The Volunteer Vet

Silje Robertsen, who works at Evidensia Oslo Dyresykehus, tells us about her challenging but hugely rewarding work with primates and other wild animals in Asia.

Evidensia Norway

Having always been interested in primates, I looked for places to volunteer and work with them during the final practical year of my veterinarian studies. I spent four months at International Animal Rescue’s Macaque and Slow Loris Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre in Bogor, Indonesia and was very impressed by both the organisation and the centre.

After graduating from the Free University in Berlin in 2011 and saving up some money while working, I went back to Asia. I spent about a year in Kalimantan, Indonesia, volunteering as a vet for International Animal Rescue’s Orangutan Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre, where I was part of a team consisting of mostly local veterinarians and nurses. I also spent around two years in Sarawak volunteering as a vet at the Matang Wildlife Centre for Orangutans Project.

MALAYSIAN ADVENTURE

The centre in Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo) is a governmentally run rescue centre for all wildlife that has been surrendered or confiscated from locals or illegal traders. It houses more than 300 animals of more than 30 different species. The role of the vet is wide-ranging because there is only one vet on site. The main focus is on keeping the animals in good health. We also started a release-andmonitor programme using tracking devices.

Since I left the full-time position at the end of 2016 and came to work at Evidensia in Norway, I have continued to support the centre in Sarawak. I raise funds, mainly by selling donated clothes on flea markets. My own clinic and other Evidensia clinics in the Oslo region have donated medication and equipment. I support the team with medical advice when I am not there, and I try to go over once a year, when my role is training and supporting the current volunteer vet.

The work itself can be challenging, since you often don’t have access to the same equipment and medication as you do in Europe. It requires flexibility and creative thinking. At overcrowded multi-species centres, the conflict is often to prioritise which animals to help, which can be quite frustrating at times. Being confronted with some of the world’s most prominent challenges – deforestation and the illegal wildlife trade – is motivating, but the massive scale of these problems can be depressing.

“Being confronted with some of the world’s most prominent challenges is motivating.”

Nevertheless, there are lots of good-news stories. Butan is a young female orangutan who arrived at the centre in Kalimantan a few weeks after I had first arrived in 2011. She had been kept by a local family for some time. They had treated her and clothed her like a human child. She came to the centre with severe clinical symptoms of malnourishment.

It took many months of critical care before she could be introduced to the other young orangutans. Most orangutan babies stay with their mothers until the age of seven to nine years old, so to release one younger than that is not recommended. Butan was released with a traceable microchip in 2016 and is seemingly doing very well in the wild!

I also especially remember Pelansi, a young male orangutan found after being trapped with his arm in a wild boar snare for more than a week. The trapped arm was already badly necrotised and falling apart. He was brought back to the centre, kept sedated on a ketamine drip for weeks while getting intensive care and, after some months, he was strong enough for surgery in which the arm was amputated. He required close monitoring and bandage changes for some months but about one year after his injury, he was successfully released back in to the forest – a new area that had been thoroughly assessed in terms of viability, hunting and so on.

We are constantly seeking volunteer vets and vet nurses for the centre in Matang for periods of three to six months. If anyone is interested in learning more about this opportunity, please contact me directly!

Silje Robertsen – Evidensia Oslo Dyresykehus

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