Our Summer in India: an Experience of a Lifetime
Written by third-year veterinary students Caitlin Cossaboom, Jennifer Moore, Kelly Rakes, Michael Dendinger, Eden Armstrong, Amber Roudette, Julie Suarez, and Heidi Macey
Each summer, selected VA-MD Vet Med students travel to Chennai, India for training in exotic animal diseases as part of an ongoing international exchange program with Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (TANUVAS). Training is provided at TANUVAS in a well-equipped veterinary teaching hospital with an excellent reputation and facilities. The program also includes field disease investigations and visits to poultry farms, wildlife facilities, a sheep breeding research station, and historic and cultural sites.
After nearly 20 hours of travelling, we arrived in Chennai, India at 4 a.m. in early July. We were immediately met with the hospitality of students and faculty of the Tamil Nadu University of Veterinary and Animal Sciences (TANUVAS) and we settled in to our hostel to take some much needed rest.
We spent our first two and a half weeks at the Madras Veterinary College (MVC) in Chennai, which provides medical care for an incredible caseload of animals in the heart of the city of Chennai, the second largest city in India. The Small Animal Surgery Ward alone sees at least 75 patients per day, which made for hectic ward rotations, but an incredible amount of hands-on experience. The government of India subsidizes the hospital, which makes medical care at the MVC very affordable for a population of people that would otherwise not be able to afford any care for their animals. For comparison, the price of a physical exam and consultation with any veterinary specialist costs approximately 20 rupees, which equates to less than 10 U.S. cents.
The MVC was divided up into several wards that each of us would rotate through for two days. The small animal wards included medicine, surgery, theriogenology, ophthalmology, dermatology, orthopedics, and critical care. Large animal wards included medicine, surgery, and theriogenology. We spent our mornings assisting the clinicians, post-graduates, and senior students with their cases. We were able to interact with the patients and clients, work up cases, and formulate diagnostic and treatment plans. It was a wonderful opportunity to apply all of concepts that we’d been learning in our first two years of veterinary school at VMCVM. The MVC hospital only sees cases from just before 8 a.m. until around 12 p.m., so our afternoons were spent in either laboratories or in seminars conducted by a department head or professor from each specialty or area of research. We thoroughly enjoyed these labs, particularly those that focused on the local diseases and pathogens native to India, as it was a great way to reinforce what we were learning and experiencing in the hospitals and also to gain a well-rounded perspective on exotic animal diseases.
While most of our time was spent inside the hospital during the first few weeks, we all were fortunate to also be able to have many experiences outside of the wonderful world of veterinary medicine. From saree shopping in the hectic Chennai shopping malls to exploring Marina Beach and dipping our toes in the Bay of Bengal, we experienced many aspects of the dynamic energy and warmth of Tamil Nadu culture. One of the things that we were most struck by was the hospitality of the people of Chennai, both inside and outside of the hospital. We were pleasantly surprised by a wonderful and welcoming community and culture. Most of the people that we met during our time in Chennai seemed to genuinely enjoy taking us in and seeing us explore and embrace their country and culture.
After spending two and a half weeks at Madras Teaching Hospital, we began day trips around Chennai to see other veterinary and animal opportunities around the city.
On the first day away from the school, we travelled to the veterinary school’s remote location in the outskirts of the city. This location made it easier for the locals to bring their pets to the clinic. After touring the facility, we went to the labs. There, we were able to observe the process of collecting ooctyes from ovaries and learn the process of in vitro fertilization. Each of us got to try our hands at artificially inseminating an egg—it was similar to playing a video game and a lot of fun.
The next day we went to the Arignar Anna Zoo. There, we were given a behind the scenes tour of the zoo, seeing the living habitats of lions, tigers, and elephants. We were able to interact with some of the younger elephants which was one of the neatest experiences of the week. They were curious and untied our shoes with their trunks. Afterwards, we were taken to the school zoos where we saw their breeding stock of sheep, goats, cows, pigs, and ostriches! The school was working on making ostriches a more sustainable source of meat in the city.
The next day, we went to the Chennai Snake Park where we saw a variety of both venomous and non-venomous local snakes. As we were looking at the diverse population of snakes, local monkeys started swinging from the branches above. We went from there to the Tree Foundation, a sea turtle rehabilitation center. There, we were able to view the turtles the center was caring for and help with their morning feeding. Next, we went to the Chennai Crocodile Bank where we received an extensive tour of one of the largest reptile parks in the world. To end the day, we went to the ancient temples by the sea, Mahabalipuram. It was neat to read about their history and fun to explore the structures.
