So, I left the animal shelter.
For a million and one reasons, but the most immediate was that they told my friend, home for a week for Thanksgiving, that they didn’t want her to return. At that point, I was only there to fill in the time and give meds while she was gone, so there was suddenly no reason for me to be there anyway–and I was also very unhappy and didn’t want to be there. My friend had left all of her stuff there, as she planned on returning, already had a ticket back to Guatemala City, as well as a return ticket home for Christmas. Of course, they waited until after she had bought those to tell her she was not welcome back. And their reasoning was that she had too much “animal knowledge.” So on Thanksgiving evening, I packed up all her stuff, packed up my own, wrote out the list of medications that needed administering, and documented all of the vaccinations I had done. That night, I also had a dying puppy in my bed (number four out of our six, who I diagnosed with distemper and has hopefully been put down by now–I told them to do it the day I left). I didn’t sleep, worrying about what was going to happen in the morning and worrying about the puppy that I was perfectly aware was going to die the next day but I didn’t want to suffer. In the morning I talked to the owner and told her that I assumed that since she didn’t want my friend there, she didn’t want me. She said that she didn’t have a problem with ME, but I told her that I was no longer comfortable being there if she wasn’t welcome and I had made my decision. My driver (yes, I have a driver here now–protip, get Uber drivers’ phone numbers in places that are hard to get Ubers) picked me up at 7:30 am with my stuff and my friend’s stuff. And now I’m in Antigua.
I am happy with my decision, for the most part. Except I’m so, so, SO worried about my two babies that are left. I mean, I’m desperately worried about all the animals there, to be honest, but my two puppies aren’t going to last without proper care. And if they do have distemper, no one will fucking notice and they’ll just suffer and die in their cages instead of being humanely put down.
But now…we are fucking done with this place. It’s obvious that the owner is an animal hoarder. She won’t accept help from anyone if it means losing even an inkling of control (which is why she didn’t want my friend returning–she found her threatening). We have already contacted many sources, such as PETA and the media, but please let us know if you have any ideas of what to do to get these animals out of a neglectful situation. The frustrating thing is that I do think that the director MEANS well, she just doesn’t understand animals and refuses to see that some of them are sick and starving. This place could be amazing with proper management and proper staffing. But it’s not. I’ve attached a summary of my time at Animal Aware below, that I wrote the day I left.
One more thing: even though I have so many issues with this place, I am never going to stop trying to help the animals there. I deeply love them and still encourage you to adopt from here, because these animals NEED you. They are so sweet and loving, and I guarantee they will have better lives with you then they do right now.
ANIMAL AWARE IN RETROSPECT
When I arrived at Animal Aware, I didn’t really know what to expect. Nobody had told me anything other than a phone number and an address, and vaguely directed me toward a map on the website (that was hard to find). I had to wait at the gate for a while, since there was no wifi to call anybody, until somebody let me in.
I was shown to our little onsite house, “Casita,” which was, incidentally, very gross, filled with termites and mice, and covered in cat pee. There are technically four beds in two bunks, but NOTHING had been prepared for me—the other volunteer that was there at the time had grabbed some blankets for me from the clinic, and that was it. I was told I would be helping her. And…that was it. Nobody told me anything else. No rules, no responsibilities, no anything. I wasn’t even sure what I was supposed to be doing, or what needed doing, so I looked to her for guidance.
The other volunteer had experience as a veterinary assistant, and was in charge of giving medicines to all the animals and keeping them healthy. I could tell right away that this was a lot of pressure on her, as there are (around) 300 dogs (nobody keeps track) and she isn’t even a vet. But she seemed to know what she was doing, and from the start taught me lots of things—what medicines are used for what, how to hold dogs to keep them still, how to make sure they swallow their pills—things that I just didn’t know and desperately wanted to learn.
When I didn’t know what to do, she would tell me to walk dogs who needed it. If I ever had a question about anything, she would know the answer or find out for me. She was really the only form of guidance I had at the shelter at all.
My friend took it upon herself to start projects that nobody asked her to do. She built a pen for puppies from scratch, using scrap wood and nails she found lying around. She brought in a bunch of very sick puppies to live with us in Casita, because she knew that they would die if they were not monitored closely, and the conditions in the clinic are loud, stressful, and unsanitary. She started internet fundraisers and advertisements to get some dogs adopted—and successfully got several adopted internationally! While doing this, she was also giving medicines to all the dogs in the clinic, monitoring the dogs in the rest of the shelter, deworming and vaccinating, and basically doing WAY more than a single human being could ever do. All of it willingly, all of it for no payment.
