by Merritt Clifton
Katherine Bolland Gibson, 60, a pioneer of promoting spay/neuter in rural areas of the developing world, and an inspiration to a generation of humane workers for whom post traumatic stress developed on the job was a way of life, died on November 11, 2014 in San Jose, Costa Rica, after more than 20 years of battling a terminal illness.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Gibson had long lived in Zancudo, Costa Rica.
“I arrived in Costa Rica by sailboat about 1990 and first lived on an island in the jungle,” Gibson recalled in a 2000 autobiographical essay entitled ZAPPA ¡Pura vida!
“I had previously worked for humane societies in the U.S. and the U.S. Virgin Islands. We had begun doing low cost spay/neuter clinics, but at each stop I also had the unfortunate job of having to kill animals we had no room for. We tried to adopt out all we could, but there still seemed to be no lasting solution to pet overpopulation.
“Here in Costa Rica there were no shelters, and there was a chance to try another way. On the jungle island I started vaccinating local dogs and treating them for mange, as well as neutering some, but back then I couldn’t find a vet who was really qualified to operate on small animals.
“In 1998, after moving to Playa Zancudo where there were a lot of homeless strays, I found Dr. Andre Tellos, who was dedicated and talented, working on dogs and cats. I read an article about the McKee Project,” founded in 1998 by fellow American expatriate Christine Crawford, “at about the same time I was forming the Zancudo Asociacion Para Proteger Animales, ZAPPA for short. Having learned that you must reach at least a 70% sterilization level to achieve a controlled population,” Gibson wrote, ” I was planning a larger clinic. I contacted Crawford and Gerardo Vicente, DVM, who were eager to help. Debbie Walsh of the Zancudo Beach Club provided rooms and meals for the visiting veterinarians and helpers they sent to us.
“Setting up the first clinic was the most work,” Gibson recalled. “Playa Zancudo is a small community. Each family has a few dogs, with an average monthly income of about $300. Paying to sterilize their pets is beyond their means. I asked my neighbors for help. A local person went with me to each home, offering to fix all the pets of the community. We explained the advantages of a neutered pet, reassured them about the safety of the procedure, and set up clinic appointments. Three wonderful vets from McKee drove eight hours to participate. The vets from the nearest town drove ‘only’ two hours on bad roads to assist us. We had several long operating tables set up on my deck, overlooking the beach, with each table sporting an anesthesia machine and makeshift lights. We had all kinds of help from community members, some with vehicles, who helped to take the dogs back to their homes as they came out of the anesthesia.
“Groups of neighbors chatted outside in the yard, their dogs leashed or sitting, and others watched the surgery from the deck railings,” Gibson continued. “This made the clinic a successful social event. The vets were kept busy right up until they loaded their cars to return to San Jose.”
Gibson’s first ZAPPA clinic became a series that continued throughout the rest of her life, both in Zancudo and in surrounding communities. “Now it is unusual to see a neglected animal or litter,” Gibson said. “Locals see the need for vaccinations now, too.”
I first met Gibson in San Jose, California, in 1973. She was introduced to me by Bill Swanson and his wife Lynda Shearin, a talented and compassionate couple who wrote poetry and worked with me on the staff of The Reed, the San Jose State University literary magazine. Both Bill and Lynda were also contributors to Samisdat, a literary/political magazine I published from 1973 to 1992, best known for introducing to print a generation of Vietnam War veterans, along with many other young writers, several of whom were and are later of note in the animal rights movement.
Bill worked as a euthanasia attendant for the Peninsula Humane Society in San Mateo. Lynda and Katherine volunteered there. The Peninsula Humane Society that year killed 35,000 dogs and cats: 57.3 per 1,000 humans in the county. Bill’s job was holding and comforting the animals while they received lethal injections, at a time when most shelters still killed animals by decompression or gassing, to reduce the emotional stress on the workers. The killing pace then at the Peninsula Humane Society would today be one of the highest killing ratios in the U.S., but in 1973 it was among the lowest. In 1971 the Peninsula Humane Society had killed 45,000 dogs and cats: 73.7 per 1,000 residents. Then it opened one of the first low-cost sterilization clinics in the U.S.
