Boulder Daily Camera

Animal Sense
Woman forms organization to teach vets in Third World country
By Julie Marshall, Camera Staff Writer
Boulder Daily Camera
January 14, 2001

at the vet

Wenduwusen Abebe crouches next to Zeke, a 9-year-old mixed-breed dog undergoing acupuncture treatments at a Boulder veterinary clinic. The small, white dog lies on a soft pillow while bird sounds from a CD fill the dimly lit room. It's a rare moment for Abebe, a veterinary assistant from Ethiopia.

Most dogs in Abebe's rural town never see a veterinarian. Injured and abandoned working horses wander the streets. At the university hospital where Abebe was trained, cats and dogs die from simple spay and neuter procedures because of crude suturing techniques and a lack of care.

Abebe was in town last month to observe animal surgeries at the Boulder Veterinary Hospital on north Broadway. He left on Jan. 8, following a tour of Colorado State University's large animal teaching hospital in Fort Collins and a stint in California, where he tamed horses beside renowned horse trainer Monty Roberts. The 33-year-old Ethiopian will go home saddled with 40 boxes of medicine and new skills to show villagers he trains.

The Ethiopian's first trip to the United States was sponsored by the Animal Assistance & Education League — a 3-year-old nonprofit created by Jan Mitchell of Boulder and her longtime friend, Mindy Sterling-Houser. In its first year, the league set up watering stations that now serve 600 working horses each day. Private donations pay Abebe and 11 Ethiopians he recruited — some who were living in the streets — to care for horses, cats, dogs and oxen at a makeshift clinic without walls. Mitchell's group has raised $35,000 to fulfull her dream of transforming the site into a modern facility.

The new hospital someday will be owned by Ethiopians, Mitchell says. "Our work has to benefit them (Ethiopians). It's not about white people in Boulder telling Africans what to do." Mitchell, a massage therapist, met Abebe while touring his country with a friend who volunteers for the International Horse Protection League. The Boulder woman was stunned by the sight of dehydrated horses lying in the street. She was appalled to see maggot-infested sores on the animals' legs and hoofs. These equines, which the locals call "throw away horses," pulled carts full of people and goods until they became injured.

"The real problem is with people in town whose only income is from working with animals," Abebe says. "Living in town is very expensive and people think they have to treat their animals rudely to make money."

Mitchell was introduced to Abebe during a tour of a university clinic where he worked. She heard the screams of a cat being examined with an instrument sized for a cow. "I lost it," Mitchell says. "Tears were streaming down my face. I was hysterical. Wenduwusen came running after me." Her new friend confided that he, too, was disturbed by the lack of proper tools and the way animals are mistreated.

Abebe comes from a family of 10 children and is the only one to go to college. He'll attend a six-year veterinary school in Ethiopia next year on a league scholarship. Abebe grew up on a farm with chickens, horses, donkeys, dogs and cats and always knew he'd work with animals. In the city, he has taken in five dogs.

Most Ethiopians don't care about animals the way Americans do, Abebe says, taking a peek at Ivan, a greyhound napping on a bed at the Boulder clinic. "It's not that they are cruel; it's that they raise cats to catch mice and keep dogs to run off thieves."

Abebe runs a temporary animal hospital outside Debre Zeit — a town located 20 miles southeast of Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. Without an X-ray machine, the veterinary assistant must stroke animals with his hand to discover broken bones. Major surgeries on large animals are performed in a dusty outdoor compound in the nearby town of Nazaret. It's never easy; once a local anesthetic is injected into a horse or ox, it takes seven men to gently bring the animal to the ground.

The hospital — made of five horse stalls, mud and straw huts — is the only place to bring injured livestock, cats and dogs in a region of 60,000 people, Abebe says. Most clients live in the city and rely on horses for transport. But farmers have been known to travel more than 1,000 miles to give their donkeys medical care. They pay what they can — a bag of peanuts or time spent helping in the clinic.

The work continues because the league sends Abebe medical supplies donated by Boulder Community Hospital, local veterinarians and Denver veterinary clinics.

The villagers are beginning to understand their horses need water, veterinary care and should not be beaten, Abebe says. "They see that if you care for an animal, you are caring for yourself because you won't have to buy another horse." Horses can work eight years, Abebe says, but he knows one villager who bought four in 12 months because the mares died. Common illnesses are lymphangitis — a fungal disease that is easily cured with sodium iodide injections — worms and dehydration.

Americans often ask why the league isn't helping children in a country plagued by war, drought and famine, Mitchell says. "The answer is that we are." Abebe will go home this week with donated children's shoes and clothes. The nonprofit provides food, clothing, shelter and training for people working at the clinic. "We are working a miracle here," Abebe says. "In just a few years we're seeing people's behaviors changing. They are being polite to animals, spending the time to understand their feelings." The Animal Assistance & Education League needs surgical instruments, experienced grant writers and people who are knowledgeable about alternative energy sources.

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