Our final day trip was to the Guindy Horse Race course. We got to visit the facilities and speak with the track veterinarian about the care of some of India’s top race horses. The facilities included a physical therapy pool, treadmill, and a surgery suite. We also got to view the training school and were invited to a young rider’s birthday party. The veterinary experiences we gained during our time in Chennai were priceless, but the cultural experiences were really what made the trip so special to everyone in our group.
We spent one of our seven weeks in India in the city of Namakkal. Our first impression was an immediate comparison to Chennai, where we had spent three weeks previously. Namakkal felt more welcoming and less crowded; it reminded us more of a town like Blacksburg versus a big city. On our first day in the clinic, we met the head of the Veterinary College and Research Institute, Dr. Selvaraju. Out of everyone we met on our trip he embodied the Hindu religion and culture the most. Every morning of the five days we spent in the hospital in Namakkal, we had coffee with Dr. Selvaraju. He would discuss specific aspects of veterinary medicine in India while also teaching us about Indian and Hindu culture. Dr. Selvaraju was an amazing teacher and allowed us to gain a number of amazing hands-on opportunities. We got to perform ultrasounds on dogs with pyometra, administer epidurals on the local cattle breed Kangeyam, pass gastric tubes in water buffalo, and deliver calves from cattle. One afternoon, we spent hours palpating different dams in order to get a feel of multiple different stages of estrous and pregnancy.
One of our favorite experiences during our seven weeks in India occurred while we were in Namakkal. We woke up very early and drove two hours up a mountain to a small local village called Thuvarapallam. The veterinary college in Namakkal visits local remote villages about once a month in order to provide the local people with veterinary care. Many of the villagers do not have the means or ability to bring their cattle, goats, buffalo, and other animals to the veterinary college for routine care. We performed pregnancy checks, deworming, vaccinations, and gave phosphorus injections. The veterinary college gives intramuscular injections of phosphorus to cattle during estrus in order to increase fertility. At the end of the clinic, the college gave out awards and prizes to the local villagers for having the best cattle and goats. On our way down the mountain, we stopped and gave our left over lunches to indigenous wild Rhesus Macaque monkeys. The Rhesus monkeys, by far, were a favorite animal we saw while in India.
That same afternoon, the doctors took us to a waterfall in the mountains where the local people will go to bathe and gain spiritual healing. Michael went into the waterfall with one of the associate professors and a large group of local men pulled him under the falls. Moments like this really made us feel welcomed and gave us amazing experiences of India to remember forever.
Ooty & Mudumalai
The next stop on our whirlwind tour of India was Ooty, a charming, small town nestled in the Nilagiri hills. For the first time in almost a month, it was cold outside! It was a welcome relief from the Indian summer heat. We stayed in a beautiful, seven bedroom guesthouse that looked like a castle on 100 acres of rolling green hills. It felt like a fairy tale…except there was no Internet. We spent a lot of time exploring the grounds, playing cards, and watching DVDs together on our computers.
We spent the next two days meeting students and professors and working at the sheep research station. We did some sheep herding, administered vaccines, and learned about the main genetics project of the station. It involved breeding a native sheep breed with a standard sheep breed in order to increase the number of offspring per breeding.
Our next stop was a two-day trip to the Tiger Reserve at Mudumalai. This was the closest we got to the wilderness during our entire India trip. We went on three safari rides, where we spotted many wild deer (our tour guides and fellow passengers were much more excited for the deer than we were) and a family of elephants. We met the head veterinarian of the reserve and watched him bandage a wound on one of the reserve’s semi-wild elephants. That night, we slept in a quaint lodge and listened to a wide assortment of wild animal calls. The next morning, we watched the elephants get fed, and then we were allowed to touch and take pictures with them. It was incredible. Unlike the baby elephants we met in the zoo, these elephants were older and much bigger. To make things even more exciting, these elephants were relocated to the reserve because they had previously attacked and killed dozens of people—that didn’t stop us from taking a thousand selfies.
After returning to Ooty, we helped perform ultrasound on the pregnant ewes, and then we went shopping. Downtown Ooty had so many cute little shops, and we stocked up on trinkets, jewelry, scarves, tea, and sweaters. We had a fantastic time walking around and exploring the stores and open-air markets. We even met an American woman and her daughter from Portsmouth, Virginia! We ended our visit to Ooty with a site-seeing trip to the beautiful botanical gardens and the picture perfect rose garden. Ooty was a beautiful town, completely unique from the rest of India.
We spent the last week of our clinical externship in the TANUVAS teaching hospital and college in Tirunelveli – a relatively small city with (unanimously decided) the best food and (also by popular opinion) the best showers of South India. Undoubtedly more memorable and important were the students and faculty of Tirunelveli who welcomed us with a humbling degree of enthusiasm, generosity, and affection.
