Have you ever visited Mexico and wondered if there is any hope for the street dogs, the feral cats, and the generally unkempt animals you see lurking on every street corner? There is. Several organizations, mostly grass-roots efforts, are popping up to bring medical care to disadvantaged animals.
The Humane Society of the United States is at the forefront of this movement with its Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS). RAVS delivers mobile veterinary services – examinations, vaccinations, and spay/neuter surgeries – to underserved rural communities throughout North and South America.
In late July, I spent a week as a RAVS volunteer on the Colville Indian Reservation in Northeast Washington. Our group was led by three experienced HSUS veterinarians and several support staff. The rest of the team – 30 veterinary students, six veterinarians, and six animal care technicians – were volunteers.
We assembled at a motel next to the Spokane airport on a Friday morning. In our own cars and in carpools, we became a caravan, following the RAVS rig, a fifth-wheel carrying a complete veterinary clinic packed into small boxes. The landscape changed from wheat fields to high desert, and finally to pine forest as we drove all day, finally crossing the Columbia River and entering the Colville Indian Reservation. By Saturday at 6 a.m., we had unpacked hundreds of boxes and turned a community center gymnasium into a fully functioning vet clinic.
Comprised of twelve separate tribes, the Colville Reservation is home to about 7,500 Native Americans. The community has fallen on hard times lately, as the logging industry is in decline and the mills that employ most of the Colville are closing. We met a number of people who were living on the brink, often having to choose between feeding their pets and feeding their families. Needless to say they were ecstatic to be provided with completely free veterinary care and lined up every day outside each of our three clinics.
RAVS’ primary goal is to provide high-quality animal care for communities isolated by poverty and geography. They have a secondary goal though, which is to provide veterinary students with hand-on clinical experience. Under the watchful eyes of the volunteer veterinarians, students perform physical examinations, medical treatments, and even spay and neuter surgeries. (Even the EBSPCA’s own Dr. Barb Jones volunteered at RAVS clinics as a student.)
I was impressed by the preparation and motivation of these dedicated students. Their enthusiasm for veterinary medicine and their willingness to work long hours were awesome. And work we did. The entire clinic, which filled a gymnasium, had to be packed up and moved three times during the course of the week. Setting up the clinic once we had arrived at our destination often took hours. No hotels on the reservation meant sleeping on community center floors and grabbing food when possible – without the luxury of hot showers or hot coffee!
In addition to spaying and neutering over 250 animals, we managed to change some lives along the way. Teddy Bear was a 9-month-old Golden Retriever who had been hit by a car several weeks earlier and came to our clinic with a shattered pelvis, flesh wounds, and a severely fractured rear leg. He had been living in the back of a pickup truck, as his owners were homeless and unable to afford having Teddy seen by one of the few veterinarians on the reservation. After examining Teddy, the lead veterinarian decided that the hind limb would need to be amputated.
Unfortunately, because of the aftercare and rehabilitation that would be required, Teddy Bear’s owners decided they couldn’t keep him and surrendered him to our care. The volunteer veterinarian who was assigned to Teddy ended up falling in love with him and adopting him at the end of the trip. She even has a friend who is getting certified in canine rehabilitation who can help Teddy adjust to living on three legs.
I’m not sure I have the energy to go on another RAVS trip in the near future. I can’t even imagine how difficult it must be to pull the whole thing together in South America, with even more challenges.
The RAVS experience really makes me appreciate working for the East Bay SPCA clinic, where we get to stay put and the patients come to us. I’m also more aware now of just how lucky we are to have so many animal welfare organizations and veterinarians at our fingertips here in the Bay Area.
It’s nice to know there’s a group of animal doctors driving around in a caravan, helping out pets and people who aren’t so fortunate.
Dr. Heidi Strand has been spaying and neutering pets with the East Bay SPCA for six years. Their website is www.eastbayspca.org.