The numbers were coming down fast. Bill and Lynda were encouraged by the pace of change. Meanwhile, they also found time to help many Namvets and other young people with substance abuse issues through episodes of what is now known as “post-traumatic stress disorder.” Back then it was just called “going berserk,” “freaking out,” or “attempting suicide.” On several occasions we worked together to avert catastrophe. Eventually I saw that while Bill and Lynda and most other shelter workers I met did not go berserk or freak out, and were as quick as Bill and Lynda to help anyone else in a crisis, they were as hurt by their work and as vulnerable to post-traumatic stress as any of the Namvets.
Few people would listen to the Namvets rave and cry then, but no one at all heard the veterans of the shelter front––except Bill and Lynda, who became very concerned about Katherine. She had become severely withdrawn, hostile, uncommunicative, addicted to a variety of drugs, and involved in an abusive personal relationship that left her with both physical and psychological scars.
Discovering somehow that Katherine was also a talented if as yet unpublished poet, Bill and Lynda brought me some of her work first, and then when I confirmed their impression of her ability, they brought her to meet me. I was supposed to encourage Katherine to write more, and to help her open up more to Bill and Lynda, so that they could help her. Somehow Bill and Lynda got Katherine into their beat-up old car, drove her to San Jose State University, and escorted her down the hall of the English department office building, Bill on one side of her, Lynda on the other. to the conference room, where I was meeting with about a dozen other local writers, including Lorna Dee Cervantes, the later famous poet who gave me my first cat and later helped to promote spay/neuter in the Burbank district of San Jose.
I excused myself to talk with Katherine, but to no avail. She would not look up at any of us, except once when she shot me an unexpected glare that would have killed if it could have. She looked as if she had been beaten up that very morning. Bill and Lynda tried to gently hold her by either arm, but eventually she broke free and ran out of the building.
I told Bill and Lynda that of all the people I had ever tried to help, Katherine struck me as the one most likely to be found dead in a ditch the next morning. But Bill and Lynda did not give up on her, and neither did I. We published several of her poems, in The Reed and in Samisdat, and arranged for her to read some of them at a women’s writing festival in fall 1974. Lynda led Katherine to the podium and read the poems for her while Katherine stood sullenly with her head down. That was the last time I saw Katherine in San Jose, California.
But I met Katherine again in San Jose, Costa Rica, in October 2001, when at invitation of Christine Crawford and Yayo Vicente I twice addressed the annual conference of the veterinary licensing board of Costa Rica about “How Animal Birth Control Programs Benefit Dogs, Cats, & Veterinarians.” Sharing the podium were Spay USA founder Esther Mechler and pioneering Florida spay/neuter veterinarian Elton Gissendanner. Unknown to me, Katherine was in the audience.
I was sitting with Esther at lunch when Katherine joined us and radiantly described her work with ZAPPA. She was clearly respected and admired as a leader by the many young Costa Rican veterinarians and humane workers who gathered at tables around us.
Suddenly I noticed her name tag. “Were you ever in San Jose, California?” I asked.
I often wondered what became of the first shelter veterans I knew, including Bill, Lynda, and Katherine, as they burned out, dropped out, and drifted away. I still have no idea what became of Bill and Lynda, but unexpectedly meeting Katherine in Costa Rica, discovering what she had been doing, and seeing how much happier she had become, focusing on spay/neuter instead of killing animals, affirmed my belief that getting away from shelter killing was not only about the animals, but also about getting away from killing ourselves.
By actual count, I told Katherine’s story and that of ZAPPA more than 60 times during the 14 years between October 2001 and her death. Her recovery from all that afflicted her in 1973-1974 and her subsequent accomplishments inspired and encouraged thousands of stressed humane workers in every part of the inhabited world. Her contribution to animal welfare became much larger than herself, and will continue to be felt long after her death.
Wrote Christine Crawford, “As were her wishes, part of her ashes went with the sea in Zancudo. The remainder were interred with her beloved dogs, and a friend at her home there.”
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