Texas expatriate helps cats and dogs of small-town Panama
It’s Spay Day in Volcan, Panama – a small town of about 4,000 people.
Dr. Tello is just arriving from his animal hospital in Costa Rica, just an hour away. Dorreene has a set up a table where people can sign in with the dogs and cats. Don is comforting some of the puppies. A Peace Corps volunteer, who’s teaching organic and sustainable farming, is helping out as vet tech.
And Dottie is everywhere. The founder of Spay Panama Chiriqui, Dottie Atwater is like a whirlwind – helping get a dog out of a crate to be weighed, consulting with the vet, in the waiting area greeting a patient, helping someone get registered, cleaning up after a disabled kitty.
Her heart is as big as Texas, which is where she’s from. And to think that, until not very long ago, she didn’t even like dogs!
We talked with her before one of her clinics, her 37th, and she told us later that “our wonderful Dr. Tello” had spayed 16 dogs and 6 cats, and neutered 2 dogs and 5 cats — 29 in all. This makes a total of 1,328 animals sterilized so far.
Zoe: How long have you been down there?
Dottie: I moved to Volcan from Texas in September of 2004, so I’ve been here a little over six years.
Zoe: And you weren’t a dog person at first?
Dottie: I soon became one! I adopted two street dogs and had one of them spayed, but the person who did it didn’t know what they were doing, and one of the instruments got lost up inside the dog. Then they gave her phenobarbital and she was out cold. She was bleeding and I was desperate.
I heard there was a group of veterinarians in town that weekend and they were doing a spay/neuter program. I took the dog over to them, and they said, “Wow, this dog could die. Talk to her all night. Try to keep her alert.” It took her 24 hours to wake up. The dog was finally OK, and while I was there I met Patricia Chan, who’d started Spay Panama in Panama City. And the Spay Panama vets did a professional job of sterilizing my other dog that day.
I started going to Panama City to learn about the clinics, and eventually I said OK, I’m gonna start the clinics here in Volcan because it was so sad to see the dogs in the street. They were covered with mange. They were starving. They were diseased. And it just broke my heart.
Patricia and her group appointed me as the western branch of Spay Panama. So, I’m Spay Panama Chiriqui, and I can be under their umbrella, because it’s a non-profit organization in Panama.
Zoe: Your veterinarian is across the border in Costa Rica. That’s a whole country away!
Dottie: Dr. Tello lives 15 minutes on the other side of the border and his clinic is another 15 minutes, so he’s fairly close and he’s very good. Between clinics, if ever there’s an emergency, I call and arrange to meet him at the border with the animal.
Not too long ago some teachers came to my house with a dog who’d been hit by a car. He was a big dog, brown and brindle, and the owner was just going to kill the dog because he didn’t want him to suffer, but I went and got the dog and I met Dr. Tello at the border. The dog was really banged up pretty bad with a broken hip, but Dr. Tello found a new home for him. And the teachers still check on him from time to time.
Zoe: You hold your spay/neuter clinics once a month? How many pets can you do surgeries for?
Dottie: Well, Dr. Tello can do 50 animals in one day, but we don’t have that many show up at our clinic and I’m really happy if we can do 30. Sometimes that includes doing an amputation or removing venereal tumors, which are prevalent here and are eventually fatal. It’s a long day.
Zoe: What are venereal diseases in dogs?
Dottie: They get tumors that take time to develop inside. They’re not detected until they are very advanced. Blood begins to drip from the penis of a male dog, and in a female, it can look as though the dog is just in heat. The tumors are eventually fatal to both males and females if not removed. I think our vet is the only one who knows how to remove them. And you know what he uses? A soldering iron!
Dottie: He’s just wonderful.
Zoe: How do you get people to come to the clinic?
Dottie: About 10 days before the clinic I put up notices around town, telling people to call for an appointment. When people arrive, I have a volunteer who registers them.
Zoe: And you do it all by the book – registration, preparation, hygiene, surgeries, recovery – just like any good spay/neuter clinic in the United States. Tell us about the clinic itself.
Dottie: I rent the building we use so that I have a place to keep most of the equipment, except for the controlled medications and the instruments and the autoclave which is very expensive. The operating table is up on concrete blocks so that it’s high enough for the vet, and the building is one big open room with the waiting room outside on the porch. But the process itself is very much like a vet’s office in the States.
Zoe: So, six years later have you seen any noticeable decrease in the number of dogs and cats on the street?
Dottie: The cats tend to keep out of sight, so it’s difficult to count them. But we’ve seen a big difference with the dogs. There are still a lot of them on the street, but most of them have owners and people just let them run. I really prefer that to having them tied up with no food or water, no shelter. But the clinics have definitely made a difference, and the mindset of the people has changed, too. A lot of them are really learning to love their animals.
Zoe: How long do you think it will take to get the situation stable?
Dottie: Our goal is to sterilize at least 75 percent of them and we still have a long way to go. I don’t know how long it will take. As long as I have my health and the money to do it, I just keep on going.
Zoe: Where do the funds come from?
Dottie: We get a few donations, not many, and we have some contributions from the people who bring the animals in. My cost is $20 per dog and $10 per cat. Nobody is turned away for inability to pay, even if they can’t pay a dollar. But I like to have people pay at least 50 cents because that shows some commitment toward the animal. There’s always a deficit, which I pay from my own pocket.
I get enough volunteers at the clinic and enough people to donate food and drinks for the clinic. And just recently I’ve been able to put a PayPal donate button on my website. Some people who live down around Panama City have donated $500 three times – which is great, but it’s unusual.
Zoe: What do people your friends back in the U.S. ask you most often about life in Volcan or your work with the animals?
Dottie: Well, moving to another country is beyond a lot of people’s realm of … whatever. People think I’m crazy!
Zoe: What’s life like in Volcan?
Dottie: The people are generally very nice and helpful. The weather is wonderful. We have a rainy season and a dry season, and even in the rainy season we usually have sunny mornings and then it rains in the afternoon maybe for a few hours.
Things grow really well here. I have an organic garden. It’s a lot less expensive to live here even though I have a full-time employee and 14 dogs of my own to look after and the clinics to run and finance.
And the pace of life is just really more laid back and not as frenetic.