Bob the Flamingo helps veterinarian Doest teach kids on Curaçao

Catching up with...

Veterinarian Odette Doest gained international fame in 2018 when a series of photos by her cousin, nature photographer Jasper Doest, were featured in National Geographic. Doest portrayed her remarkable efforts to educate children about the natural environment and care for wounded wild animals on Curaçao. His photos received major honours at World Press Photo and the Sony World Photography Award. So how do things stand with Bob, vet Doest and her work these days?

We made a video call to Curaçao, where Odette answered the phone amidst a cacophony of animal noises. It's still early in the morning on the other side of the world, and it's time for breakfast. The flamingos, pelicans, dogs, cats and other animals recuperating in and around Odette's house loudly announce that they are awake.

Dierenarts Odette Doest zit achter het stuur met Bob de Flamingo op haar schoot. Het regent.
Veterinarian Odette Doest with flamingo Bob on her lap during a short car ride.

So how's Bob doing?

'He's great. School has started again here, so Bob joins me in class almost every Thursday. Besides my veterinary practice and work at the shelter for injured wild animals, I'm really passionate about nature education. I try to help the kids fall in love with all the animals I bring to class. Bob the Flamingo is obviously beautiful and the kids love him, but I also bring other educational animals like a bird of prey or a pelican. They're extremely intelligent and tend to cause some funny situations. The animals just display their natural behaviour and I try to share interesting stories.’

I try to help the kids fall in love with all the animals I bring to class

Odette Doest, veterinarian and founder of Doest Veterinary Practice

So what can children learn from the animals?

'The kids are always amazed to see them. They get to experience the animals from up close, and that really lends my stories on conservation a lot of impact. I teach them that they can also do things to help wild animals. For example, you can collect waste plastic when you go to the beach at the weekend. You can take good care of the natural world.'

'I also try to teach them some life lessons. As a vet, they tend to treat me as a bit of a superhero anyway. After all, most kids want to be a veterinarian at some point. I want to show them that they can take control of their lives and have an impact on the world around them. I try to lead by example: Look, I'm a woman, I'm black, I wanted to be a vet as a child, I managed to become one and now I help animals. You can achieve anything if you really put your mind to it.

Dierenarts Odette Doest zit met Bob de flamingo op schoot in een klas vol kinderen op Curacao. Een kind luistert met de stethoscoop naar het hart van Bob.
Veterinarian Odette Doest and flamingo Bob give nature education.

I try to lead by example: look, I'm a woman, I'm black, I wanted to be a vet as a child, I managed to become one and now I help animals

Odette Doest, veterinarian and founder of Doest Veterinary Practice

So why isn't Bob fishing in the bay anymore?

'Bob flew against a hotel window and was also suffering from a foot infection known as Bumblefoot. He couldn't walk anymore and actually almost died. We nursed him for months. We couldn't return him to the wild in that state. I thought to myself: you're so tame, let's see what happens if I bring you along to a small-sized class. As it turned out, he didn't mind at all. He just stood somewhere quiet for a while and started wandering around the classroom. The other educational animals were also taken in by our foundation because they were sick or injured. We generally treat the animals and release them back into the wild, but that's not always an option.’

You trained the education animals, can you tell us what they do in the classroom?

'I trained Bob and the other educational animals to display certain natural behaviours, such as eating or grooming their feathers, on cue. I always give Bob a hand signal before I pick him up so he doesn't get stressed. Everything we do is very clear and predictable for him. Bob has been trained to respond to four different cues. He just stands there in class, chilling out, showing the kids how flamingos groom their feathers. Then I give him a cue and you can see him thinking: 'Oh, I need to open my beak.' The kids get an opportunity to check out his beak. Then he walks around a bit more, until it's time for the next cue: 'Oh, they're going to pet me now.' The kids get to pet him and listen to his little heart with a stethoscope. But he always knows what's about to happen in advance. If one of the kids suddenly approaches and tries to pet him, he'll walk away. That's not part of his training.'

Dierenarts Odette Doest loopt met Bob de flamingo in een hand en met een mobieltje in de andere hand.

And yeah, flamingos can live to be eighty, and Bob's only sixteen!

Odette Doest, veterinarian and founder of Doest Veterinary Practice

How do you feel about animal welfare?

'Animal welfare is really important, I would never bring a stressed-out animal to class. The animal has to enjoy it. Many people think it's unnatural to keep an animal in captivity. Still, some wild animals can end up feeling so comfortable that they don't necessarily want to go back to the wild. For example, I once released a pelican that came back to the car three times. Some animals need to learn how to take care of themselves again. That pelican actually spent the next two months wandering around the house before it eventually flew away. It's fishing in the bay again now.'

How do you look back on your time as a Veterinary Medicine student in Utrecht?

'I loved my studies. I also managed to do a lot of extracurricular activities during my time at UU. For example, I spent three years on the board of Archaeopteryx, a study society dedicated to birds and rare animals. As a result, I got to travel abroad a lot. You end up making some really valuable contacts in the process. Veterinary Medicine students get to do all sorts of extra activities related to the profession. I can still drive horses according to the Achenbach system. I learned that in Utrecht!

Do you have any tips for today's students?

'I realise students are under a lot of pressure, but I'd definitely recommend gaining some international experience. Our faculty has a great reputation: if you've studied in Utrecht, you can go anywhere in the world. That's been incredibly helpful. I did work placements in the US, Peru and Brazil. If you make the effort to go on an exchange programme, you'll really broaden your horizons.’

Our faculty has a great reputation: if you've studied in Utrecht, you can go anywhere in the world. That's been incredibly helpful

Odette Doest, veterinarian and founder of Doest Veterinary Practice

So how did your cousin Jasper's photos affect your life?

'It made a huge difference, I became a lot more well-known. People from all over the world ask me for advice on birds. I'm also getting a lot more interview requests. I loved it at first. It actually is fun, but it's also really time-consuming so I tend to say no more these days. You have to; people suddenly started taking advantage of my fame.'

Can you tell us more about your ambitions for the future?

‘I'd like to expand our shelter facilities. For example, I'd love to build a nice big aviary for the birds of prey. In terms of nature education, it would be amazing if every schoolchild on the island could experience a lesson with the flamingo or the other birds. I want to pass my love of animals on to the children. And yeah, flamingos can live to be eighty, and Bob's only sixteen!’

Dierenarts Odette Doest staat tussen de flamingo's in haar opvang op Curacao. Ze onderzoekt een van hen.
Veterinarian Odette Doest at work with injured wild animals.

Stichting Fundashon, Dier en Onderwijs Cariben

Stichting Fundashon, Dier en onderwijs cariben provides therapy and rehabilitation for wounded animals and teaches school children about nature conservation.

Meet Bob

Nature photographer Jasper Doest took many more beautiful photos of veterinarian and cousin Odette Doest working with Bob the flamingo. These can be found in the book: 'Meet Bob'.

This is an article from Vetscience issue 12 (in Dutch).

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