by Barry B. Burtis D.V.M.
Veterinary Medicine in Timushan
I want to continue my story about the recent visit that I, along with 29 other volunteers, working for Halton Peel Central America Relief Effort made to Timushan, a Mayan village located in the mountains of eastern Guatemala.
Timushan is not a village as we think of one. Rather, there are individual houses grouped in three barrios over the mountain side, extending down into a nearby valley. Neighbours are often separated by relatively short distances, but are usually at different elevations. Winding, narrow, sloping, uneven trails lead between houses. Houses are hidden from one another by tall stands of banana trees, coffee bushes and tropical foliage. Most homes have one water tap in the yard outside the house that supplies water for drinking, cooking, eating, and washing. Puddles, near the water source, supply water for the free roaming poultry, pigs, dogs and cats. Sheets of plastic wrapped around stakes in the earth stand over holes dug in the ground to provide outhouse washroom facilities. Beautiful tropical flowers and large clumps of impatiens grow wild on the fringes of some home sites in vivid contrast to the appearance of the human habitations. One family had a self woven trellis covered with a flowering vine standing at the edge of a typical hard packed, bare, red coloured soil yard. Bunches of bananas hang on the stalk above the drooping blossom of banana trees, in groves, near many homes. A small plot for herbs, fenced with short wooden stakes, often completed the development on land smaller than many city house lots in Burlington. Indigenous people do not own the land where they live.
Let me tell about small animal veterinary medicine coming to Timushan. For two days my veterinary team and I walked those mountain trails making house calls to deworm dogs and cats. Believe me, you have to be in good shape and have a good pair of hiking boots to make house calls in Timushan! Almost every household has 1- 4 dogs and often a cat. That was a surprise. I had been told there very few cats and indeed you rarely see them out and about. However, they were often in the homes, resting, I suppose, between hunting forays.
Our guide was Eding, a 10 year old boy from the community. He was amazing. He never got lost or if he did, we sure never knew it. He seemed familiar with every household, knew who lived there, their names and what animals they had. My wife, Donna was my translator, explaining, in Spanish, what we hoped to do, why were doing it and asking the people's permission to treat the animals. She also explained we would be leaving another dose of medicine to be given in 2 weeks. Melody was my technical veterinary assistant. She also took GPS readings at each home site and created a map of our journeys.
I would eyeball the animals, estimate their weight and decide what medicine to use. I would ask Eding, who also carried my pack, for the appropriate medication. If an oral dewormer, I would pack the tablet in a little meatball of dog food, roll it to the dog and watch it be swallowed more quickly, usually, than the eye could follow. For topically applied medications, Melody would dribble a few crumbs of food to the dog, who, distracted by its good fortune, didn't even feel the drops applied to the skin over the shoulders. As most cat owners will understand, cats presented a bit more of a challenge to medicate. Although they were just as interested in gobbling up even the tiniest morsel of food, they were more dainty eaters and would usually nibble the outer layer of dog food meatball but leave the pill inside untouched. In most cases, I had to give the pill directly to them. I'm not sure how the follow-up pill giving will go for the cat owners of Timushan.
Every family we visited was so welcoming to us. They always invited us into their homes. In most cases houses are constructed with an adobe enclosure that forms the bedroom with wooden or bamboo stakes completing a semi-open surrounding room that serves as a combination kitchen, family room, pantry, hen house and bedroom for any family member unable to find sleeping space in the adobe room. A tin or thatched roof gives protection above a packed dirt floor inside. They would always offer the only chair or stool or small bench that furnishes their home. They seemed very interested in their animals, and never refused our offer of care. They usually knew the age of their animals and often told us their names. They had names like Tigressa, Barsina and Minni. They listened carefully to the follow-up instructions for the medications. Dogs and cats are certainly not pampered pets yet they are very much a part of life in Timushan. In public, people seem largely to ignore dogs in their surroundings, yet in their own homes they seem quite proud of them and are anxious to share information about them when asked. They appeared to be very grateful for the medications we gave to their animals.
We returned from our 2 weeks in Guatemala with immense admiration and respect for the people of Timushan. We sincerely hope they and the entire country of Guatemala have a future with stable government, fewer injustices and natural disasters and an opportunity to escape the poverty and hardships they have known. The people and animals of Timushan deserve such a future. Please visit www.applebychurch.ca if you are interested in seeing some photographs and reports from others about our experience.