Eagle veterinarian Julie Alt travels to Kenya for animal welfare and wildlife encounters
EAGLE — When local veterinarian Julie Alt vaccinates a dog or cat against rabies at Castle Peak Veterinary, she’s assisting an animal owner comply with the law and ensure the health of his or her pet.
When she did the same thing in Kenya last month, she was helping protect a village against a disease that kills thousands of people annually.
Naturally, the villagers she met were grateful. But that gratitude was not one-sided. Alt is profoundly grateful for her African experience.
“This trip gave me such as different perspective,” said Alt. “Everyone there was so grateful for the smallest things. I gave this little girl a bandanna and she just lit up.”
Alt spent three weeks in Kenya last month, traveling under the auspices of an organization called the African Network for Animal Welfare. Part of her journey involved volunteering for vaccination and spa and neuter clinics at Kenyan visits. The other part involved touring the country and getting up close to elephants and giraffes and lions. It was the stuff of dreams for the career veterinarian and avowed animal lover.
Alt noted that the ANAW is a far-reaching organization committed to the protection of Kenya’s wildlife.
“There are so many problems with poaching elephants and rhinoceros and wildlife is Kenya’s most precious resource,” said Alt.
Through ANAW, Alt was connected to another group called Vet Treks, which arranges tours fro veterinarians that include work in the field. While she wanted to fulfill a lifetime dream to visit the African continent, Alt also wanted to do some good. Vet Treks provided the means to bridge those desires.
Back to the topic of rabies, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s most recent data, in 2014, there were 6,033 cases of animal rabies and only one human case reported in the United States. By contrast, the World Health Organization estimates there are 55,000 human deaths from rabies annually and 44 percent of those fatalities occur in Africa. The disease that is wildly contained in the U.S. is a true health threat in Kenya.
Because of its seriousness, Alt said when a domestic animal contracts rabies, the common village response is to kill off all the dogs in the area. So when a vaccination clinic comes to town, villagers are quick to gather up their dogs, cats and donkeys to take advantage of the service.
“In Kenya, cats are house pets and dogs are left outdoors,” said Alt. “You don’t see cats in the streets like you see dogs and the donkeys are their beasts of burden.”
Like many Third World countries, Kenya has a dog overpopulation issue. Alt began her work in Naivasha, a lakeside area where she spent five nights. During spay and neuter clinic in the area, Alt said a team of vets and helpers operated on more than 100 animals in an assembly line fashion.
“It was nothing like what you would even consider doing in this country,” said Alt. “But everyone (animal) got a collar and a leash and got their nails clipped.”
After that clinic, the veterinarians were split into smaller groups and sent out to more rural areas for the rabies vaccination clinics. Children would bring their dogs and cats, which were often times in a grain sack for the trip to the clinic. Some of the clients walked for miles to get to a clinic.
The vets learned a few words of Swahili so they could direct the children to hold their animals still for a shot. Alt wrote the words on her forearm so she had a ready reference.
During the course of the various two-day clinics, the teams vaccinated more than 3,000 animals. Alt noted that in the grand scheme of the rabies threat on the African continent, that might seem like a paltry number. But for the individual villagers who participated, it represented a true life-saving action.
“Rabies is a scary, scary thing,” she said. “Once people get rabies, there is nothing they can do but wait to die.”
“If we can make a difference in how people can handle rabies in their country, it’s a great thing. Even the little bit you do can add up. In those villages, it can make a difference.”
Experience of a lifetime
After they completed their clinics, the American vets had the opportunity to check out animals they don’t see in their regular practices by traveling to Tsavo National Park. While touring the area they experienced the abundance of African wildlife and visited a Kenyan school.
At the school, Alt’s entourage distributed clothing and classroom supplies they had collected before the trip. The kids offered a performance and then challenged the group to a soccer match because they were so excited to have new soccer balls to play with.
“They kicked our butts and they were running barefoot on the dirt,” said Alt.
Women in the village offered basket weaving instruction and everybody danced. Alt said everybody danced all the time throughout Kenya. She danced with women who built the huts they live in and support their families by tending crops and making products to sell. She danced with warriors from tribes that used to subsist through hunting but are now searching for a new livelihood because of Kenya’s new hunting bans. She danced with children who didn’t have shoes and were clad in eclectic outfits they received from other visiting tourists.
Alt’s animation is vivid when telling her stories of sighting lions, cheetahs, baboons, warthogs, hippos, zebras, hyenas and too many other species to list. One highlight was a trip to the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust Center where Alt encountered orphaned baby elephants. The young animals are let out into the national park during the day and then they return to the center at night for food and shelter. Alt will never forget the sight of the little elephants running up to their human companions to drink a gallon-sized bottle of milk before lying down in their stalls, coved by a blanket.
“They are so amazing, those little babies,” she said.
In some ways, Alt said it’s hard to believe she actually had the opportunity to visit Kenya.
“It was the most incredible thing I have ever done,” she said. “I feel like I really got to experience Africa, and it was so unbelievable.”
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