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November 3, 2009

A Mission of Hope and Healing: Part 2

Serving animals in a land of little opportunity

From All Animals magazine, November/December 2009

David Paul Morris

(continued from part 1)

Snapp’s dogs were just a few of the nearly 6,000 animals treated by HSVMA staff on Indian reservations this year. Tens of thousands more have received millions of dollars in free services since 1995, when veterinarian Eric Davis started the clinics as an offshoot of a program that provided human medical aid in rural areas with high poverty levels and few services. Mesmerized by the model of teaching students in real-life settings and serving people in need, Davis soon found the project taking over his life, and he left a university teaching position to do the work full-time.

“I don’t see my profession as a job; I see it as a cause,” said Davis, who’d driven through the night to McDermitt from a previous clinic in Washington State, towing a horse trailer filled with meticulously organized, color-coded supplies. “Convincing [people] to put more effort into the care of their animals is best done by going there and showing them what can be done, showing them that somebody cares, and making it affordable.”

On the last of this summer’s 15 tours of tribal lands, Davis led a convoy of veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and students through a stark landscape of rodeos, casinos, and sand-colored mountains. There, they saw plenty of evidence of animals’ hardscrabble lives: the horse whose family had tried to castrate him without anesthesia, the scrawny dog wandering the streets with an oozing eye and a rope around her neck, the puppies who’d been left at the dump one bitter cold January day.

“This is not a cushy gig,” Kuzminski told the team upon arrival in McDermitt. She was speaking from experience, having sold her own Ontario practice in 2005 to devote her career to helping people and pets in underserved areas. “My two pieces of advice for you are eat when you can and sleep when you can. You are going to learn so much about veterinary medicine and surgery, but you are going to learn a lot more about yourself and life on this trip. So
embrace it.”

The bleary-eyed crew members hadn’t even completed orientation when the first clients appeared at the McDermitt clinic. The night before, they’d already exhausted themselves transforming an empty gym into a fully functioning animal hospital complete with surgery tables, anesthesia equipment, a tent for escape-minded felines, and dozens of caddies stocked with vaccines and syringes. But the work had just begun. They labored well into the evening before crashing for the night on the hard floor of the senior center or next to the cages of the clinic’s overnight guests. And for the next eight days on their visits to three reservations of the Shoshone and Paiute Indian tribes, they would get up before dawn to do it all over again.

Beyond the tales of death and despair recounted by clients, the veterinary team would also witness something far more hopeful: the woman who’d actually taken in some of those puppies abandoned at the dump; another woman who’d sheltered two other discarded pups with a makeshift cardboard shade as they took their dying breaths among rubbish; the couple who’d driven three hours to have their pets spayed and neutered, leaving home at sunrise and not returning until after sundown.

One of the most welcome surprises of the trip was the 3-year old husky mix in such good shape that volunteer veterinarian Bill Pomper pronounced her body condition ideal. With guesses abounding at the clinic on everything from pets’ ages to the dates of their last shots, the husky’s owner was a relative fountain of data, armed with a spay certificate, microchip information, and vaccination records. Wanting to help an animal in need, Vincent Dave had
adopted Denalah from the Nevada Humane Society, and she’s now the head of his four-dog pack, enjoying her own doghouse and tennis ball and reveling in hair brushing sessions and snow tubing excursions.

Denalah’s attentive care has not made her immune to the perils of the reservation. Two years ago, she was hiking off-leash with Dave and his wife when she crested a hill out of sight and someone shot her in the face. “She ran about a mile and a half up the canyon, and I tracked her down,”Dave said. “After I finally caught up to her, she let me pick her up and carry her to the truck.” The next day, he drove Denalah 200 miles to the vet for jaw surgery.

The unfriendly fire is not uncommon in McDermitt and the other two reservations that HSVMA visited on the Nevada trip, Duck Valley and Duck Water. In these desolate settings, free-roaming animals encounter illnesses like parvo, collisions with cars, and injuries inflicted by other animals. With no access to preventive medicines, animals pick up parasites from horse manure or mange from ticks in the sagebrush. Dogs battle each other for survival in the harsh winters, making meager meals of squirrels on the range and eating cheap dog food from coffee cans in the backyard. Many work 10 to 12 hours a day herding cattle.

Indian reservations are not bound by federal and state animal cruelty laws, preventing tribal police officers such as McDermitt’s Jesus Palomo from doing anything for starving or continuously chained dogs.

And with no shelters or animal control officers on many of the reservations HSVMA visits, animals may die as grittily as they lived. Palomo said his partner has often shot dogs, the most merciful method available for ending animal suffering: “They get hurt, they’re out there walking around, and you got to put them down.”

Public health fears have caused some tribes to adopt inhumane animal control policies. At Duck Valley, a tribal law allows the trapping and shooting of animals deemed threatening, said resident Paula Whiterock, whose own dogs have been shot in disputes with the housing authority.

Whiterock is frequently summoned to pick up litters from the town dump, and she once took time off work to rescue puppies about to be buried alive in a pit of metal waste. She also takes in animals from people who say the landfill is their only option.

Whiterock has driven animals to city shelters, hoping they will at least be humanely euthanized, if not adopted. But the visit often comes with a surrender fee and a lecture about how the already crowded shelters just don’t have the space for rez dogs.

“It’s really frustrating,”Whiterock said. “For a while there…I thought about giving up. But then you see [the animals], and they’re just hopeless.”

continue reading part 3

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