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Life as the Chief Veterinary Officer in Montserrat

Selvyn Maloney, CVO of the tiny Caribbean island, describes the job’s charms and challenges following years of volcanic activity

02 January 2019, at 10:44a.m.

A British overseas territory in the Caribbean, Montserrat is a small island measuring just 16km by 11km. The island received lots of media attention in 1995, when the Soufrière Hills volcano became active, covering half the island in ash and destroying the capital city of Plymouth. More than 20 years on and the island is home to around 6,000 people in peak season. The volcano occasionally vents ash and an exclusion zone is still enforced, spanning the southern half of the island.

Montserrat is famous for its endemic wildlife; nature enthusiasts travel from afar to glimpse the Montserrat oriole, a beautiful passerine bird, and the Montserrat galliwasp, an elusive reptile, in the forests. At the forefront of current conservation efforts is the mountain chicken – a unique species of frog found only on Montserrat and Dominica. A few decades ago, the mountain chicken’s call could be heard all over the island and the frog was served to tourists as a delicacy.

A conservation project is underway to save Montserrat’s mountain chicken frog from extinction
A conservation project is underway to save Montserrat’s mountain chicken frog from extinction

© Durrell Wildlife Trust

Unfortunately, with the accidental introduction of the invasive chytrid fungus, the mountain chicken population dropped dramatically, and the species is no longer seen or heard in the forests. Durrell Wildlife Trust has been working with partner organisations to save the giant frog and planning is underway for a reintroduction to take place next year, using a soft release method with heated ponds to give the frogs an advantage over the fungus and provide an environment that will facilitate the development of resistance to the chytrid.

Driving around the mountainous roads, you are sure to see sheep and goats tied up near the roadside. With the eruption, many farmed animals escaped their enclosures and have since established feral populations. Dogs and cats are popular pets among the locals, so veterinary work remains important on the island. I spoke with Selvyn Maloney, Montserrat’s Chief Veterinary Officer and one of just two vets on the island, to find out what it is like to work in such a unique setting.

Why did you decide to become a vet?

My father was into animal healthcare, and he was a former permanent secretary of agriculture. I remember going to the government livestock farm in the area that has since been devastated by the volcano, and a feeling of love coming over me – a fascination. I applied to a school in Guyana for my undergraduate studies and did a double award diploma in animal health and veterinary public health. That got me into St George’s University in Grenada in 2001. At the time, there wasn’t actually a vet school building – we were sharing it with the medical university. I transferred to the University of the West Indies in Trinidad, and that’s where I did my five-year stint and got my degree in veterinary medicine. And here I am, many years later, as the Chief Veterinary Officer in Montserrat.

What does a typical work day look like?

There are two vets [in Monserrat] right now, myself and Dr Antoin, as well as two animal health assistants, Rudolph and Elvis. Before the volcano [erupted] there were more vets, more livestock, more people and more farming was done. We are probably down to a third of our population and a third of our land mass – we used to have a lot more to do in terms of physical work out in the field.

The government provides free veterinary services for livestock, so the healthcare of chickens, sheep, goat, cattle, pigs and horses is subsidised to the point that the owner only has to pay for worm medicine. Pets like cats and dogs go private. That’s where we come in as private veterinarians. But due to the low income from private practice, it’s very hard to invest in any kind of quality clinic.

Mostly, during the week, we do government work – unless it’s an emergency cat or dog surgery. My typical work is administrative. If there’s a situation in the field that the guys can’t handle, I will go out and assist, since I am the most experienced. Maybe one or two days a week I will go to the field and see what’s going on with the farmers. Elective surgeries, unless it’s an emergency, are done on Saturdays.

Pets like cats and dogs go private. That’s where we come in as private veterinarians. But due to the low income from private practice, it’s very hard to invest in any kind of quality clinic

There are a lot of imports to the island – food and animal products and live animals – how do you ensure disease control?

We are a member of the Caribbean Community [CARICOM], and anything entering the CARICOM space will have gone through a risk analysis of the farm and factory – packaging, processing, everything – especially if it’s a country that may have had a zoonotic disease, or a disease that could harm the livestock industry, like foot and mouth or swine fever. Once CARICOM has done the risk analysis, we’re fine with it. As part of our border control, we use Antigua in our import protocol – a sort of first line and second line of defence since all our visitors must be in-transit through Antigua to get to Montserrat. Once it gets here there’s nothing you can do – people and baggage come off the plane and ferry; if a disease is present on or in the cargo or among passengers, flies or physical contact can spread the disease very easily.

Are there any zoonotic diseases you need to be particularly aware of?

We have dermatophilosis, a skin bacteria that infects the hide of sheep, goats and cattle, but we haven’t had any reported cases in humans. It’s in feral animal populations as well, which is one of the reasons it’s very hard to control. The island’s topography is very unforgiving and unfavourable for animal capture; it is hills, cliffs and mountains. There’s no easy or clear path to get to these animals – no easy way of trapping them. So, when there’s a disease outbreak, either you go out and do a massive cull or you let nature take its course. Either way it’s a loss for the country.

Are you involved with the control of feral animals?

There have been attempts to control the feral animals – that’s part of the responsibility of the Department of Environment. Every year they have culling programs – especially in areas where our water catchment is. In the “safe zone” (which is our area), we have a loose livestock team, who are responsible for catching those loose goats, sheep and donkeys. They have dogs that are trained to capture (not kill) these animals. Sometimes we will hire them for a week, if we have a high number of loose livestock and a lot of people have complained. Sometimes we use a tranquiliser gun, but by the time the drug takes effect, they have reached an area where we can’t retrieve them, so they will just stay there, sleep it off, wake up and go. We have done aerial baiting before for culling to control the population.

What about feral donkeys? Are they controlled too?

There is no law against culling donkeys, it’s just that some people have chosen not to for religious reasons – they say Jesus rode a donkey. I’m pretty sure the ones that Jesus rode are not alive today. In the past, I have relocated them – I’ve captured them on this side, sterilised the males, taken them across to the “unsafe zone” and released them over there, where there’s tonnes of vegetation for them to eat.

Is there anything you would like to change while in the position of CVO?

One of the things I would love to change is the mindset of how people look at pets. We, as veterinarians, have to take a loss simply because we want to help the animals. To own a pet is a privilege, so if you want that privilege, you should be willing to pay for its health care. A lot of the time, if I decided not to help when the owner wouldn’t pay, the animal would suffer – and it’s not the animal’s fault.

I have a very small building that I rent and use for a clinic on Saturdays; that building probably pays for itself for five months of the year at best. I don’t have any expensive equipment because I refuse to purchase it without knowing how the clinic can pay for it. I feel like if I purchase the equipment, I am robbing my family – I have two young kids, a wife, a mortgage on my house – I refuse to take a mortgage out on equipment that can’t pay for itself over time; I just cannot do it. I am a veterinarian, but I am a businessman as well and I understand profit and loss.

Are you involved with conservation projects on the island?

We have been involved in the conservation work, especially to do with the mountain chickens. I used to go on hikes with the Department of Environment to monitor, tag and treat the frogs and record data at the very early stages of the fungal infection outbreak. In my opinion, there is nothing much that can be done to stop the spread of the fungus and the death of the mountain chicken, and the only thing that can save them is natural selection. If they can develop resistance, then they will pass that gene on to their offspring.

I think that the only way they can get the mountain chicken to survive in Monserrat is by introducing the fungus in a controlled environment and treating them to the point that they can survive and develop a response to the chytrid fungus. You can rebuild the population. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but you have to let natural selection take place. The current project is a soft version of that; some will survive and it could be successful.