Our Stories

Exploring Ecuador's 'Wild West'

I didn't really think it would take me more than a month to get another email written, but perhaps it is a sign that I have successfully adjusted to the more relaxed pace of Latin America. Ecuador is indeed run at a much slower pace than the U.S., and heading out west to the Galápagos Islands slowed things down even more. ...

It was almost nine months ago that biology major Ariel Grubb '08 returned to Salem after a semester abroad in the Galápagos, but the memories are still as vivid as when she wrote this email to her friends back home. The young woman from Spokane, accustomed to the dark, chilly, rainy winters of her college days in Salem, felt as if she was on a different planet adjusting to humid days on volcanic islands at the equator.

But it was the perfect planet for this aspiring veterinarian, who spent her summers working at a small animal clinic, helped jump start a pre-vet club at Willamette and volunteers for a feral cat sterilization organization. The Galápagos are a virtual wonderland for those devoting their studies to animal life. Located about 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, famous as the place where Charles Darwin developed his theories of evolution and natural selection, the Galápagos are home to a unique blend of flora and fauna that arrived mostly by air or water. No amphibians exist there naturally, but 14 species of finch have evolved from one common ancestor on the mainland. Hammerhead sharks, sea lions, tortoises, blue-footed boobies and tropical penguins are among the creatures to call the islands their home. Five different colors of sand grace the islands' shores.

Grubb studied in the Ecology, Evolution and Conservation program at Galápagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences. Her two-story school in San Cristóbal was directly across from the area's main beach, and the students would take dips in the ocean during class breaks. In her classes, Grubb climbed volcanoes to discover the ecosystems that thrived on them. She learned about the struggles between government parks officials trying to preserve the natural wildlife and local fisherman and tourism workers attempting to make a living.

While Grubb found the lessons invaluable, she also wanted to explore her interest in veterinary work directly. So she walked into the office for an organization called Comité Interinstitucional para el Manejo y Control de Especies Introducidas (CIMEI, or Inter-Institutional Committee for Introduced Species Management) and asked if she could volunteer. The organization works to control non-indigenous plants and animals on the islands and protect natural species. For instance, people are not allowed to bring new cats and dogs to the islands because they kill many of the smaller native animals. However, the dogs and cats already living on the islands continually repopulate. One of CIMEI's projects is convincing dog owners to spay or neuter their pets to keep the population under control.

... Working [at CIMEI] has been quite the eye-opening experience. ... The veterinarian, for one, is only two years older than me, and he's not actually a veterinarian yet. He's in his last year of school, doing five months of clinical practice (completely unsupervised) here on the island before he goes back to Quito to do another five months at the veterinary school clinic there. The first thing I noticed is that the whole "sterile technique" thing was basically thrown out the door. ...

For several years Grubb has volunteered with the Feral Cat Coalition of Oregon, so she's accustomed to observing spay and neuter operations. The FCCO works to reduce feral cat populations humanely through spaying and neutering and community education. Targeted toward feral cats that have caregivers feeding them, the program allows caregivers to capture the animals, bring them to a clinic where volunteer veterinarians perform surgery, then return the cats to where they're being fed. The organization frequently brings its mobile clinic to Willamette, using labs in Olin Science Center for the animals to recuperate after surgery. Grubb is one of a group of Willamette students who regularly assist with these clinics.

Grubb's work with FCCO and at a vet clinic in Spokane showed her the great lengths many Americans will go to when it comes to their pets -- a feeling she's shared since childhood. "I've always taken a lot of solace in animals, their peacefulness and sincerity," she says. "You can be with animals and be calm, even when other things are going wrong."

So it was tough at first when she observed Ecuadorian pet owners who let their animals constantly roam free, didn't play with them and only fed them meat scraps. But she realized it wasn't that the people didn't care about the animals -- it had more to do with a difference in their culture. "It's a luxury to be able to keep an animal in your home and treat him like your own child," Grubb says. "That's not something everyone can do there."

As part of a sterilization campaign, Grubb spent a week on a smaller, more secluded island with only about 100 people. She and her fellow workers went house to house to survey people on what animals they owned and ask if the dogs could be sterilized. The rural conditions often required them to conduct surgeries with weaker anesthesia and compromised sterile standards, but Grubb knew the veterinarian was doing the best he could under the circumstances.

"The work was important. With 100 people and 100 dogs on a small island, there's not enough food for all of them, and problems can escalate. The experience really taught me about veterinary missionary work."

... So, it's been an adventurous month. I've gotten used to being on an island in the middle of the Pacific, but every once in awhile I look around and get shocked again by how far away I am and how different this place is from my home. It is evident that Ecuador is a developing country, and it is evident that the Galápagos is its "wild west," where people seeking fortune with fish or tourists come, and where nature is in a life or death struggle with development.