GALLE, Sri Lanka – The villagers come running when they see Dr. Chamal Mahanama pull up in a three-wheeler to administer his version of disaster relief – this one aimed at the four-legged survivors.
Standing in line with their pet dogs, cats, rabbits, and even the odd monkey, they wait patiently as the veterinarian deftly swabs a furry rump with alcohol before quickly injecting the vaccines – the first for rabies, the second for distemper, hepatitis and leptospirosis.
“People have lost everything. They have no houses, no work. Everything was destroyed by the tsunami. They have no money. … We go to them and we vaccinate their pets for free. That automatically helps people,” Mahanama said.
He is part of a team of vets drafted by the London-based World Society for the Protection of Animals to go into tsunami-stricken areas to vaccinate animals against disease which becomes a greater risk when communities are vulnerable.
“If you don’t pay attention to rabies and other animal diseases, if there’s an outbreak, it would be a big crisis on top of the huge tsunami crisis,” said Juan Murillo, a veterinary field officer coordinating the program in Sri Lanka.
The group, which focuses efforts on the welfare of animals in the wake of disaster, has similar teams working in Indonesia, India and Thailand.
In the past week, some 5,000 animals, mostly dogs, have been vaccinated in Sri Lanka, Murillo said.
The teams are systematically making their way through the southern region, with the goal of vaccinating about 70 percent of the animal population, he said.
“The community reaction is immediate. They’re responsive and enthusiastic. In the relief camps where we’ve been, people are living with the animals they managed to save,” Murillo said. “There’s a very strong emotional attachment and protectiveness.”
Pet owners tell Murillo, “If I have to stay in the heat, OK, but not my dog.”
“They are really grateful someone cares about their animals,” he said.
Using a bullhorn to announce their presence as they drive through villages, the mobile teams go directly into the neighborhoods, using a corner market or Buddhist temple as a temporary vaccination station.
On a recent foray just north of Galle, one team rolled into the town of Rathgama, setting up a small table on the side of the road. They carried everything they needed with them – boxes of vaccines kept in coolers, rubber gloves, syringes and vaccination tags.
Within minutes, a huge crowd had formed as children walked up with puppies or cats in their arms. Adults jogged by, trailing dogs on leashes.
Fifteen-year-old T. Nalinda drove up on his motorbike with his pet Pomeranian, Pinkie, under one arm.
“She only eats what we eat – eggs, rice, fish,” he said proudly as he held her still for a shot.
Sweating in the heat, Mahanama was gentle and efficient as he pulled out a clean syringe, dabbed a fleshy spot with alcohol, and plunged in the needle. In just over an hour, he had vaccinated about 50 animals. In a day, he can do more than 200.
Though he runs a private animal clinic of his own, Mahanama said he is glad to help with the vaccination program as a small way to aid tsunami survivors.
“They are really grateful,” he said.
Proudly holding up two newly vaccinated squirming puppies – one chocolate brown, the other black and white – K. Samarasiri, 45, thanked the vet for his work.
Samarasiri said his house along the beach had been damaged by the tsunami, but the waves left the two unexpected gifts near his door.
“The tsunami brought them,” he said. “We’re keeping them now.”
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