We experienced large animal ambulatory practice in a remote, nearby village. At the hospital, the small animal surgeons instructed us in our first spays and neuters on dogs that were part of their new animal control program. The large caseload in the small animal internal medicine department of the hospital kept us busy most days with a vast variety of cases ranging from canine ehrlichiosis, canine parvovirus, small ruminant bloat, mammary adenocarcinoma, and canine distemper, to name a few.
In addition to the clinical experiences in Tirunelveli, we learned how to bathe in sacred waterfalls, ride rickshaws to work, eat lychee, and turn milk into ghee. We also learned that Dalmatian puppies can ride motorcycles. Outside of the hospital, the clinicians, residents, and students were eager to share their culture and community with us. The clinicians brought us to local bakeries and restaurants where we thoroughly enjoyed trying various local cuisine and pastries.
The veterinary school invited us to attend and participate in the TANUVAS Cultural Day - an event attended by regional medical officials, politicians, clinicians, and students. The students performed many native dances, songs, and theatre acts that demonstrated the history, religions, and culture of Southern India. Our experience in Tirunelveli left us with new knowledge, memories, and friendships that will not be forgotten.
Farewell trip to Kanyakumari, Agra, & New Delhi
The last few days of our trip spanned from the southernmost tip of India all the way to northern India to visit one of the New Seven Wonders of the World, the Taj Mahal, among other architecturally beautiful landmarks. We first visited Kanyakumari Beach, a beach streaked with intriguing red sand, located at the very tip of India. At this landmark, we were able to view the junction of three seas: the Bay of Bengal to the east, the Indian Ocean to the south, and the Arabian Sea to the west. The contrast of each sea’s unique colors delivered a breath-taking sight: when the sun set over the three seas, hitting the water just right, the oceans around us lit up like gold.
In addition to these amazing natural sights, we were also given the opportunity to take a ferry out to a popular tourist location known as the Vivekananda Rock Memorial. This monument is dedicated to Swami Vivekananda, the 19th-century mystic who was influential in bringing yoga and other Indian philosophies to the West, and was built on a rock out in the ocean just east of the tip of India. From the monument we could also see the Thiruvalluvar Statue built on another rock formation just a few hundred meters away. The wind was blowing so strong it rocked us left and right the whole time and the ocean water was pounding away at the rocks. It was a fantastic experience with beautiful scenery, historical landmarks, and religious monuments that was an experience of a lifetime.
Up next was a short flight from the southernmost tip of India to northern India. Upon arrival, a whirlwind tour of Agra and Dehli ensued in a mere two days. The first notable difference in northern India was the culture. The emphasis on tourism was strong, with expensive restaurants, hotels, tour guides, souvenir shops, and of course, tourists everywhere. This in no way detracted from the amazing experience and, in fact, was warmly welcomed as we felt quite pampered. Once we met up with our tour guide, we were taken to various historical and religious sites, most notably, the Taj Mahal. The unique architecture of the Taj Mahal, identical on all four sides and made to look like a giant crown, was captivating. The endlessly intricate carved marble and stone designs were astonishing. To the east and west of the Taj Mahal lay two smaller, yet equally complex red buildings comprised of red sandstone. Across the Yamuna River was an empty plot of land that was once meant to house a building known as the Black Taj, which was to replicate the Taj Mahal perfectly, but in solid black marble.
Overall, our time in India was the most amazing experience we have ever had and we never imagined we would have this kind of opportunity in our lives. We are truly grateful to have been given this opportunity and we owe it all to our wonderful professor, Elankumaran Subbiah, who cared for us throughout the entire trip. We will be forever thankful of his kindness and his constant efforts to make us comfortable and happy. This was a trip that we will never forget.
In Memory of Elankumaran Subbiah
Editor’s note: Elankumaran Subbiah, who passed away unexpectedly in the fall of 2015, was influential in creating and organizing the six-week student exchange program with his alma mater, Tamil Nadu Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (TANUVAS). Subbiah grew up in a small town outside of Chennai, India and completed his veterinary degree and advanced degrees in veterinary microbiology from Madras Veterinary College, which is now a part of TANUVAS. He joined the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine as a faculty researcher at the University of Maryland campus in 1999 and later as an associate professor of virology at the Virginia Tech campus in 2012. He and his colleague Nammalwar “Nathan” Sriranganathan used a small grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to develop the exchange program. Subbiah was in Chennai, India, overseeing the program when he passed away on Sept. 2 following a brief illness. He is remembered by those who knew him as a world-class researcher, a wonderful mentor to his students and postdocs, and a great friend and colleague. Learn more about Subbiah's life and career.