Darwin Animal Doctors: Vet Care for All Galápagos Animals

The Galápagos Islands located off the coast of Ecuador are known for their exotic wildlife, such as the giant tortoises, swimming iguanas, sunbathing sea lions, and dancing blue-footed boobies. But did you know that the islands are also home to many dogs and cats? Pets were brought to the islands by those who come to work in the tourism industry. While the wildlife is protected, the four populated islands in the archipelago—Santa Cruz, Floreana, Isabela and San Cristobal— have a number of non-native animal breeds, some legally and others illegally brought to the islands.

Published on NBC Petside on May 3, 2013

When Tod Emko, a computer programmer from New York first visited the Galápagosin 2008 to volunteer for a marine conservation group, he discovered hundreds ofhomeless dogs and cats roaming the islands. “Many of them were hungry or suffering, many carried infectious diseases, and too many were left to feed on the native wildlife, altering the delicate balance of the ecosystem,” Emko said. Emko even adopted a puppy he named Hoover and brought him to the U.S. When Emko realized that there were no “permanent, year-round veterinarians to spay/neuter these introduced animals, or to help injured wildlife,” he decided to start Darwin Animal Doctors (DAD), named after the islands’ most celebrated naturalist Charles Darwin.image

Providing Free Vet Care  

DAD was founded in 2010 and it plays the crucial role of providing much needed free health care to all the animals of the Galápagos with the help of volunteer vets from around the world. DAD is the only full-time, professional veterinary clinic working year-round. The vets come from North and South Americas, Europe, and Australia to work in these remote islands. Some stay as little as two weeks, and some stay for a year or more.

Volunteers like Dr. Lorelei Wakefield, an ASPCA vet from NYC, do everything they can with limited resources. Dr. Wakefield worked in a makeshift clinic in San Cristobal island in 2012. “When the last surgical light burned out after my second day, I used a headlamp in surgery for the remaining weeks. Drugs and vaccines that I’m accustomed to are unavailable or extremely hard to come by there,” she said. When a family rushed their dog in after she was hit by a car, Dr. Wakefield had to improvise. “The dog’s broken leg needed a splint, which we did not have. I went to two local hardware stores before finding some window trimming with the appropriate rigidity that they cut to size for me. I splinted the cute mutt’s leg and it worked well, but I don’t recommend trying that at home.” Dr. Wakefield also discovered a life-threatening UTI and performed an emergency spay on the dog, saving her life.  .

Helping Non-Native and Exotic Animals 


Since its inception, DAD’s main clinic on Santa Cruz and a “clinic on wheels” has treated thousands of­­ animals and prevented hundreds of unwanted litters.“One of the primary services we provide is free spaying and neutering. This minimizes domestic animal and wildlife interactions, which can spread invasive diseases between them,” said Emko. DAD’s emergency medicine has saved and improved the lives of animals who would otherwise have been left to suffer alone. DAD treats malnourished pets, and manages the health of inbred animals suffering from hip dysplasia.

DAD also helps the Galápagos National Park with injured wildlife. “Birds, giant tortoises, sea lions, and even a lava lizard have all been our patients. The native animal that we treat the most by far, is the sea lion. From pollution to illegal fishing gear, these amazing animals face a lot of unnatural threats, but their survival is important to the health of the marine ecosystem,” said Emko.

Educating the Public

DAD is the only provider of general humane education in the Galápagos, and is involved with schools and the community to teach lessons on animal care and conservation. “Most Galápagos locals did not know about basic pet care, like buying dog food for dogs. Many feared that neutering a dog would hurt his health or make him less macho,” said Emko. In addition to teaching the importance of spay and neutering, DAD also provides regular deworming treatments against parasites that can infect wildlife and teaches owners about keeping their cats indoors and walking their dogs on leashes.

Dr. Seina Capp, Director at Thornbury Veterinary Hospital in Melbourne, Australia and volunteer vet for DAD, said, “By far the best thing that I think DAD is doing for this community is helping to educate the locals on basic health care for their pets who they obviously care greatly about – sterilization, parasite control, feeding pet food (puppies can’t survive on gatorade), walking your dog on a lead and keeping them confined at home sound pretty simple but you’d be amazed by how much of a difference these small things make.”image

Volunteer Opportunities

If you are a veterinarian, a vet technician, or a vet student looking to volunteer, DAD needs you. All of the volunteers get transient status on Galápagos, which allows them to avoid the $100 Galápagos National Park entrance fee at the  airport and are provides accommodations during their stay.

DAD currently has openings for long term medical volunteers in its clinic. To apply, please submit application on website tovolunteer@darwinanimaldoctors.org.

Darwin Animal Doctors Needs Your Support

Darwin Animal Doctors is currently working to get critically needed veterinary equipment and to hire more staff for clinics. DAD is funded mainly through private donations and fundraisers. DAD holds bake sales and online fundraisers. DAD recently started selling hand-made recycled jewelry made by locals in the Galápagos at tabling events in the U.S. You can help by visiting www.darwinanimaldoctors.org.

Published by Lavanya

Lavanya Sunkara is a writer, animal lover, and globetrotter based in New York City. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Travel + Leisure, Architectural Digest, Fodor’s, Forbes, USA Today and many more in a career spanning ten years. She covers travel, eco-lifestyle, culture, pets, and wildlife conservation.

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