Cultural Perspective: Life Through Their Eyes

By Ashley Felhofer, November 2014

Mountains of Sabana Grande

As I had just finished my freshman year of college, getting the opportunity to go on this trip was life changing. I first heard about this project through the "Pre-vet Supporting Diversity" club and quickly presented my application. After an interview process I was given the excellent news that I had been selected. Even with the little knowledge I had about animals compared to a student in vet school, I found this project inspiring and reassuring in my life goals. It made me realize how much I love what I'm studying.

Ashley's Host FamilyAfter taking my finals, I flew home to Costa Rica with my family before taking the eight-hour bus ride to Managua, Nicaragua, and a second three-hour bus to Sabana Grande. Although long, the scenery across the country gave me a comparison to the ones I've been accustomed to seeing, and a sense of where I was going to be. Once I arrived in Sabana Grade, the International Agricultural Development graduate students and I were met by the vet students and then were taken to meet the family with whom we would stay. Having lived in a small town in Costa Rica, I knew what to expect, yet when I arrived, I was blown away by the rich culture that made up the town. The family I stayed with was friendly, welcoming and of course the homemade typical food was delicious. We would always have fresh "tortillas," rice, beans, avocado, fresh cheese, and in the case of lunch and dinner meat. I looked forward to eating the homemade food every day cooked on a fire-heated stove. This was absolutely the best way to finish my freshman year and to start off my summer.

With my host family, I enjoyed staying up to just discuss our cultural differences, like the way we said certain words or the relationship of my country (Costa Rica) to theirs. Also, when the vet students interviewed the town's people, the people were always open and interested in what the students had to say-- something that isn't common in most countries. In the short time I was there, I could see the real positive impact that the vet students were having on the community.

Plowing a fieldAt first the concept of "One Heath" was a little blurry to me. How were people in this community affected by their animals? Once I got to see how much people depended on their livestock, it clicked. To get milk or meat, I would just go to the store. For them, they had to get it from their own animals. Their health depended on the health of their animals. And with minimal access to medical resources, the struggle was real. Through the interviews I learned about how people lived in the town, and how outside factors, like weather and costs of food and other items they do not grow locally, affected them.

Having been able to go to Nicaragua made an incredible impact on how I am approaching my studies entering my sophomore year at UC Davis. Although I've always volunteered and been interested in working with animals, this experience opened many fields of study for me to consider. I have taken a deeper interest in the "One Health" concept. Since my return, I have joined the Educational Outreach Committee of the new "Undergraduates for One Health" club.

There are many positives I am taking from this experience, such as the long talks with the very nice folks from Sabana Grande, but perhaps the most important is this trip has helped me determine the route I have been searching for as I pursue a career in Veterinary Medicine.

By Brooke Warner, June 2012

Photo: Brooke WarnerWhen I arrived in Sabana Grande, I only had a cursory understanding of the definition of One Health: the interrelationships of human medicine, animal medicine and the environment regarding the subject of health. Simple enough, yet what did that mean to me?  We were there on a One Health project, but what we were looking for specifically, I had no idea.  So I decided to just see what I saw, ask the questions that I became curious about, and learn from there.

Well, the first thing I saw (from my perspective as a veterinary student who loves furry creatures to a fault) was hunger.  Not of people though; only of animals.  And not of all the animals, but of the dogs, cats, and the occasional horse in Sabana Grande.  So, my question was WHY?  Why were the dogs emaciated while the cows, hens, and people were fed?  I needed to find out why, so that I could help end what I saw as suffering of the creatures I loved more than any other.

Well, after living there for a week and having a few discussions regarding “perspective” with a couple of team mates, I saw that a possibly more important question: Why was I asking that question?  I was asking that question because in my world, dogs are to be loved like your own children.  And cows and hens are to be respected and treated humanely, but they are food, of which I have never known a shortage.

A week in Sabana Grande allowed me to see their world through their eyes.  And it is the cows, pigs and hens that hold the most value.  Their worth is food on the table and money in the pocket, something which is very scarce.  The dogs and cats, however, have their duties, and therefore are to be respected for their relative degree of worth.  But they don’t by any means result in money or food.

So, while I am pondering why “they don’t show compassion towards their dogs” they are pondering why “she has such a misplaced compassion for dogs over cows”.  And theirs is just as fair a question as mine.  It just comes down to perspective.  But just as I would feel bad if I saw a population of coyotes hungry and scavenging, they too feel bad that their dogs are hungry.  But would I go out campaigning for the coyotes, even if they are a valuable part of the ecosystem and deserve respect?  I’m sorry to say, that probably wouldn’t be highest on my list of priorities, just as solving canine hunger wouldn’t be highest on theirs.

But, alas, I get up on my soapbox again and point out that they all spend more money on cell phones than practically anything else.  So I say, why don’t they use a bit of that money for dog food for their dog?  But wait, don’t I have an iPhone?  Couldn’t I be spending that monthly cell phone charge on pet insurance for my dog?  According to my own logic, I don’t love my most beloved pet.

So what did this trip teach me about One Health?  Well, the biggest health issue I saw was hunger.  Yet the solution was not one of medicine, but one of human behavior.  When looking at the health of a community as a whole, focusing on the diseases of humans, animals and the environment is just too narrow.  Your perspective must be even wider than health itself.