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A Mission of Hope and Healing: Part 3

Heal, teach, inspire

From All Animals magazine, Novermber/December 2009

Fort McDermott Vet Clinic

David Paul Morris

(continued from part 2)

HSVMA workers have encountered problems like these in many of the communities they’ve visited, from Latin America to Pacific island nations to the hills of Appalachia. Such remote areas can’t easily overcome the barriers to a better quality of life, said HSVMA veterinary technician Windi Wojdak, who works from dawn to dusk overseeing the bustling anesthesia area and conjuring meals for famished volunteers from a smattering of random ingredients.

As the director of U.S. programs for HSVMA Field Services, Wojdak has seen enough locals lined up at 6 a.m. to know how desperately many of them want to help their pets. But the economic and geographic isolation is too great for most. “There is a common misperception that the animal welfare problems in one place or another are the result of some specific cultural beliefs about the value of animals,” she said, “when in reality it all comes down to access.”

In areas with few or no options for vet care, medical treatment for animals is often an unfamiliar concept. But through the fine art of gentle persuasion, HSVMA staff are slowly instilling a new perspective.

At Duck Valley, the teammet a gentle cattle dog named Chewey, who’d been limping from a pellet gun wound received the year before. The vets decided to amputate her leg but said the dog would have to sleep indoors during recovery. Initially resistant to the idea of having an animal in the house, owner April Rose forged a compromise, offering to make a saddle shed into Chewey’s nighttime quarters. “I don’t want to see her hurt,” Rose said as she stroked the dog, nestled in the grass outside the tribal fire station where the clinic had set up shop. “My grandson loves to roll around with her. …When she got [shot], he sat with her and held her head.”

When another dog with a mangled leg was brought to a recent clinic, staff members had an even tougher message to deliver to the homeless family who’d been keeping him in a truck bed and feeding him all they had to give—potatoes. Because it was clear that his caretakers lacked the resources to see the dog through his recovery following a leg amputation, Rouse, the clinic’s receiving coordinator, was charged with persuading the family to give him up.

A longtime employee who met Davis in 1997 when she organized a clinic in a doublewide trailer in rural Tennessee, Rouse serves as the face of the clinics and knows her clients well. HSVMA would rehome the dog, she told the owner, before issuing this simple but successful plea: “Sister, you know this is the right thing to do.”

After a few visits like these, many clients begin to emulate what they see in the clinics. Even in places with no organized animal groups, Wojdak said there is a noticeable difference in the level of animal care after they’ve visited for a number of years.

“When you first start going to a community like that, you never see a dog that’s more than 2, maybe 3 years old,” she said. “Now we get animals back for vaccines who are 6, 7 years old, and we spayed them four years ago.”

With a long list of communities requesting clinics, HSVMA can’t visit them all as frequently as needed to maintain the health of the animal population, so the program supplies resources during the time between visits. When the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota struggled to control a severe outbreak of sarcoptic mange, clinic staff gave the community health officer medication to treat animals year-round. As a result, the mange problem virtually disappeared.

At Duck Valley, Whiterock has been seeking resources to start a shelter, a clinic, or a relationship with a mobile spay/neuter unit. Such
locally driven provisions for veterinary treatment are the best-case scenario, said Wojdak; the animals benefit from more regular care, and HSVMA staff can redirect their efforts to more desperate areas.

During previous HSVMA trips to the Red Lake reservation in Minnesota, conditions were “really rough,” said Wojdak. “We saw a lot of sick animals, and none had vet care. The people who were doing rescue were overwhelmed and hopeless. They didn’t see a way out.”

Inspired by HSVMA’s example, the group has built a small shelter and periodically hosts a spay/neuter clinic. Through networking with other shelters in the region, local advocates are also finding homes for more animals. The community has turned a corner, and “this year, we’re not going back,” said Wojdak.

But in other areas, there’s still no shortage of work to be done and—judging from the number of volunteer applications HSVMA receives—no shortage of future veterinarians interested in doing it. Even when Wojdak posts the annual call for applications unannounced, late on a weeknight, she gets responses almost immediately. She accepts 1,000 applications for only 300 slots. “The program is much more popular and in demand with students than we could
possibly accommodate,” she said.

Some students return from the reservations with a burning conviction that work in remote communities is their life’s calling, having gained far more knowledge than a textbook could ever provide. “As students,we learn the academic way to practice—and then there’s the actual, real world, financially limited way to practice,” said HSVMA intern Jena Valdez, a fourth-year student at Colorado State. “As veterinarians, our job is to give all the options, but I feel that it is also to come up with things that are realistic for what the client is actually able to do.”

Some, like University of California Davis student Jenica Wycoff, go home with more than they’d bargained for: a living reminder of the animals and people who try to make do without even the most basic services. At the end of the trip, the scrawny dog with the rope around her neck and oozing eye accompanied Wycoff back to California, where, Wycoff reports, Delilah Rose McDermitt the First has “adjusted very well to her new city girl life.”

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