It was only my second day at the shelter that there was a spay/neuter clinic for the public. It was a really wonderful experience for me personally, as I basically got to scrub in on surgeries. But I was also very nervous about the unsanitary conditions. Needles were used multiple times for different animals. There were not enough gloves to always use them. I wasn’t even told what cleaners were what, and I just kind of had to watch and learn.
Sanitation continues to remain an issue. We don’t reuse needles but we do reuse syringes (that are clearly labeled “for single use only”). There are mouse and rat droppings all over the clinic, on top of machines, on top of medicines. There are loads of unused items just being stored in there, many of them dirty, all of them collecting germs and acting as good hiding spots for rodents. There are flies EVERYWHERE, and nobody seems to care to do anything about it (I bought fly tape). There are dogs just walking around, pooping everywhere, and everything is just…gross. The cages where the animals are kept are wiped down daily, but not scrubbed, not bleached and rinsed—because we can’t use the water—and there are often feces all on the inside from their previous inhabitants.
Most of the dogs are kept in outdoor pens. Some of them seem quite happy and healthy. Many of them don’t. There is often one skinny dog in a pen who is probably not eating enough because the other dogs eat all of its food. They are not on any deworming schedule, so many of the dogs are likely full of parasites, also contributing to malnutrition. They get one walk every day, and no real examinations unless something is blatantly and obviously wrong with them (and sometimes not even then). It is way too much for one person to manage, but the owner doesn’t trust anyone enough to give them the tools or resources they need to do what they need to do.
There was one chow with fur so matted and muddy that she looked like she had giant scales on her back, and she smelled terrible. Nobody was going to do anything about it until I made sure that she was bathed and we trimmed her hair, and this only happened when I had enough time to do it, which took days upon days. “There are groomers coming in January,” I was told. But this dog was miserable—there was no way she should have had to wait until January. She was clearly in a lot of pain and discomfort, and even though we made her a bit better, there is so much work to do on her still. I understand that this is a shelter, and doesn’t necessarily have ideal resources. I get it. But this is just plain neglect. This is a solvable problem that should have been addressed long ago.
There is one horse there, all alone, and obviously very depressed. The worst part? She’s “not available for adoption,” even though she’s miserable and doesn’t have any space to run around. She needs to be with other horses, but instead she just stands around all day, whinnying at anybody that walks by, because she’s so lonely. She is also not properly cared for. Horses are very delicate creatures, but she’s basically treated like a cow or a goat. She doesn’t get fed well, or exercised, or groomed, or socialized.
While we were there, another one of our self-decided projects was to create a database of all the animals that could be accessed by volunteers. There is a “database” already, but it is not remotely up-to-date, and can only be accessed by the owner. This makes it impossibly to figure out what dogs need vaccinations (hint: almost all of them) and nobody can match the medical history to the dog, because we don’t even know what names go with what dogs, let alone what pens. This endangers not only the dogs, but the workers and volunteers. Our plan was to build this database—that should have existed already—as a shared Google Drive folder, where volunteers could easily click on a pen, see what dogs are in it with their photos and profiles. We did tons of work on this, and now it is never going to be used. How many dogs there are will still be a mystery.
There is no separate quarantine area, which is a problem when we have sick puppies. When we bring them to Casita to watch them and give them medicine as needed, and they still die, we are told that it’s because we did this or did that. We are told not to name the puppies because “puppies die.” Sure, they do, sometimes, and sometimes it is not preventable. Oftentimes with adequate care, they wouldn’t have to.
Dogs are not properly quarantined when they enter the shelter. A dog followed me home one night and waited at the gate all night. In the morning, the owner just put him in a pen with three other dogs. He could have had rabies or a million other diseases. And since most of the dogs are not properly vaccinated, they are at risk.
The main problem is that there are not enough employees, and the owner is unwilling to entrust responsibility to anyone. There just aren’t enough bodies to run this shelter. Four Guatemalan men do everything—feed and water the dogs, give them one walk a day. It’s not enough. There needs to be better management, an onsite vet, preferably with assistants, and people in charge of adoptions and raising funds. There need to be people who have the time to wash dogs that need it, to clip nails, to socialize them. Ideally, that would be the job of the volunteers—but instead, we are so busy administering medications and figuring out what dog lives in what pen and trying to keep puppies alive that there isn’t a whole lot of time for much else.
Watching dogs die became a common occurrence, because there are really only one to two days a week that dogs are “allowed” to go to the vet. This is a “no-kill” shelter, but I would much rather watch sick dogs be humanely euthanized than suffer alone until they die. One of the worst days was when we noticed a puppy in the clinic having trouble breathing. We had no resources. The owner doesn’t answer her phone after 4pm, and we knew that if we left this dog, in the morning he would be dead. We had to do something. We were Googling everything we could think of, calling vets, our local friends, even my parents who are a human doctor and nurse, anyone that could help us. We eventually found a 24 hour vet, found an Uber that would actually pick us up (it is in the middle of nowhere and very hard to get an Uber) and then had to hop the fence with a 25lb dog, because we get locked inside every night at 4pm. We paid for the vet ourselves, and the dog stayed overnight.
