The Animals of Timushan

                                            Pet Tales
                                                   by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.

The Animals of Timushan

I think most of us realize how fortunate we are to live in Canada. We know that in many parts of the world, living conditions are very different. They are different for both people and animals. Yet despite differing circumstances, the human - animal bond is still there. I recently had an opportunity to see this relationship in an environment very unlike our own.

In May, my wife, Donna, and I, along with 28 other volunteers traveled to Guatemala. We were part of a mission to help the people of Timushan, a Mayan village in the Merendon mountains in northeastern Guatemala. The trip and the work plan had been organized by Halton Peel Central America Relief Effort. (HP-CARE). This group was formed in 1998 after Hurricane Mitch devastated this region in Guatemala. Hilda Rossi and her friend Rosie DeBiasi initiated the response. Hilda, born in Guatemala, but now living in Oakville, saw first hand what had happened in the area, while on a return visit to her homeland. With help from volunteers and donations from various groups and individuals, HP-CARE has been able to build several homes and a community center in Timushan. Many articles of clothing and other supplies have also been delivered to the community. Medical clinics have been organized to assist in health care.

Last year our church, Appleby United Church, in Burlington, as one of its outreach projects offered support to HP-CARE. A number of people from the church were part of last year's mission trip. I was unable to be part of that group but I did recruit some people to assist in some data collection for me. They bravely collected a number of random fecal samples from dogs living in the village. They were a bit concerned about how to declare such items on forms documenting material being brought back into Canada, from abroad. Nevertheless, they cleared customs with no concerns raised. In our hospital, the samples were found to be strongly positive for ascarids, hookworms, and tapeworms - all significant intestinal parasites in dogs and cats. I tried to assess the data and develop a plan for this year.

Of course, I realized that parasites are only one of the health problems that animals and people face in developing nations, like Guatemala. I would be going to one village for a very short time, and there were a number of projects for me and others in our group to be working on. Still, I wanted to do something for a small number of the animals, in one little village, in a tiny part of Guatemala. It seemed to me that the most beneficial thing I could do, as a veterinarian, for the people and animals, would be to work at some parasite control measures

At this year's Ontario Veterinary Medical Association conference in Toronto I spoke with representatives from some of the pharmaceutical companies in attendance. Bayer Inc., Novartis Animal Health and Pfizer Animal Health all willingly offered me product, at no charge, to take with me to Guatemala. I wrote to the Guatemalan consul in Toronto to get permission to take these medications with me to administer to the dogs and cats in Timushan. (I did, however, just call the medications parasiticides, in my letter, rather than name specific brands of the drugs I wanted to use. The reason I did not name the drugs in the letter had to do with their brand names. Two of them - Interceptor and Drontal -  would not have been a problem. However, the third drug is called Revolution.  I was a bit nervous about saying I wanted to take Revolution to Guatemala! ). Senor Roberto Sierra, Consul Ad-Honorem of Guatemala kindly gave me permission to proceed with my plan.

We flew from Toronto to Houston and then on to Guatemala City. From there it is a 5 and ½ hour bus ride to La Union, where we stayed each night. We got up each morning at 5 a.m. to have a cold shower (well, once or twice there was hot water), eat breakfast and then ride up and down a twisting and turning gravel mountain road in a 4-wheel drive vehicle to Timushan . Timushan is 10.5 km.distant and 800 feet higher in elevation than La Union. It takes about 40 minutes in such a vehicle to make the journey.

The people who live in Timushan are Mayans of the Chorti tribe. They are subsistence farmers, eating mainly maize, beans and fruit with occasional eggs and infrequent chicken. They grow coffee on hillside plots as a main source of income. Some supplement their income by working on a larger nearby finca that grows coffee. Coffee is also a common beverage which they drink from a very young age. There are many chickens, turkeys, ducks, an occasional pig and a few horses in the village. All animals except the horses live very closely with the people. They wander freely in and out of the houses. There are many dogs and quite a number of cats in the village. They also share the home with the human family and the other animals living there.

In my next column I will write about small animal veterinary medicine coming to Timushan.