A “Spaycation” in Peru with the Perros Project
By Julie Snyder
It started with a dog named Lola.
In May of 2009, Portlanders Courtney Dillard and Matt Webber were kicking off a three-month South American adventure in Huanchaco, Peru, a surfing hotspot some 350 miles north of Lima near the city of Trujillo. As they were preparing to depart the friendly beach community, they met Lola, a black Labrador lumpy with tumors. They planned to circle back to Huanchaco at the end of their travels and decided that they would seek help for Lola if they encountered her upon their return.
And encounter her they did, sleeping in a garden patch in front of Otra Cosa restaurant. The restaurant’s owner told them that his sister-in-law had taken Lola on as a pet project. But while the dog was being fed and sheltered and loved, it was evident that medical attention was needed. The couple arranged for Lola to be seen by a veterinarian, and subsidized the vet care and pain medication for what was diagnosed as lymphoma.
Lola was their entrée into the local world of animal caregivers, including a devoted gentleman who cared for Huanchaco town dogs; members of Amigo Fiel, an animal welfare organization in nearby Trujillo; and a local veterinarian committed to improving the welfare of the region’s animals. As they began to feel a connection to the Huanchaco community, Courtney and Matt asked local animal advocates what services would most benefit the area’s dogs, especially those living on the street. The response—sterilization clinics and shelter construction support—inspired the couple’s creation of the non-profit Perros Project.
In the summer of 2010, the Perros Project volunteer team of veterinarians, technicians and assistants convened a multi-day sterilization clinic in Trujillo with several local veterinarians, and assisted in a fence-building project at the shelter at Huanchaquito. Several members of the same U.S. team and many new faces returned to conduct clinics in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017.
In 2015, the Perros Project found a home at the Hotel HuanKuarte, a charming family-owned beachfront hotel, where the poolside recreation room and an adjacent storage area were transformed into a temporary surgical suite and recovery area with repurposed furniture, a slew of donated supplies and portable anesthesia machines contributed by one of the volunteer veterinarians.
Courtney and I met several years ago through Portland’s animal welfare community, and I decided that joining the July 2017 clinic volunteer team would be the perfect birthday gift to myself. Arriving in Huanchaco early Sunday morning, sleep-deprived after a four-flight, 24-hour travel odyssey, I wondered if I was up to the task at hand. Though I volunteer in the recovery room for the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon, I had no experience with dogs or a MASH-like set-up. I was green in experience and prayed that I wouldn’t be squeamishly green in the surgical setting. What was I to do but dive in? And dive in I did.
The 2017 Perros Project team boasted an impressive collective resume in animal welfare. Four veterinarians, four vet techs, and six others with extensive volunteer and professional experience in the field. Most had volunteered with the Perros Project previously or for similar spay/neuter initiatives in other countries, including Ecuador, Spain and Haiti.
We were working with two regional welfare groups, Huanchaco al Rescate and Amigo Fiel, who coordinated pet owners and participating animals, and captured a contingent of street dogs for sterilization. An intrepid translator (and baker of delicious daily treats), and a corps of enthusiastic veterinary students rounded out our crew.
The city of Huanchaco erected two canopies just outside the hotel gate and each morning of the four-day clinic, owners arrived with dogs of all shapes and sizes well before surgery was scheduled to start. I roamed among the waiting crowd and met sweet small dogs in dresses, hairless Peruvian pups, adorable beagles and spaniels, and a very large and lovable mastiff. Sharing some of my limited Spanish—“perro dulce” (“sweet dog”) or “perro guapo” (“handsome dog”)—as I scratched furry heads and velvety ears never failed to elicit smiles from proud dog owners.
One by one, animals were weighed, tagged, lightly sedated and had their temperatures taken before being escorted into the surgical suite. There each was fitted with an IV and, after further sedation, intubated and otherwise prepped for surgery. Once animals were secured on the operating tables and hooked up to anesthesia machines, the vet and vet tech teams went about their business with precision and efficiency.
My immersion into this strange new world began in the compact recovery room, aka “the sauna.” Keeping animals warm post-surgery was critical, so we covered the floors with cardboard and newspapers, wrapped our canine charges in fleece blankets and tucked in hot-water-filled plastic bottles, turned on the portables heaters, then briskly rubbed them into wakefulness.
Working alongside two experienced volunteers, it didn’t take me long to get in the post-op rhythm: rectal temperature, antibiotic injection, flea medication, all the while watching for wakefulness so I could de-intubate when the animal began to swallow. More stimulation, and if needed, tick extraction. As soon as the drowsy dogs could walk steadily, we reunited them with their owners and provided a goody bag of any needed follow-up medications, treats and toys.
Volunteering in the surgical suite on subsequent days, my job title was “go-fer” and I dashed about in response to the requests of the vets and vet techs—fetching, holding, sweeping, wiping down, picking up, sorting, monitoring, washing, re-stocking. I had the chance to view surgeries up close and didn’t blink at the rawness of it all. Clearly my squeamishness hadn’t made the journey to Peru. What a remarkable birthday present I had given myself!
As we said farewell to the last dogs to receive services, I wondered about the long-term impact of our short-term clinic and the nearly 100 animals we sterilized. At our farewell dinner, hosted by Hotel HuanKuarte’s generous owner and his family, Courtney did the math to remind us how many thousands of first-generation puppies would not be born because of our efforts.
She reminded us of other benefits as well—how the number of rescue groups and shelters had mushroomed from a handful to several dozen since the Perros Project held its first clinic in 2009, and how regional coordination of animal welfare initiatives had improved. And how many veterinarians and vet students had been exposed to clinical “best practices” by watching our team in action. She noted the cultural shift that she and Matt had witnessed over time, how foreigners traveling to another country to help its animals seemed to inspire the local community to perhaps value animals more and treat them in a different way.
Early each morning in Huanchaco, I walked along the waterfront to the north edge of town where development gave way to coastal desert. By the second day I could recognize most of the street dogs I encountered. Some were a bit scruffy but none were visibly unhealthy and most had been sterilized. They roamed in and out of shops and restaurants and the open patios of private homes and are looked after by the community, in its own way. Just like Lola who started it all.
Sadly, Lola passed away before Courtney and Matt returned to Huanchaco in 2010, but they were comforted by the fact that she was well-cared for and pain-free during her last months—and that her illness inspired an effort that would benefit so many other animals.
Postscript: Our week in Huanchaco wasn’t all work and no play. Convivial evenings were spent savoring parrilla-grilled seafood, fresh ceviche and arroz con mariscos at restaurants like El Tramboyo, and sampling Pisco Sours and live Peruvian music at The Lighthouse. Our midweek day off offered the chance to explore nearby attractions including Huacas de Moche, the ruins of the ancient Moche capital city, and Chan Chan, the largest pre-Columbian-era city in South America. (Though damaged by the floods that devastated parts of Peru this past Spring and in recent years, the remaining adobe architecture is worth the visit.) Several of us took in a performance by a troupe of elegant Peruvian Paso horses, a smooth-gaited breed rightly considered to be a national treasure. The Hotel HuanKuarte was a convenient and comfortable home for the duration of what one volunteer dubbed a “Spaycation.”
Julie Snyder lives in Portland, Oregon. As a writer, editor and publisher, she’s contributed to a variety of lifestyle, in-flight and travel publications, and produced award-winning catalogs for Backroads travel company. Among her passions are animal welfare, walking, travel and the Green Bay Packers.