The Great Dane refused to wake up. Lying on a soft towel in the recovery area, the huge dog snoozed happily away, oblivious to his family sitting by his side and stroking him. They needed to get him walking so they could head home, but he wasn’t interested.
But I hadn’t seen it for myself. I didn’t know that when the pre-op team brings out the final canine patient of the day for surgery, someone shouts “Last dog on the table!” and everyone cheers and claps. I didn’t understand the sense of camaraderie among the “lifers,” the volunteers who return round after round and fly at one another with big hugs when they spot each other. I hadn’t grasped the scale, or the way these disparate groups of people from around the world coalesce into a single unit to create an efficient clinic and a smooth, positive experience for the thousands of Puerto Ricans who line up (often the night before!) with their pets.
I couldn’t have anticipated that after six days of clinics—handing out slip leads and entering data and filling water bowls and feeling like the world outside Spayathon no longer existed—I’d leave exhausted … and ready to return.
Meet the players
Dozens of organizations and hundreds of volunteers come together at Spayathon, each playing an essential role. Together, they make Spayathon happen.
The ground teams
At each location, volunteers transform a stadium or convention center into a functioning veterinary clinic. Setup requires plenty of grunt work—and teamwork. And on the first clinic day, when the doors open and people and pets start streaming in, that work pays off. “It truly shows that ‘if you build it, they will come,’ ” says Chrissy Beckles, founder and president of the Sato Project. Beckles’ team members (and all ground team volunteers) have crucial roles that allow the surgeons to focus on their work. They distribute wristbands to clients, run the registration table, carry snoozing animals to and from surgery, and hand out giveaways such as pet food, toys and treats. They keep the clinic running smoothly.
The Puerto Rican Government and veterinary board
“Government cooperation at this level is really a game changer for the animals on the island,” says Tara Loller, HSUS senior director of strategic campaigns for companion animals and the creator of Spayathon. Besides issuing an executive order that enables outside vets to practice on the island, the government provides locations, generators, security and more. And backing from the Puerto Rican veterinary board means the island’s veterinarians welcome the program. “We stand side by side with them in partnership,” says Loller.
Keeping services free makes Spayathon special. But “at the end of the day, this does cost something,” says Loller. Funders help cover those costs, while in-kind product donors make sure clients leave with goodies for their pets. And contributors who volunteer get as much out of Spayathon as they put in. “Participating in the Spayathon was life-changing,” says Dr. Laurie Peek from the Maddie’s Fund executive leadership team.
Each Spayathon coalition partner has a crucial role to play in a pet’s journey through surgery and back to her family.
This photo—taken in Humacao during the fifth round—provides a behind-the-scenes look at a pet’s journey.
Vaccines and medications
Although spay/neuter surgeries are the main draw for Spayathon’s attendees, vaccinations are an added bonus. Thanks to donations from caring organizations, eligible dogs receive vaccinations against rabies, leptospirosis, distemper and parvo, while cats get rabies and FVRCP vaccinations. Humans go home with flea/tick preventatives to give their pets later.
During this event, the veterinary team came from Helping Paws Across Borders. Each Spayathon site has a team from a different group, but all the veterinarians and technicians are experts in high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter surgeries.
To maintain a calm environment for feline patients, the surgical teams set up a dedicated cat tent. Anesthesia, vaccinations, surgery and recovery all happen in a quiet, out-of-the-way location, and then volunteers ferry crated kitties back to their owners for discharge.
Surgical team volunteers and veterinary staff remove breathing tubes while patients rest on soft beds.
Once patients get the all-clear, they head to the second recovery area, where they’re reunited with their families. Pups wake up next to the humans they love and trust, and when they’re cleared to go, ground team volunteers hand out rabies certificates and giveaways.
Leashes, collars, pet food, toys and other supplies go home with each family thanks to generous donations.