Monday, August 17, 2009
Help is on the way
Have you ever visited Mexico and wondered if there is any hope for the street dogs, the feral cats, and the generally unthrifty 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 3 experienced HSUS veterinarians and several support staff. The rest of the team -- 30 veterinary students, 6 veterinarians, and 6 animal care technicians – were volunteers. We assembled in a Super 8 Motel next to the Spokane airport on a Friday morning. In our own cars and 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 into high desert, and finally into pine forest as we drove all day, finally crossing the Columbia River and entering the Colville Indian Reservation. By Saturday at 6am, 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 7500 Native Americans. The community has fallen on hard times lately, as the logging industry is in decline and the mills which 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 or feeding their families. Needless to say they were ecstatic to be provided with completely free veterinary care and lined up each 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 as a student at RAVS clinics!) I was impressed by the preparation and motivation of these dedicated students. Their enthusiasm for veterinary medicine and their willingness to work long hours was impressive. 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 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 his aftercare and rehabilitation, Teddy’s owners decided they would not be able to 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. As an added bonus – she even has a friend who is getting certified in canine rehabilitation, who will be able to help Teddy adjust to living on 3 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. It really makes me appreciate our EBSPCA clinics, where the patients come to us. We also have the luxury of numerous and animal welfare organizations and veterinarians here in the Bay Area. For those that aren’t as fortunate as us, it’s nice to know there’s a group of animal lovers driving around in a caravan, getting to where they are needed.
Teddy and his new person