The next day, two of the little puppies from Casita were doing poorly, so my friend decided to take them to the vet to try to keep them alive, but one of them was seizing severely and died on the way. She also learned in that car ride that the dog we had brought the previous night had died. The puppy that made it to the vet was diagnosed with pneumonia, a rare disease for a dog to get, and his bloodwork suggested it was because of a low immunity. This is something that better food can assist with, and many vets told us that we need better food if we want to keep these dogs alive. So we bought a bunch, again, using our own money.
Only a few days later, another one of our puppies from Casita was diagnosed with distemper and had to be put down. Meanwhile, a nursing mother with her three puppies was declining in the clinic, and one morning, two of the puppies were dead. A couple days later, after taking them to the vet and him doing nothing useful, the next one died, and the mother continued declining. We took her to the vet in Guatemala City, where antibiotics were not helping and she was eventually diagnosed with cancer and put down.
My favorite puppy—one of the ones we had raised in Casita and I was going to adopt—died in my arms last week. We had sent her to the vet when she was severely dehydrated and instead of giving her an IV, he returned her with instructions of giving her milk and feeding her rice. She wasn’t eating or drinking, so that was useless, and at this point, she was so dehydrated that her body was shutting down. It was on us to give her subcutaneous fluids, medication, and she still ended up dying anyway.
All of these deaths were in one way or another blamed on the other volunteer and I. “We should have gotten a second opinion before putting her down,” even though she could barely even breathe. “We should have asked for permission,” even though the owner is impossible to get ahold of after 4pm, when these incidents happened. We were even told that we probably killed my favorite puppy because we gave her fluids “that might have been expired.”
Other dogs have died. Yet another of our puppies had to be put down this morning. One was just…sick, and died. It’s not a perfect world, and this is after all a shelter. But you need to try. If you can’t afford better food, get better funding. If you have too many dogs to take care of, focus on getting more adopted out. Anything less is irresponsible.
She puts dogs outside—without telling us—that are still on medications. It not only makes it a million times more difficult to give them the medication when they are in their outdoor pens, it also gets confusing, wastes time, and can be dangerous to the other dogs they are with.
In looking through the database that they have made, I’ve noticed that many dogs they’ve had have died by being attacked by other dogs. This should not be happening. Dogs need to be in pens with other dogs they get along with. They need to be MONITORED, and since there aren’t enough employees, this isn’t happening. You can’t just give dogs food and water and expect them to live. I mean, you can, and some will. But not all of them.
I got in trouble for so many things. Taking dogs to the vet, using the washing machine, using sheets for the puppies instead of blankets, taking puppies to Casita, soaking blankets in water too long, staying out after 6pm, giving injectable medication instead of oral when the oral was nowhere to be found…the list is endless.
One day, I took the evening off to go to Guatemala City, and when I came back, all of my vet notes were missing. She had come into our apartment and taken the things I needed to take care of these dogs, mine and the other volunteer’s personal property. I wasted an hour in the morning trying to get them back from her, time that would have been better spent taking care of the animals.
She thought that we were keeping information from her, but we told her EVERYTHING; she just always forgot. I had the same conversations with her so many times.
When my friend had to go home for Thanksgiving, I had to take over administering medications because there was no one else. Because we don’t have everything we need, I’m often having to substitute things, and my friend is vital in this. If I have a question, she is the one to ask. But then she got told not to come back. I’m not comfortable giving medicine without her advice, and we have been working as a team, and I don’t want to be here without her. So I left as well.
I bought so much for this shelter. Tons of office supplies, so we could keep better track of the animals and their paperwork. Fly tape. Good quality food for the animals, because the vets said they needed it. Vet bills. Uber bills (because that was the only way to get to and from the city with supplies or animals). Needles and syringes. Items for Casita (more plates, knives, a new shower curtain, those kinds of things). They were things that were needed, and nobody was asking me to buy them. I’m not complaining. I’m just trying to make it clear how much effort and money I put into this place. I wanted to make it better. I wanted to help, truly. I spent literally all my free time making this database, to make things better.
This was a horrible volunteer experience. No volunteer should have that much responsibility put on their shoulders. Knowing that if you don’t keep this puppy alive, no one else is going to. It’s not fair to the volunteers, and it’s not fair to the animals. I hope something changes.