Cultural Awareness: A Vital Component of Foreign Training Programs
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2000
Erin E. McNulty1, DVM; Sophie S. Sharpe2, BSc; Bruce R. Vickery3, BA
1Brown Road Animal Clinic, Mesa, AZ, USA; 2Department of Zoology, Oxford University, Oxford, UK; 3Free the Bears Fund Inc., Stirling, Western Australia


Training programs instituted overseas must first and foremost embody the cultural aspects of that country. Respecting the lifestyle and traditions of the foreign country is vital to the success of such programs. For example, in many Asian countries, respect for the elders in the group far surpasses other aspects to the extent that often the younger and better-educated associates dare never question the elders’ authority, knowledge, and routine. This may seem close-minded to us, but within the Asian culture it has many positive attributes more far-reaching than we can understand. Without educating ourselves on the foreign country’s traditions and values we are setting ourselves up for failure.

In this presentation we will explore cultural issues that we believe should be addressed when preparing and undertaking foreign training programs. The considerations we refer to are based on our own experience of training local veterinarians and animal keepers in a range of situations in Thailand, Cambodia, and Bangladesh.

For a training program to succeed in its aims, a relationship must be built between the instructor and trainee. From the outset there are particular limitations on this relationship that despite efforts, will prevent the trainer from being fully accepted. Although a certain level of friendship is of importance in training situations, a degree of distance can also be of benefit.

Open communication should be strived for. From the beginning it should be recognized that trainer and trainee would not enter the program having similar opinions, expectations or aims. While it would be possible for a trainer to instruct without giving thought to the opinions of the trainee, we believe it is more gainful to take account of the trainee’s view at an early stage. In this way it is possible to see where complications may later arise and, therefore, seek solutions in advance. If no attempt is made to learn the views of the trainee and address disparities, the Asian nature will offer little resistance to “bull-doze” training. While these instructors may well find themselves with the model apprentice, once the program is complete, trainees will quickly revert back to their own methods if they do not understand or agree with the underlying concepts.

We suggest that there are three main characteristics in which trainers and trainees will almost certainly differ: perspective, attitude, and incentive. Unless addressed, these differences may inadvertently hinder the efficacy of training programs.

For reasons of culture, education, or experience, perspective is rarely shared between instructors and trainees. Viewpoints can differ widely with the disparity often not even known to both parties. For example, foreign veterinarians may not share opinions that most of their western counterparts agree upon, such as the importance of preventive medicine. For them preventive medicine may be seen as wasteful, especially when resources are often already over-stretched. Equally so, the view that most instructors hold regarding the value and rarity of a particular animal species will often not be shared by a citizen of the species’ native country who has grown up familiar with it, may have kept one as a pet or perhaps regards the animal as a pest. Even today, animals that we recognize as being in danger of extinction can be found for sale alive or dead, whole or in part, on many Asian market stalls. With such differing perspectives on the value of the endangered species, it is perhaps understandable that a local citizen, barely able to feed his own family, becomes resentful of money spent on care and management of such animals.

A second issue of disparity, again largely shaped by culture, is attitude. Many Asians do not have the luxury and religious beliefs that permit them to indulge in animal management. When attitude to animals is conditioned by religious beliefs it can be a particularly difficult issue to manage. For example, the Buddhist religion embraces the concept of karma, whereby an individual’s quality of life is determined by their conduct in a former existence. The concept of karma and the sacred nature of all life should be well understood by the trainers. A person reincarnated as an animal is paying for misdemeanors in a former life and deserves to be badly treated. Only through abuse and suffering will they gain good karma and progress to a higher incarnation. Euthanasia is strictly forbidden in most Buddhist countries. Thus, foreign trainers must accept that a suffering animal cannot be euthanatized, no matter the degree of distress. Equally damaging to many animals is the widespread belief that certain species bestow power to persons able to control them. Also, we are all too familiar with the belief that bear gall bladders and other animal body parts, in traditional Asian medicine, provide sources of pharmacologic relief. And, bear paws, especially those that were sucked on by the bear itself, are a luxury item in many Asian restaurants. Another example of a disparity in attitude that must be addressed is that of the patriarchal society found in Bangladesh. Should a female trainer arrive from a foreign country, she may not be well received by traditionally male trainees. In contrast, if the trainees themselves were female, a female trainer would perhaps be most effective. In Bangladesh, we found that the poor, illiterate women, taught livestock care by a local male livestock officer, were afraid to ask questions or generate a conversation with that officer. However, they were willing to ask questions and eagerly seek advice of the female foreign trainer. There are numerous other facets of attitude which can compromise relations and hence the success of training programs.

Thirdly, we suggest that incentive is a further issue of divergence between trainer and trainee. For the trainee there may be little incentive to fulfil the aims of the training program beyond continued job security. The trainee may hold the traditional belief that their lot in life will never be improved in the present lifetime. And sometimes generally held opinions of animals may mean that little satisfaction is gained from improving the animals’ welfare. The trainers must address core social and religious issues as they relate to the program and determine how such issues will affect the goals, and perhaps how they can be used to the advantage of the program. In Bangladesh, we found that the impoverished village women did not understand how livestock health related to their own health. We had to impress upon them the importance of keeping their cows and goats parasite-free and in good body condition, as their animals’ health eventually determined their own health after the animals were consumed. Furthermore, the women needed to understand that the health of their livestock determined reproductive capacity, and hence their income from the sale of offspring.

Additionally, we consider confounding factors such as education and cultural expectations that act at various levels and can further influence the success of training programs. In conclusion, we briefly present recommendations from our own experience for avoiding cultural obstacles and achieving maximum training results.


Speaker Information
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Erin E. McNulty, DVM
Brown Road Animal Clinic
Mesa, AZ, USA

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