The Guatemala Effect

Written by Dr. Lo Sprague

“Lo” is the current President of The Guibord Center. She has dedicated her life to enabling others to find and follow the best within themselves. A recently-retired Jungian-oriented psychotherapist, she lives with her two "Little Lions" and works passionately to protect the lives and freedom of all animals.

Howard the Vet

Nothing about The Guatemala Rescue would be easy. Nothing. We counted down the days to get a flight from Guatemala to the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa for the 17 lions and tigers and their human team and learned to take things as they came – and they just kept coming!  Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips had, of course, carefully lined up the perfect vet for the rescue long ago – or so they’d thought – one of the Latin American Team who had been caring for and knew the animals. Then, at the last minute, the route changed and that meant the scheduled vet had a new visa requirement for one of the countries we’d need to land in.  There was no time to get it.

Jan and Tim reached out to ADI Wildlife Sanctuary founder and vet, Dr Betsy Coville. No, she couldn’t make it either – but she knew someone, a colleague, who might and she’d sponsor him and his veterinary supplies!

Dr. Howard Rosner, DVM was minding his own business when the call came in. They brought the phone right into the treatment room and held it up to his ear. “You’re going to love this!” Betsy said, and then explained about this internationally-respected animal group that needed an excellent vet – NOW! Five rescued circus lions and 12 tigers had to get from Guatemala to a new wildlife sanctuary in South Africa – safely – in the next few days! He would need to get to Guatemala by Monday.

Betsy was right – he’d loved the idea, instantly, and had been seriously bummed out a few hours later when she’d called back to say it was off.  There had been yet another forced route change!  But then, she’d called back again right after that to say it was on again.

“The Guatemala Effect”

That’s what we came to call it  – that frustrating, enraging, exhausting “on-again, off-again” experience of “powers beyond our control” that continually permeated every aspect of the rescue, blocking us right and left and pulling the rug out from under us over and over again.

Howard leapt at the opportunity!  Not only is he a wonderful vet, he is a great adventurer as well, traveling around the world to treat exotic wild animals. He brought in colleagues to cover his practice for a few days and immediately tried to book a flight straight to Guatemala City. Only then did he discover that he couldn’t get a direct flight to Guatemala City from San Francisco.  (“The Guatemala Effect”) Undaunted, he booked through El Salvador and would be arriving in a few hours.

The Daunting Challenge

There are those people you like instantly. I could tell immediately that Howard was going to be one of them. From the lobby of our hotel, I watched as this big guy arrived and made room for others instead of elbowing his way into middle of the physical space or introductions. He’d already spoken with those who knew the animals he’d be in charge of. His suitcases were stuffed with the specific medications and vital equipment that the animals would need. He was ready now to debrief at the hotel and learn everything he could in order to serve each of his new patients well.

The challenge was daunting. Animals living in today’s circuses barely stand a chance. Many are in-bred to the point of acute physical disability. Most get the cheapest of food and live their entire lives in cramped, damp, unsanitary conditions. Their teeth are broken and their claws brutally removed, frequently with little or no regard to pain or hygiene. They are hit, beaten, starved, isolated and immobilized as part of their everyday routine. A large part of Animal Defenders International’s work has been going under-cover in circuses throughout the world to finally expose the underbelly of “The Big Top” in order to get the legal bans on wild animals in circuses that have allowed for rescues of animals like these.

Howard knew that three of the tigers that would be in his care had a history of seizures. Two of the big cats had diarrhea and all five lions were on stomach medication. He spoke little Spanish and Anna, the Guatemalan veterinarian currently in daily charge of caring for them, spoke no English. Howard had a couple of days at most (little did we know then how much longer it would be) to prepare these great cats for a long trip in the back of a huge cargo plane.  He had to become familiar enough with each one to be able to spot any new issues.

As I sat in on the debriefing, I felt overwhelmed at the enormity of it all. Taking any one of our “kids” who was really sick to the vet in Los Angeles was traumatic enough. 17? Really? How were we ever going to do this?!

The journey would take over 30 hours in the air, with at least three stops en route. There would be additional hours in crates at the start and finish, getting the animals loaded onto the trucks for the trips to and from the airports. It takes every trick I know to get any one of my cats into a carrier.  Each one of these lions and tigers would have their own individual travel crate. The three tigers who suffered from seizures would need somehow to get their preventative medicine twice a day while we were in transit.  You don’t just reach into a cage with a tiger in it to offer medication – or food and water for that matter. I didn’t envy Howard, who would be doing everything in his power to make sure that the nightmare of an animal going into a seizure wouldn’t happen.

The chances of avoiding that or some kind of incident were daunting. And yet, knowing all of that, Howard and everyone around the table, along with the teams of dozens and dozens of people in the background from all over the world, were committed to doing everything in their power to get all of us to Africa safely. (And, thank God, somehow they actually did!)

As the debriefing ended, Jan and Tim headed back upstairs to try to secure yet another flight out. Every flight they’d managed to book so far had been blocked for one reason or another. Howard and all of us thought we were going to be starting the countdown to leaving the following day, but that flight had been cancelled along with the one two days later. Jan and Tim somehow found the strength to keep going. They never stopped searching. They never gave up. Now they were trying to get yet another flight leaving by the weekend.

That left Mary and me to grab our backpacks and join Howard heading for the car waiting to take us to the ADI Temporary Rescue Center to finally meet the animals. It was the animals who kept us going. Every one of us. We had to get them to their ‘forever’ home, “Guatemala Effect” or not. We would not stop until we got them home.

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