Living to save lives

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Tiredness overcomes us after the over seven hours of car journey to the final ranch that the vets from the Comité de Fomento y Salud Animal del Estado de Puebla want to show us. We’ve been in Mexico for five days and once again we are spending many hours on the road and sleeping very little. Very little indeed. The rhythm of the trip makes us feel as if we could collapse at any moment but it doesn’t seem to affect Dolores Manzano, Arturo Córdova or Ramses Alejandro Cuautle. These three vets are just part of a team of 21 vets that throw life and soul into rabies control in cattle in the state of Puebla. Theirs is a job that obliges them travel to wherever a new rabies outbreak is reported and to work long nights with very little sleep.

The timetable when confronting a new rabies outbreak is full-time. By day, vaccinations, by night captures and vampire controls, and at all times, awareness raising amongst the people who live in the affected areas. The work calendar is equally full: holidays only exist if the outbreak has been brought under control and no others are reported. Halfway to our destination we head for the city of Puebla to meet Roberto Ramírez, the director of the Comité. This organization has an enormous responsibility: to protect the health of cattle throughout the whole of the State of Puebla and to foment stock rearing. Confidence and respect for its workers are the keys that enable this organization to keep up with the demands that this onerous job puts on them.

The vets have to work in close contact with the ranchers and inhabitants of rural areas, and are generally welcomed by all given that the death of even just a few cattle can completely upset the finances of a small family ranch. They help resolve a problem that emerged in Mexico during the 1990s. Dolores Manzano explains to us that before this decade, the animals that died of rabies were not properly diagnosed and, apparently, a number of vaccination campaigns were necessary to finally convince the ranchers that now and again some of their animals were dying due to this disease.

Vaccination, vampire population control and education are the three pillars on which these vets’ work rests. The vaccination and control campaigns have drastically reduced the number of head of cattle that are affected by rabies, and have also made the local population much more aware of the risks and persuaded them to take preventative action. On our visit to a number of rural communities we witnessed the high levels of awareness that the campaign had managed to achieve.

In Chila de Sal in the far western corner of the state, Alicia Vázquez welcomes us into her modest home and explains how she was bitten by a vampire in broad daylight whilst she was washing clothes in the river. Although attacks on humans are extremely rare, Alicia was able to capture the bat and – thanks to the advice given by the Comité’s anti-rabies campaign – she took it to the local health centre. This simple act and awareness of the potential risks of a bat bite saved her life. A little further north, in the community of El Salado in the municipality of Jolalpan, an agreeable spontaneous meeting with local ranchers one evening once again underlines the positive results of the rabies awareness campaign. The local ranchers all know when they have to apply the anti-rabies treatments, how to diagnose the disease, and how to separate the vampires (the ‘bad bats’) from the others (the ‘good bats’) that play such an important part in the ecosystem by eating mosquitos, pollinating plants and dispersing seeds, as the ranchers themselves explain to us.

The familiarity of the vampires
The familiarity of the vampires
Ramses and Omar, vets from the Comité
Ramses and Omar, vets from the Comité
On the way to a cave where vampires roost
On the way to a cave where vampires roost
Looking for vampires in a cave in Chila de la Sal
Looking for vampires in a cave in Chila de la Sal
A whip scorpion allows itself to be photographed at the entrance to the cave
A whip scorpion allows itself to be photographed at the entrance to the cave
Feeding captured vampires used in educational campaigns
Feeding captured vampires used in educational campaigns
The filming awakes locals interest
The filming awakes locals interest
Alicia Vázquez, a vampire victim
Alicia Vázquez, a vampire victim
A more typical vampire victim
A more typical vampire victim
The vets from the Comité and the film crew
The vets from the Comité and the film crew