Before leaving for morning lecture on zoonotic diseases at PAWS clinic, we gathered together at one of the cabanas at the Midas Resort to get dressed for a birthday surprise we had been planning. Our vet tech Ruben had his birthday on the same day he had to drive us out to a goat farm so we wanted to thank him with balloons and party hats for working on his special day. It was a lot of fun because the clinic is a family run business so Ruben’s brother Dr. Tesecum (We all call him Dr. T for short) was there to celebrate with us before beginning lecture.
Lecture was actually really interesting because we discussed several zoonotic diseases such as rabies and how animals with them get treated. It was surprising to hear that cattle were the major carriers for rabies instead of dogs as you see them all the time running around in town off leash. Even livestock animals such as horses have a lower incidence of rabies because people are more likely to view them as pets rather than assets so they tend to give them more care and attention. Rabies was a huge topic of concern when I was making sure that my immunizations were up to date before leaving for Belize. So learning that most of the animals you would come in contact with are actually vaccinated for the viral disease came as a huge surprise.
For the afternoon, we visited a goat farm to help give subcutaneous vitamin injections and oral dewormer. Compared to the sheep, they were much easier to restrain but since they were not dehorned, you had to work quickly in order to avoid being kicked or rammed into by their horns. It was actually really funny while working with them as the smell of the barn faintly reminded me of goat cheese so it was hard not to get a little hungry.
Little did I know that later some of the farmers would cut down some of their coconuts so that we could have a chance to try the water and meat inside. It was funny to watch everybody’s first sip and look back at the expression of my face trying it for the first time. The taste is very different from what you would expect as the coconut sold in the stores in the States is often highly processed. It turns out that the coconuts in Belize, which come in both green and yellow varies, are a staple of the Belizean diet used in almost every dish and even to cure the occasional upset stomach.
Later in the week, we drove out to an Amish dairy farm where we learned about the importance of rotating pastures to break parasite life cycles and ways in which production can be improved through assessing an animal’s diet. Many of the grasses in Belize, I found out are actually imported from different regions around the world, as the protein content in the native grasses tends to be lower. It is especially important to learn ways to improve dairy cattle nutrition in Belize as Holstein cows unlike in the States do not produce as much milk since they were bred for more temperate climates. While we did not get as many hands-on experiences at this farm, we did have the opportunity to milk a cow. However, I think if I had to choose the highlight of my day it would definitely go to getting a chance to stick my arm up a cow’s rectum to palpate the cervix.
Rectal palpations are lot harder then they look but they are done either to artificially inseminate or check for pregnancy in a cow. You are basically going in blind when trying to palpate because your hand, which goes through the rectum is trying to find the cervix, which sits below in a different cavity. Sometimes you have to clear out the feces to reach the cervix and at other times your arm just being there as a foreign object causes the cow to feel the urge to defecate. Our group got really lucky though because before going to the AI farm, we had the opportunity to examine a dissection of the reproductive anatomy from a heifer that had recently just been slaughtered. It made it a lot easier to visualize where the cervix laid when actually palpating but still trying to determine whether the cow was pregnant was a bit harder since we had nothing to compare it to. It was a lot of fun though pulling on arm-length gloves with lubricant and I don’t think I could have been happier at the end of the day knowing I had my arm half way up a cow.
Because we ended at the AI farm early, we had the opportunity to go climb and explore the Mayan ruin Xunantunich (Try saying that name five times fast because I sure couldn’t even on the first try. For most of the trip, I just called it Mayan ruin ‘X’ lol 😉 We actually had made plans to go see this ruin three times before finally getting there. A bit ominous considering that it happens to be the second tallest Mayan temple in Belize. The first time we were supposed to go was the weekend we arrived but there was a mix up with dates with our tour guide so we ended up visiting a smaller Mayan temple called Cahal Pech closer in to San Ignacio. On our third try to go visit Xunantunich, the van stopped in the middle of the road on a hill and would no longer go forward despite the number of times we tried. Should we have taken this as a sign from above? Waiting for our second van to arrive in the sun for an hour should have probably made us all turn back but nonetheless we embraced what was not meant to be, eager to climb to see the view from the top not from a postcard.
Climbing to the top was a bit of a challenge as the steps are unusually high and don’t go straight through the center. I later found out the physical struggle in climbing higher steps forces your body into a position that for the Mayans would have mirrored the act of genuflecting to honor their gods. When we reached the top of Xunantunich, the view was nothing like I had seen in my life. You could actually see the border separating Belize from Guatemala once of course, it was pointed out to you. One thing that really surprised me was that borders become pretty nonexistent when you are up that high, as the landscape looks the same on either side. Guatemala and Belize continue to have border disputes to this day due to what each side claims was initially their territory before British occupation. However, being up that high without a way to distinguish the border, you begin to contemplate what really is defining about one.
Our last day of class was at a horse farm where we had the chance to run physical exams and the opportunity to go riding. I was really excited to be around horses again as I used to ride as a hunter-jumper for eight years so some part of being there felt a little like home. It was pretty lively place too as there were several dogs running around on the farm as well as a kitten that had been born a couple weeks ago. I also got the chance to see a Blue Morpho butterfly and some lizard eggs while walking around, which was pretty cool. The iguanas and geckos in Belize are analogous to the squirrels we have in the States as they are almost everywhere crawling up trees and on the ground. Other common wildlife that youwill find there include Great-tailed Grackles, Black Howler Monkeys, and Leaf-Cutter Ants, which you have to be careful to avoid while walking since their trails back to their nest tend to be very long.
We performed full body exams on the horses from head to tail checking their vitals, measuring their height/weight, and removing the occasional tick if need be. Some of the horses in the herd were rather young so they ended up coming along with us for riding, which was pretty fun. It was a very cool experience knowing that the horse that I rode up a mountain was the same one that I did a physical examination on. Knowing that the animal underneath me was healthier because of the injections I administered gave me the chance to reflect on how as a future veterinarian I will not only be acting as a physician but also a caretaker of all animals.