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Montgomery group teaching Haitians how to care for horses

As thousands of nongovernmental organizations have tended to Haiti’s citizens for years, a small group of people from Montgomery County was in the Caribbean nation last week to care for the country’s equine residents.

A team that included a Poolesville equine veterinarian and members of the Humane Society of the United States in Gaithersburg were in Croix-des-Bouquets last week to train 20 Haitian vets to handle horses. It was the start of what they hope can lead to the country’s first animal welfare NGO, with help from $1.5 million from donors of the Humane Society International and Best Friends Animal Society in Utah.

“In Haiti, there isn’t a strong animal welfare movement because, unfortunately, life is hard enough,” said Amelia Muccio, director of Haiti Project and Disaster Operations at the Humane Society of the United States.

Even before a 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti left more than 300,000 dead in 2010, there have been more than 3,000 NGOs operating there, according to the United States Institute of Peace.

Working horses as well as donkeys and mules are crucial to the livelihood of Haitians, who use them primarily in the country for both agriculture and transportation.

“Horses can be seen as a sign of social status in Haiti,” Muccio said. “It’s like having a limousine.”

There are an estimated 40 veterinarians in Haiti, said Javier Donatelli of Poolesville, a former professional polo player from Argentina turned equine veterinarian. Without a veterinary school in Haiti, aspiring vets are forced to receive their schooling 90 miles away in nearby Cuba, where the curriculum does not delve into equine medicine. The result of the lack of training can be seen in underdeveloped and malnourished horses, who do not grow bigger than the size of a pony, which can be classified as 58 inches or shorter in height, Donatelli said.

Donatelli and the team had five days to give the Haitian veterinarians a crash course in the specialty, which included field and classroom training in major procedures such as how to give a horse an intravenous treatment and routine issues such as cleaning hooves and tending to wounds. He estimated they treated about 200 horses and donkeys at the Haiti Animal Care and Welfare Center in Croix-des-Bouquets, about eight miles northeast of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

“They’re 100 percent working animals, and a lot are dying of hunger and difficult conditions, like rabies and tetanus,” Donatelli said. “Our goal is to educate [the vets] so they can educate the owners.”

After returning to the United States on Feb. 8, Muccio only had a couple of weeks before he plans to return to Haiti next Thursday to help run a spay and neuter clinic for horses. It will be one of her several trips to the country during the next three years, which is how long she expects the long-term recovery process to take. With a background in emergency management and public health, she has worked all over Africa and India but had hoped to work in Haiti for a long time, she said. Her first visit there did not disappoint.

Donatelli expects to make a return trip only once every year. In the meantime, there is some discussion about sending a couple of Haitian veterinarians to Poolesville so they can shadow and work closely with him.

“We have to make sure to give them the skills,” Muccio said. “It’s a slow approach, and I think we can do that, but we have to empower them and give them the skills to succeed.”

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