practice techniques in animal welfare. We provide short CPD courses for vets, mainly about dog population control and rabies control in dogs.
I find the interaction with the vets I am teaching especially rewarding. I can gain their trust because they know I understand their situation. I also value their feedback and discovering how the courses encourage them to think more broadly about animal welfare.
When deciding how best to keep myself up to date professionally, I looked for a course that I could study through distance learning. I enrolled on a Masters in Livestock Health and Production with the University of London International Programme (academically directed by the Royal Veterinary College). The course gave me a lot of flexibility in relation to the time I could take to study. This was essential as I had to balance my job with bringing up two children. Once a year, I travelled to Bangalore to take my exams, which were organised by the British Council.
You have to be prepared to discipline yourself to keep up with the study schedule and make the most use of the tutorials. Sometimes it was difficult as I was not able to study every day. Often I had to wake up early in the morning to be able to get some reading done. Over the last two years of the course, when my work duties increased, I felt stressed about completing my studies. Despite that, I enjoyed the course, particularly the research project, and the modules on infectious disease management and the control of infectious diseases in animal populations. These were probably the most relevant to the work I'm doing now. The modules that related to issues in developing countries were also particularly helpful.
For me, the best part is that I have achieved an internationally recognised postgraduate degree – while having a baby, starting a full-time job, and living in rural India. It is a great opportunity if you can afford it – luckily I managed to get a grant to fund my studies.
The course has also helped me in my work. Most of the vets who come to my own courses are large animal vets and their education has been mainly about farm animals. Now that I have studied livestock health and production I understand their point of view much better. This has helped build better relationships and trust between us, and enabled me to tailor my teaching to their needs. It is inspiring to see how education of veterinarians in developing countries really can make a difference to the quality of their work and their motivation, and improve standards of animal health and welfare.
I am also involved in Mission Rabies – a collaborative project between WVS and IPAN. In India, one child dies every hour as a result of being bitten by a rabid dog. Mission Rabies recently launched a six-month campaign to neuter and vaccinate against rabies around 70 per cent of the dog population in Goa State, where it aims to wipe out the threat of rabies. My role is in planning and monitoring, and coordinating staff involved in the project. I'd like to undertake some of the surgeries myself when my schedule allows.
In September 2013, as we launched the project, I headed a vaccination team in Tamil Nadu that vaccinated 5887 dogs against rabies in 12 days. We had teams in many locations across India and the total number of dogs vaccinated against rabies was over 60,000. I'm happy to be part of a team that is well known for its experience in implementing quality street dog sterilisation programmes. By inspiring vets from India to be part of this type of work, we can really make a difference.
Doing voluntary work in the developing world is completely different from working in a practice situation. You need to have an open mind and a flexible mindset. What works in your home country won't necessarily fit in a new context. As far as my future plans are concerned, I enjoy my work in rabies control and veterinary empowerment in India, and there are many challenges ahead. Health and welfare of working animals, such as donkeys, bullocks and draft ponies, in developing countries are topics that interest me, and I may try to spread my wings a little more in that field as well.
▪More information about WVS can be found at www.wvs.org.uk; details of the University of London's distance learning courses can be found at www.londoninternational.ac.uk/rvc; details of the Mission Rabies project in Goa can be found at www.missionrabies.com
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