Angela Dowler, within Veterinarians Without Borders program, spent four teaching almost livestock farmers in Ethiopia how to identify and report livestock diseases.

By Robin Wood |

Because she lacks experience with cattle, Angela Dowler — a canine and feline veterinarian with more than three decades of experience — had to apply twice for the position of volunteer disease educator in Ethiopia.

But Angela Dowler, born and raised in Fairbanks, was accepted into the Veterinarians Without Borders program, and she spent four weeks last November and December teaching almost 400 livestock farmers in Ethiopia how to identify and report livestock diseases.

In turn, Angela Dowler was rewarded with a life-changing experience.

If the transition from a cat and dog specialist in Fairbanks to a cattle-disease instructor in Africa sounds abrupt, that’s because it was. Angela Dowler is a member of the Interior Alaska Veterinarian Medical Association and through that organization learned about the Veterinarians Without Borders program to work with farmer overseas.

“There was a million hoops to jump through,” Angela Dowler said of the application process, adding she felt a little “chicken” about traveling across the globe.

Angela Dowler explained Ethiopia has either the most or second most, depending on whom you ask, livestock of any country in Africa, but many farmers lose up to 15 percent of their herds to disease annually.

“They have tremendous numbers of livestock: cattle, goats, sheep, chicken, camels, some donkey andhorses.”

Trans-boundary diseases — diseases that create a large economic impact or pose significant human health risks, such as foot-and-mouth disease, rabies or avian influenza — were the focus of Dowler’s educational efforts, which included some outside-the-box lessons.

Interactive theatre was one of the primary teaching tools. Angela Dowler would stage plays to teach farmers about the diseases’ impacts.

“Somebody would be the rabid dog, somebody would play the cow that got bit by the rabid dog, somebody would play the farmer.”

More than anything, Angela Dowler said she tried to strengthen relationships between the farmers and local veterinarian support structure.

Angela Dowler was there to teach about disease, and at the same time she learned how little she knew about livestock, even after her training.

“The people there are extremely knowledgeable about what they call private good diseases … things like parasites, something that will cause problems and reduced profitability for an individual farmer, but isn’t gonna wreak havoc across the economic system.”

As could be expected, Angela Dowler also learned a lot about their culture, which she said has “an unparalleled work ethic.”

“Before sun up you’ll see their little silhouettes walking wherever they belong, you’ll see them all day long until after sunset herding their cattle or goats or sheep back to wherever they’re gonna spend the night.”

To say Angela Dowler was impressed and humbled would be an understatement: “You’ll learn people can work really, really, really hard and just barely make ends meet.”

Living in the African desert for an extended period of time means some mandatory loss of modern comforts, but eventually Angela Dowler embraced the lack of internet and electricity, saying it provided her the freedom to be present and focus on the task at hand.

There is one thing in particular Angela Dowler was gracious for upon returning home: “The most exciting thing I did when I got back was do my laundry. I kid you not, because I was not able to properly do laundry for an entire month.”

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