We are the world and, as it turns out, so are our dogs and cats.
One veterinarian and seven other volunteers from western Montana spent half a week in mid-January on a tiny island in the Bahamas, joining 15 others from Canada, Colorado and the islands for "Potcake Rescue 2011."
For the second winter, they turned a community center into a free spay and neuter clinic just outside George Town (population 1,000), the largest town on the 37-mile-long island of Great Exuma.
Dr. Alan Applebury, a retired veterinarian with Fox Hollow Animal Project in Hamilton, and Dr. Lisa McCarthy of Denver performed the surgeries. The others lent helping hands, rustled up business and spread the gospel about responsible pet ownership.
In three and a half days, 166 dogs and cats were spayed or neutered, wormed and treated for fleas and ticks. They say that'll prevent a proliferation of more than 800 puppies and kittens being born into an island life where the tranquil, tourist-pleasing beaches and unbelievably blue Caribbean waters mix with Third World poverty and squalor.
Applebury and his wife, Jesse, a veterinarian technician, stayed to do a second clinic on a neighboring island, where they doctored another 110 pets and strays.
"Because these are islands, and because they're small islands, you feel like you can make a difference," said Missoula's Breanne Ender, who was back for a second year. "The locals have said the wild peacocks have come back this year, and they think it's because the packs of dogs have been decreased."
"We had some people return this year with dogs they had altered last year," said Elizabeth Stone. "Just seeing them back and healthy and being enjoyed by their owners, it's just so positive. That's a nice piece to it."
Stone came back last year with Sandy Potcake, who bounds these days through the snow and sagebrush of Greenough, hunting anything that catches her eye.
Look deep into those eyes, though, and you'll see the white sands and royal aqua surf of the Bahamas - and hurt.
They call their mixed-breed dogs "potcakes" in the Caribbean because real dog food is a luxury most people can't afford.
"A five or seven pound bag of dog food costs $20 to $30, so of course they're not feeding them dog food, they're feeding them what's left over from the pot of rice and beans," Stone said.
Sandy Potcake spent her first four months of life in a wire cage so small she and her litter mate couldn't stand up. They lived, Stone said, amongst raw chicken covered with flies and their own feces.
Local authorities had told the dogs' owners the cage wasn't adequate, Stone said, so they removed the top of the cage to make it larger. Sandy's brother got out, got hit by a car and died.
A volunteer looking for potential patients for the clinic spied her and asked if Sandy could be taken into the clinic to be spayed. The owners, who would be required to care for the puppy after the surgery, decided they wouldn't be able to.
Sandy showed up after the last day of the clinic. Stone first met the dog when she arrived the next morning to help clean up.
"I took one look at her at completely fell in love," said Stone, a photographer at the Rocky Mountain School of Photography in Missoula. "I'd made it through the whole clinic without wanting to bring anybody home and then ..."
The impetus behind the Bahamas clinics was Margaret Ambrose Barton, an esteemed pastry chef in Missoula. Eight years ago she and her husband, Mike, vacationed on one of the Bahamas' remote "out islands."
The experience was marred when someone shot a dog next door to the Bartons' lodging.
"It's just a beautiful place. It's paradise," Barton said. "But on the flip side, if you're an animal lover, it's just hell, because there's such an overpopulation of cats and dogs.
"They just don't have enough veterinarian care, and so there are overpopulations of mostly dogs and cats, and that means people end up shooting them or poisoning them."
The wheels started turning when Barton talked to Stephen Turnquest, director of the Bahamas Humane Society in Nassau, the capital and commercial center of the Bahamas. He put Barton in touch with a group of five Canadian women who'd also expressed interest in doing something about the pet hell in paradise.
By late 2009 they'd raised money for the first clinic and recruited a core group of Montana volunteers, including Lora O'Connor, director of the Humane Society of Western Montana, and the Appleburys at Fox Hollow. The Hamilton couple are veterans of spay and neuter clinics in this neck of the woods. Indeed, Stone said, Alan Applebury has spayed and neutered some 12,000 animals in the past four years - an average of more than eight a day.
Working solo at the first clinic in January 2010, Dr. Applebury spayed or neutered 115 dogs and cats at the Island of Exuma clinic.
This time McCarthy joined the group from Colorado, and the nearby island of Eleuthra was added to the clinic agenda. The Montanans, who flew to their working vacation destination on their own dimes (a $1,000 airfare), again beat the bushes for donations and held a successful fundraiser at Biga Pizza in the fall.
"We were able to raise enough money here in Missoula to pay for all pharmaceuticals that were used for both clinics, and to purchase three anesthesia machines through grants," Barton said.
That amounted to $1,600 for pharmaceuticals and $10,000 for the machines.
The women plan to expand their budget and educational efforts for Potcake Rescue 2012.
The latter won't be hard, Barton said. There are six elementary schools and a high school on Exuma. Kids love to hear and talk about dogs and cats, and readily absorb the lessons of caring for them. But education also involves changing mind-sets.
"One of the myths I hear frequently is that by neutering an animal it somehow takes away their ‘manhood' or that she needs to have her first litter. But this is simply not true," Turnquest told The Bahamas Weekly after this year's clinics. "Pets do NOT have egos, and neutering or spaying will not cause an emotional reaction or identity crisis."
Meanwhile, the Montanans have lost none of their zest for the Bahamas. They brought home not only a sense of accomplishment, but a camaraderie and some nice tans, evidence that their working vacations weren't all work.
Ender, like Stone, is on the board of directors for the Humane Society of Western Montana. She also runs Main Street Pilates in Missoula, and took a bit of the exercise system to the islands.
"We did do a little Pilates on the beach, after several Bahama Mamas," confessed Barton.
"I've always loved animals," said Ender, "but the inspiration I've gotten from a lot of people in this group and the Humane Society has just given me the inspiration that we can make a difference wherever we are."
Barton is delighted the clinic expanded to a second island this year, and maybe a third next year.
"To plant the seed and see it grow ... " Barton said. "For me it's gone way past any of my greatest expectations."