Veterinarians revisit a shaken Tonga

Island nation went three years without hands-on care

December 22, 2022 (published)
Photo courtesy of South Pacific Animal Welfare
Dr. Geoff Neal, head veterinarian at South Pacific Animal Welfare, tends to a cat on a recent visit to the remote island nation of Tonga. He is assisted by Akiko Shimoda, a veterinary nurse.

When Dr. Geoff Neal returned to the South Pacific island kingdom of Tonga this October, it had been nearly three years since a single veterinarian had set foot on its soil.

He found the tiny nation of some 100,000 people clearly missed having access to any hands-on veterinary care.

"There were people at the fence waiting to come on through the moment we arrived," he said, describing a queue that had formed outside a government facility used as a temporary clinic.

A stream of Tongans proceeded to file through with dogs, cats, pigs, ducks and other animals, many in need of surgery.

Neal is head practitioner at South Pacific Animal Welfare (SPAW), a charitable organization based in New Zealand that provides fly-in, fly-out veterinary services to remote island nations.

As reported by the VIN News Service last year, Tonga is in the unusual position of being a country with no resident veterinarian. Making matters worse, SPAW's veterinarians were locked out by a strict border closure introduced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tonga's border reopened in August, and Neal returned in October for several weeks with his partner, Rebecca, who also is a veterinarian. SPAW then brought a bigger team over for a one-week stint earlier this month.

Most locals wanted pets desexed: Tonga's dog population has exploded without spay/neuter services. Some wanted growths removed. Others, wounds treated. There were even dogs with injuries sustained when a volcanic eruption and ensuing tsunami hit Tonga in January.

In brief

"There were a couple of dogs with chronic wounds from the tsunami, and I took a leg off of one in October," Neal said. "It came back in December for a bit of a follow-up, and it was running around on three legs, happy as."

Nobody knows how many animals were killed by the tsunami, triggered by the eruption of the Hunga Tonga-Hunga Ha'apai submarine volcano. The eruption, which caused tsunamis as far away as Russia and the United States, was the most powerful since Krakatoa in 1883.

At least four people in Tonga were killed, including Angela Glover, head of the Tonga Animal Welfare Society (TAWS). Glover, a British national with a background in advertising, founded the charity in 2020 with her husband, James, a tattoo artist, after developing a passion for the plight of Tonga's animals.

Glover's loss was felt deeply by animal lovers across Tonga, including Cecilia Kaufusi, a resident and cafe owner with whom VIN News caught up over Zoom. "Not just for myself, but for the whole people of Tonga and throughout the Pacific, she was an inspiration," Kaufusi said, unable to fight back tears. "Her legacy will live on through all of her work and dedication she brought to Tonga."

TAWS still is going strong, Kaufusi and Neal concurred, handing out products such as flea and worm treatments and continuing to work with Neal via telemedicine when no veterinarians are around to treat animals. Still, Kaufusi — a mother of two and owner of 11 dogs — benefited from Neal's in-person return in October, taking the opportunity to have two of her dogs desexed.

Casting her mind further back, she recalls being shocked by the sheer intensity of January's volcanic eruption, which caused the ground to shake and rocks and ash to fall from the sky. "The ground was moving like a wave," Kaufusi said. "And all of the dogs, they were making this howling noise that I'd never heard before. It was all over the island, you could hear them, all the dogs howling that same sound. It was pretty scary."

Neal said Tonga's dog overpopulation problem appears to have worsened since his last visit. He noticed a lot more of them loitering by the side of the road on the drive from the airport, many pregnant or obviously feeding pups. There are more cats around, too, he said.

Neal recalls that one Tongan woman was especially glad to see him. "She'd gotten a kitten before lockdown and was planning to have it spayed," he said. "When we turn up, it's had five litters and she's suddenly known as 'that lady with all the cats.' We spayed and neutered every one. There must have been more than a dozen."

SPAW plans to return to Tonga just after Easter, but nobody doubts the country could benefit from having a resident practitioner.

Kaufusi said she knows of a few locals studying veterinary medicine in Fiji who might return. The government, she added, has given funding support to two Tongans studying veterinary medicine in China.

For his part, though, Neal is skeptical that Tonga can attract and retain a practitioner anytime soon, especially with veterinarians in short supply worldwide.

"The government still has a position advertised," he said. "But what they want versus what they're prepared to pay for are chalk and cheese."

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