SPANA: For the Working Animals of the World

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One of the first things that comes up in conversation is usually: “How did you end up at SPANA?” and up to today I can only reply “Karma and a good bottle of wine!”.

I understand the disbelief that still prevails amongst my closest friends, when they see my photos on a canoe en route to an elephant camp, while still holding vivid memories of me in the scrub up area of some Equine surgical hospital.

Like many, I started my veterinary career adamant that I would someday become one of the best equine surgeons of my era. I went through all the motions to achieve just that. An internship followed by a Residency, unpaid placements in top hospitals around the world during my holidays, where I was hungry to observe and assist all the “top” equine surgeons. I then started putting in practice what I had learnt, working as a sole surgeon outside London. Everything was going great, yet I still felt like something was missing… I couldn’t initially put my finger on it… then one evening as a friend was studying job advertisements; I came across a bizarre job offer: “How would you like to treat working animals and travel the world for 3-4 months of the year?”

That sounded too good to be true, and I applied. What followed was a fabulous job that develops and grows on you like ring worm left untreated! Nobody had ever told me that this kind of career path was an option, and of the growing potential it has, both as a vet and as a human being.

SPANA (The Society for Protection of Animals Abroad) works in developing countries, where it aims to improve the welfare of working animals. It does so by providing free veterinary care, training for veterinary students/professionals and paraprofessionals, education of children, training of adults in community settings, and research. The term “working animals” refers to all animals that support families by providing traction and transport, and there are an estimated 300 million worldwide. Such animals are not only used for ploughing or pulling, but also on the front line in helping humans by pulling carts used as ambulances, transporting children to school, carrying heavy loads for women, water for their families and rubbish to the dumps. They are the stoical, silent workers of developing countries…

As a SPANA Vet we feel privileged. We get to share knowledge and skills with other professionals abroad, both in our centres and in our mobile clinics (which operate as “ambulances” if you like). We get to work closely with a variety of animals, ranging from horses and mules to camels and elephants! We work in remote communities, where we are exposed to fascinating cultures and traditions.

On a typical trip we would be met by our local team that operates on the ground daily. We could be there to hold bespoke continuing professional development training or to attend clinical cases with them. The working day usually starts at 8am and runs through till dark, or until all patients are seen to. Temperatures are always a fair bit warmer than we would be accustomed to in England, and there is the excitement of never knowing if we may get hit by a sand storm or tropical downpour. We could also end up walking on boiling desert sand to reach camels, or climbing hills to reach a sick mule, or canoeing for hours to reach the next elephant treatment camp. Amongst all working animals there are some common conditions we encounter. Mainly traumatic or harness related wounds, lameness, ocular disease and infectious conditions. The type of assistance we offer ranges from providing advice to surgical interventions, all of which are perfected under field conditions (i.e. on camping mattress using total intravenous anaesthesia (TIVA)). The working conditions teach you to be quick thinking and adaptable. And the context we work in opens new opportunities in veterinary that were never illustrated to us at Vet school.

I have recently returned from a 2 week camping trip across Zimbabwe, South Africa and Botswana, where we held a castrating campaign in areas densely populated by donkeys. We organised the work in 2 teams of 4 people, and performed on average over 20 surgeries per day, all under general anaesthesia. We also used this opportunity to train local Government vets and research the efficacy of different sterilising solutions on our equipment, as well as testing the team’s cooking skills on camping stoves! Prior to this trip we had just returned from a trip to Myanmar, where we treated multiple elephants suffering from harness related fibrotic abscesses and foot injuries, and from Tunisia where we trained our staff on basic surgical skills on working equids and camels…. So I can confidently say: it is never a boring day at SPANA!

Read Part 2: Case Study on Acquired Flexural Limb Deformities in Working Equids Here.

Dr Francesca Compostella DVM MRCVS
Veterinary Director

After gaining her veterinary degree from the University of Padua (Italy) in 2006, Francesca trained for five years in America, Scotland and England; completing a surgical residency in 2012. She worked as an equine surgeon in south east England before joining SPANA in London as a veterinary advisor in 2014, leading teams in providing free veterinary care to working animals and training local vets and students. She was appointed Director of Veterinary Programmes in February 2015. She has contributed and published articles on equine surgery and medicine and is a contributor to the latest Equine Atlas of Diseases. She is actively involved in research and a reviewer for the RCVS Veterinary Evidence Journal.

Graduated veterinary volunteers can get a small taste of some of the work we do by enrolling in placements in our centres in Morocco. This is an ideal placement for new graduates with a strong equine bias, as our centres in Morocco receive primarily working equids. You will work under the supervision of our Moroccan team, and will be hosted within our humble, yet clean and safe facilities, where you can share experiences with other international and local veterinary volunteers and taste some of the local spicy cuisine! Please visit our website: or email us at for more information.

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