The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals SPCA Fiji Islands is a not-for-profit animal shelter and veterinary hospital in Suva, on the main island of Viti Levu, Fiji. The shelter is constantly seeking volunteer veterinarians and I visit the shelter twice per year.
Friends sometimes comment on how lucky I am to visit SPCA Fiji Islands. As Fiji is an iconic island paradise I have been told that it must feel like a beach holiday to visit the SPCA. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Suva is not quite an island paradise, it is the busy and muggy capital city of Fiji, as well as a major shipping port. Rain is regular and Suva has more peak hour traffic and shopping centres than it does beaches or blue sky. The SPCA itself is situated on an industrial stretch of road, directly across from the Fiji Bitter Factory and the Suva Prison!
The work at SPCA is challenging. Days are long and inundated with parvovirus, hookworm, hit-by-cars, severe and debilitating skin infections, toxicities, emaciation and generally advanced states of disease. ‘Paraquat’ poisoning is common. It is a lethal herbicide that causes an irreversible pulmonary fibrosis over a period of 4-10 days - death by slow suffocation. Severe jaundice is seen almost on a daily basis with leptospirosis being a major human health issue in Fiji. It is suspected to be rife in the cat and dog population as well.
It is hard and often gut wrenching work. Fortunately, the difficult days are tempered by the wonderful clientele. They are by in large the most patient, warm and grateful pet owners I have ever worked with.
Anaesthesia and analgesia are limited, as are blood tests and diagnostics of any kind. Three years ago, on my first visit to SPCA, there was not even a glucometer, let alone anything like a centrifuge, microscope or x-ray machine. The few available intravenous catheters were 15 years out-of-date and intravenous fluids and antibiotics were so scarce that they were not available to most of the patients that needed them. At one point there was no Lethabarb. The shelter continues to improve and is now becoming quite well equipped, thanks to the tireless campaigning by SPCA staff. The shelter now boasts an x-ray machine, microscope, centrifuge, glucometer, pulse oximeter, dental machine and a good array of basic medicines.
At the heart of the SPCA are the incredible nurses. They are welcoming, committed and indefatigable. There are often times when there is no vet at the shelter, in which case the nurses are on their own to provide basic health care to animals in need. In addition, they operate a SPCA hospital van to assist owners without vehicles and rescue severely ill street dogs and cats. The SPCA also operates a 24-hour emergency service. The nurses answer all the calls and meet every emergency patient at the clinic - each nurse is on call for one month at a time! At times when I find myself lamenting the long day or week I have had, I think of the SPCA nurses and how easy my job is and how idle I am by comparison.
Working at SPCA Fiji Islands may not quite be a beach holiday, but I definitely am very lucky to have been able to visit. What Suva may lack in island resorts it makes up with an incredible animal shelter, an awe inspiring team and some the most gentle and courageous patients I have ever had the honour to meet. I have never worked so hard, or with so little and yet I have never been more grateful or happy to be a vet.
Dr Amy Hardwick BVSc BA
Amy graduated from the University of Sydney and has worked in both small animal practice and emergency care. She is now the veterinary and shelter manager at RSPCA Broken Hill. Amy has an interest in the management of stray animal populations and increasing the accessibility of veterinary services for animals in remote regions. Over the last three years she has regularly volunteered as a veterinarian at the SPCA Fiji Islands. Today, she talks about her experiences there.