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Doing the work

Pets for Life brings free veterinary care to rural Alaska

All Animals magazine, May/June2018

By Kelly L. Williams

The morning of the clinic, in Napaskiak, Alaska, Pets for Life’s Danny Burke (in green) and Jason Schipkowski (far right) greet villagers and start getting their pets signed up for services. Photo by Kelly L. Williams/The HSUS.

It's 10 o’clock at night in Napaskiak, Alaska, and the village’s dark-paneled bingo hall buzzes with activity. But nobody’s calling numbers, and there are no neon markers in sight. Instead, rectangular folding tables scrape along the linoleum as Amanda Arrington and Jason Schipkowski, both from The HSUS, drag them into place in the long end of the small L-shaped building. Around the corner, their coworker Danny Burke assembles large plastic dog crates while Angie Fitch—who works with local group Alaska Native Rural Veterinary—and Aimee Christian and Jocelyn Kessler of the ASPCA place folding chairs in a semicircle. The room’s layout takes shape as they pull one last table into place facing the chairs, creating a barrier to the rest of room and a natural focal point for anyone entering the building.

It’s grunt work, but it’s critical to what the team will be doing here, and they’re happy to do it. As the group puts the finishing touches on the setup—stacking paperwork, arranging piles of fleece blankets— under the fluorescent lighting, the sun still shines outdoors, casting a golden glow on the nearby Kuskokwim River. Here in this remote Alaska village, in July, the sun won’t set until nearly midnight. By then, the group will be back in their temporary sleeping quarters: an elementary school, empty for the summer but rented out to the team for the next four days. There, surrounded by children’s drawings and signs in both English and Yup’ik (the language of many indigenous locals), they will discuss the plan for the next morning, when the HSUS Pets for Life program begins its inaugural clinic providing free veterinary services in rural Alaska.

The mission

Pets for Life operates on a simple principle: that everybody loves their pets and wants to do what’s best for them, but some people simply cannot access the care they need. Just as food deserts prevent some residents of underserved communities from accessing affordable healthy food, pet resource deserts prevent others from accessing affordable veterinary services and supplies for their companion animals. The Pets for Life model bridges gaps between pet owners and service providers by offering free spay/neuter surgeries, basic veterinary care, pet products and ongoing resources to help people keep the pets they love.

In the Lower 48, PFL works in cities such as Los Angeles, where residents might not have a veterinary clinic nearby or be able to take their animals on public transportation to get them to a distant practice. Although the challenges in Alaska’s Yukon- Kuskokwim Delta look a little different, and the scale is a little smaller (Napaskiak’s population is just 425), the end result is the same: Loving pet owners cannot access the services they need. It’s easy for outsiders to pass judgment, to say that people who can’t afford veterinary care shouldn’t keep pets. That they don’t love their animals. This misconception couldn’t be further from the truth, says Fitch, executive director of Alaska Native Rural Veterinary, a Fairbanks-based nonprofit that signed on with PFL as a mentorship partner. “If there are issues with animals, it’s 100 percent because of lack of services. They do the best with what they have,” she says. “The goal is to support people so they can keep the animals they do have.” Arrington, director of Pets for Life, agrees. She sees it everywhere PFL works, though the details— and the challenges—look a little different in Alaska.

Kids and their parents bring dogs of all sizes to the three clinics. Photo by Jason Schipkowski/The HSUS.

The three villages that will receive PFL services—Napaskiak, Napakiak and Kwethluk—are not on Alaska’s road system. In fact, there are few roads in this region. This is the arctic tundra. A deep layer of permafrost—mostly frozen organic matter—lies below the surface, thawing in the warm weather and creating a swampy layer of ground that would swallow roads. Instead, a warren of raised wooden platforms wends through the villages, making biking and four-wheeling more practical transit solutions.

In the towns that do have roads, most locals don’t use them. In nearby Bethel—located about 400 miles west of Anchorage and the hub of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta—locals mostly bike or take taxis because owning a car is prohibitively expensive. To reach the other villages, residents travel by boat or by bush plane, landing at the villages’ tiny air strips. Bethel has a population that hovers around 6,500—and, crucially, an airport. All supplies must be flown in to the region, making the town one of the state’s largest cargo hubs. Each day, the tiny Bethel airport teems with locals dragging huge plastic crates packed with non-perishable food: It can be cheaper to stock up when you visit Anchorage than to purchase your food in Bethel.

Given the difficulty of finding affordable food, it’s not surprising that finding affordable pet care is just as difficult—if not more so. For the 58 villages that comprise the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, the only available pet care is a visiting veterinarian in Bethel. In summer, villagers and their pets must travel by boat to the town; in winter, when the river freezes, they need a snowmobile or a truck outfitted with snow chains. In the shoulder seasons, when the river is not quite frozen and not quite running, they have to shell out for seats on a bush plane. (A 15-minute flight can cost $75 one-way.) In Bethel, they pay top dollar for services, simply because of the sheer cost of shipping in vet supplies.

  • In Napakiak, a dog and his owner wait for services in the sun. Photo by Kelly L. Williams/The HSUS.

In a region heavily populated by native Alaskans, many of whom are subsistence hunters, gatherers and fishers, spending hundreds of dollars for a spay or neuter surgery is hard to justify. And timing is tricky, too: The veterinarian visits Bethel just once a month and will soon be retiring.

