ABSTRACT: This article gives an overview of a veterinary nurse's experience volunteering at the Esther Honey Foundation Animal Clinic in the Cook Islands It highlights the daily routine for the clinic and staff on the tropical island and how it differed from working in a western type of environment, the amount of patients that were cared for and the type of treatments.

In 2009,1 had the opportunity to fulfil a dream I’d had since I became a veterinary nurse over 10 years earlier. In late December, I boarded a plane to fly to the tropical pacific island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands to start two weeks of voluntary work at the Esther Honey Foundation Animal Clinic (EHF). The clinic was established by US tourist and animal advocate, Cathy Sue Ragan- Anunsen, who befriended a dog named ‘Honey’ while holidaying there in 1993 (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Signage outside the clinic

I arrived at the small Pacific airport in the early hours of the morning and, although tired from the journey, the very next day I was keen to start work and meet the other volunteers. During my trip, I was the only veterinary nurse along with five vets from the UK and New Zealand – and all but one of them were newly qualified.

Nursing with a difference

At the time of my visit, the clinic housed between 45 and 50 animals. This included almost 30 nine-week-old stray kittens and approximately 20 other dogs and cats that were either stray or ill – the majority being seriously affected with ‘fish poisoning’. Nursing the in-patients was one of my main reasons for spending time at the clinic, as it was what I had missed most during the last six years that I had been working in the veterinary nursing education sector.

The facilities and conditions were very different to my previous work environments in the UK, Australia or New Zealand, as most days the temperature ranged between 25°C -30°C, and all work – apart from surgery and consultations – was performed outside under the full glare of the sun.

All of the animals were housed outside in kennels or cages under shelters consisting of wood and palm tree leaves. This made it more comfortable for them to contend with the daily temperatures and also be kept cool at night (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Patient accommodation

Relaxed routine

My working day started in the mild heat of the morning at 8am and ended at 5 or 6pm and involved either caring for the in-patients or assisting with surgery. Depending on the number of in-patients and volunteers available, feeding, cleaning and individual nursing of some patients would often take up to lunchtime (Figures 3 and 4), when a well-deserved and refreshing dip in the sea refreshed us before starting again in the afternoon.

Figure 3: Grooming Weagle'. a patient recovering from fish poisoning

Figure 4: Cleaning duties

We tried to finish the day’s work in time to watch the amazing sunset over the vast ocean while sitting around a table drinking a welcome tropical cocktail.

Consultations were held by a vet every day in the morning and afternoon, except for Sundays which were generally for emergencies only. All consultations were on a ‘walk-in’ basis, so we never knew who or what was going to arrive – or at what time.

On a few occasions clients would turn up out of clinic hours; sometimes just after sunrise because they happened to be on our side of the island at that time, or because of an emergency. We would be woken by the barking of the enthusiastic rescue dogs that lived out the front of the clinic alerting us that somebody had entered the clinic grounds, and so the day started! The most common consultations would consist of skin conditions caused by flea allergies, fish poisoning and RTAs, which required admitting the animals. Most of our patients were dogs and cats, but there was also the odd pig or goat. All treatments, surgery and medications were free, although donations were gratefully appreciated and clients often arrived at the clinic with gifts for the workers – bags of fruit or homemade cakes and food for the patients to show their gratitude for the care we had given their animals.

The main aim of the foundation and the clinic was to reduce the number of homeless animals on the island by neutering as many as possible. These surgeries were performed on both owned and stray cats and dogs, from Monday to Friday. After each animal had been neutered, one of its ears would be imprinted with an 'E' in ink to show that it had been neutered

Challenging case

Whilst at the clinic, I also assisted with a goat that had been attacked by a dog and had an open pneumothorax (Figure 5). This was readily apparent because every time it breathed we could hear the air hissing out of its lungs. This was the most challenging surgical case that we had while I was there.

Figure 5: The goat with the pneumothorax in shock prior to surgery

During its gaseous anaesthesia, administered by means of a face mask only, 1 was completely reliant on my basic nursing skills as 1 was required to monitor it without the use of any equipment apart from a stethoscope (Figure 5). It was also a new challenge for the recently graduated vet who had limited knowledge of anaesthesia in goats and had never dealt with a wound of this extreme nature!

My two weeks on this tropical island were an enjoyable experience. 1 learnt the importance of adapting techniques and skills to fit the environment we were working in and nursed back to recovery animals with the debilitating condition, ‘fish poisoning’ – an experience 1 will never forget.

Today, the EHF – which is named after the island canine and in honour of Ragan-Anunsen’s grandmother, Esther – continues to be supported by the foundation and was honoured to be cited as one of the ‘worlds’ best volunteer vacations to enrich your life’ in the National Geographic travel book series.

This is a trip I would highly recommend to veterinary nurses of any level. To find out more and read about some of the patients, visit www.estherhoney.org 


Selina Perrie

RVN A1 Assessor Cert Ed NC

Selina's veterinary nursing career started in 1997. She worked in small, equine and referral practices in the UK and Australia, and then in 2004 became a lecturer at Bicton College in Devon. In 2007, Selina emigrated to New Zealand to teach veterinary nursing and, in 2010, transitioned to Education Design.

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2011.00075.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 26 pp 276-277



Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 26 • August 2011 •