Two newly-qualified Whangārei vet nurses are packing their scrubs and stethoscopes today to volunteer their post-exam time in Tonga supporting a New Zealand-based animal welfare scheme.
Felicity Wynyard, from Piano Hill Vets, and Deborah, from the Northland Veterinarian Group, won't have much time to catch their breath after finishing their veterinary nurse diploma a few weeks before they head to the South Pacific to provide much needed care for the island nation's pets.
Over the course of a week, the pair will work alongside a team of Kiwi vets and vet nurses to treat sick patients, vaccinate, perform surgeries, desex strays and educate locals about their animals' health – a service that otherwise isn't available.
"There are no registered vets in Tonga," Deborah explained. "So while we're there, we will be doing as much as physically possible."
Tongans can't acquire a veterinary qualification in their own country and have to go to New Zealand or Australia to get the relevant education which can be expensive.
In co-operation with the Auckland Unitec Institute of Technology, New Zealand organisation South Pacific Animal Welfare (SPAW) has been working to improve animal care in Tonga and other locations including Niue, Samoa and the Cook Islands.
For 10 years, SPAW has been sending over groups of volunteers with medicine and equipment to treat about 500 animals annually at no expense for their owners.
Deborah said they heard about the programme through their Unitec course that she, Felicity and three other Northlanders recently completed.
She said the hope was that their volunteer work would convey higher standards of animal welfare in Tonga.
The biggest challenge on site will be the lack of amenities that the vets are used to from home.
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"You have to be confident with your skills as nurses as there are a few restrictions to our work," Deborah said.
"For example, we can't take oxygen bottles over on the place. Working here, you never thought that was a luxury."
Her friend and co-student, Felicity said she wasn't aware of the situation in Tonga beforehand but was excited for the opportunity to help.
"We'll have to learn not to rely on machines. We are being taught that in school but to be in a setting where we won't have access to all the equipment, will be quite different."
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In 2010, SPAW signed a memorandum of understanding with the Tongan government to deliver animal care in the kingdom.
Fifty to 60 volunteers bring $10,000-$20,000 worth of provisions into the South Pacific each year which has made a noticeable impact, SPAW founder and chief executive Karen Schade said.
"When SPAW first went to Tonga, there was hardly any animal welfare in place," Schade said.
"Now, we have people and families coming from all over the island to get their pets checked up."
With five volunteer groups going each year, SPAW has been able to establish continuous animal care and promote preventive actions to improve the pets' health.
Schade said what many don't realise is not only does Tonga lack vets, but pet food and even water are sometimes hard to come by, which makes it immensely difficult for owners to look after their animals.
Both Felicity and Deborah are due to fly out today. To support their work in Tonga, visit spaw.org.nz/donate.