ONTARIO — Photographer Bertha Bishop said she treats every dog like her own.
“I’m not a trained veterinarian or vet tech, but I love all the dogs I meet,” she said. “We know we can’t save them all, but you have to start somewhere.”
Bishop got involved with veterinarian Susan Burkhart’s nonprofit 4 Leaf Rover after adopting Turk. Burkhart brought the dog back to the U.S. from the Turk and Caicos Islands, hence his name.
“When she met him, he was a very sick little puppy,” Bishop said. “He needed some intensive care and couldn’t get that in the Caribbean. And I loved the mission of 4 Leaf Rover so much that I started helping with marketing and photos.”
Burkhart took her first trip to a Caribbean island in 2020 for a work conference and scheduled a vacation afterward.
“I ended up spending the whole five days that was supposed to be my vacation driving around feeding and checking animals,” she said. “There’s not a full-time vet on that island and the pet culture is different there, so a lot of these dogs live on the beaches.
“I started 4 Leaf Rover because of that trip, and we raised money thanks to generous people in Ohio to spay and neuter 289 animals, including one turtle.”
Burkhart took a nine-person U.S. team to Sint Maarten from May 25 to April 3 to spay/neuter and treat 287 dogs. The team included three veterinarians, two veterinary technicians, one veterinary student, one photojournalist and two other volunteers.
Physician Eddie Lee of Sarasota, Florida and multiple island rescue organizations joined the team to offer free treatments for stray animals.
“We vaccinated those dogs and cats, we tested them for heartworm and gave them flea and skin infection treatments,” Burkhart said. “(All of this) was in a M*A*S*H-style pop-up clinic. You have to stop at some point because our vets get numb hands from so many treatments.”
Burkhart said 4 Leaf Rover partnered with local volunteers to get the word out about the clinic and offered the opportunity to book free appointments for spaying/neutering and disease testing.
“Our primary goal is to control the overpopulation problem and educate existing pet owners on how to keep them healthy,” she said. “Those animals can’t help where they live and we don’t think geography should determine whether an animal gets help or not.
“Although flying dogs back to the U.S. isn’t our main focus, sometimes the really sick ones need more care than what we can offer on the island, and it’s hard for us bleeding-heart animal lovers to walk away from them.”
As the owner of three island rescues herself, Bishop warned they’re usually not good for first-time dog owners.
“They get into everything because that’s how they found food and that’s what years of being homeless selects for,” she said. “They take a lot of work to be a typical American pet, but it’s really rewarding and now we have one of the sweetest dogs.”
4 Leaf Rover’s next mission in the Caribbean is scheduled for October. The nonprofit is also serving the local north central Ohio community with low-cost spay/neuters for cats at Burkhart’s local practice in the Animal Medical Center of Ontario.
The next community cat day hasn’t been scheduled yet, but Burkhart said she expects it to cost $25 for spay/neuter, pain medication, rabies shot and testing.
4 Leaf Rover has also purchased a semitrailer to convert into a spay/neuter mobile clinic with three surgerical areas. Burkhart said they need to raise $30,000 to fully convert it and have it ready for service by the fall.
“I just felt that animals have given me the opportunity to have such an amazing life and it’s time to give back to the ones whose owners can’t afford standard care,” Burkhart said. “The need is so desparate in the islands, but we want to continue to help at home, too.”
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