Fitch’s group had been working alone to fill this gap in services in the region before they joined up with PFL as a mentorship partner. Although The HSUS has Pets for Life teams working in two core cities—Los Angeles and Philadelphia—the in-depth mentorship of local organizations ensures the program has a national reach. The mentorship groups use best practices honed in the two core cities, such as door-to-door relationship building, so they can become positive, long-term resources in their own communities. So in 2017, with funds to branch into Alaska, the PFL team started looking for a local partner. Eventually, they found Fitch and her organization. They just clicked. “We really liked the philosophical alignment with the group,” says Arrington. PFL’s mentorship will amplify and strengthen the local group’s work, bringing along those proven best practices—and much-needed financial support.

When Fitch helped found ANRV in 2011 to bring free veterinary services to rural communities in Alaska, she was driven in part by her own experiences. While growing up in the small town of Talkeetna, Fitch felt firsthand the effects of being far from a veterinarian. Talkeetna is on the road system, she says, “but we were 100 miles from the nearest city when I was a kid. And so I know what it’s like to have a dog that’s sick or injured and not have vet care.” Today, she is heavily involved with every clinic ANRV runs. “I coordinate, raise money, go on the trips,” she says. “I’m the pushy one that makes it happen.” She’s exactly the type of person the PFL mentorship can benefit, and her knowledge of the region and its people is invaluable as the PFL team plans their work. “I think we’re meant to be here,” says Fitch. “We’re meant to know each other.”

Angie Fitch, executive director of Alaska Native Rural Veterinary, vaccinates a pup while PFL’s Danny Burke assists. Photo by Kelly L. Williams/The HSUS.

The people

Before the team starts setting up in the bingo hall, Arrington and her group spend a good two hours walking through Napaskiak and meeting its residents. Arrington says that this door-to-door relationship building is her favorite part of the job. The team calls it “doing the work.” This work isn’t about the obvious physical components of the job; it’s not about giving dewormer pills or rabies vaccinations. It’s about making critical connections, knocking on doors and meeting the people they’re serving, when the team gets to explain that yes, the services are free, and no, they will not take anyone’s dog away. It’s about showing their faces, getting to know the community and building trust.

A small group of kids gathers around the team as soon as they emerge from the school. Riding on bikes and running ahead, the children are instantly curious about the visitors. The villages in the delta don’t get a lot of outside visitors, and the kids eagerly show off their community—and their dogs. One boy, Micah, is accompanied by Pooh, a stout black Lab mix wearing a string of faux pearls beside her collar. She trots alongside the expanding group as they go from door to door. The folks inside are politely curious, but understandably guarded. All the team can do is share their information and hope the residents turn out for the clinic.

  • Amanda Arrington, director of Pets for Life, meets villagers and their dogs the night before the Napaskiak clinic. Photo by Kelly L. Williams/The HSUS.

Arrington had visited the villages a few months back, and soon the team reaches a house she remembers. Here she met a preteen boy named James, his extended family and their dogs, and they instantly connected. “Going back a second time I was really looking forward to seeing them, in part because when I left the first time they made me promise that I would be coming back,” she says. When they spot one another, the recognition is immediate. James approaches with a shy smile, and soon he and his sister come up for hugs and photos. “To go back and to see them and to hear from them that they had been thinking about it and that they were expecting for us to return was a pretty special thing,” says Arrington.

Keeping promises to people in the communities where they work encapsulates the PFL approach. “That’s a tent pole of the program,” says Schipkowski, Pets for Life mentorship and training manager. “We do what we say and our word is our bond.”

This attitude helped convince Fitch that the Pets for Life mentorship could be a really good thing for the region. Fitch is fiercely protective of the native villages she serves, and she worried “about bringing people who might be racist or judgmental.” Outsiders who don’t understand the scope of the problem—the distance, the poverty, the simple inaccessibility of services—can make snap judgments about the people in these communities. “They face enough racism as it is,” she says. Villagers take full advantage of the resources they do have, but they bump up against logistical barriers. “And it’s not their fault.”

The payoff

On the morning of the Napaskiak clinic, the team is excited to get started. Fitch and the Pets for Life team have spent two months planning for these first three PFL clinics. They hired a local man to pilot the motorboat that would take them from village to village. They found three veterinarians to do the surgeries and three vet students to assist. They hauled pills and vaccines and blankets and collars and crates onto planes and into boats and onto four-wheelers. They invited Christian and Kessler, the two ASPCA staffers, to come along and observe the PFL team in action—and to pitch in during the clinics. And they did the work, going from door to door, meeting people and inviting them to bring their pets for free services. And now they are at Napaskiak’s bingo hall at 8 o’clock in the morning, to see whether the work pays off.

The bingo hall is locked.

As Fitch whips out her cell phone and calls a local contact, people start to show up. There’s no massive line, but there is a respectable group of adults and kids with their dogs milling outside the hall—including James, his sister and all their dogs.

  • In Napakiak, PFL's Danny Burke cuddles a pup during a rare moment of downtime. Photo by Jason Schipkowski/The HSUS.

Soon the doors are unlocked. Arrington’s team, Fitch, the vets and the ASPCA volunteers move into action mode. Burke and Schipkowski greet newcomers, explaining the available services and treatments and collecting details on intake forms. Fitch administers dewormer and rabies shots and keeps the veterinarians and vet students apprised of how many dogs are waiting. One veterinarian will prep anesthesia while another performs the surgeries; a third provides dental cleanings to some of the sleeping dogs. Eventually they find their groove, working in assembly-line fashion to treat as many animals as possible.

After surgery, the dogs lie on comfy blankets, their paws, tails and noses twitching as they come out of the fog. Occasionally, a lucky kid will get to sit with her own pup, coaxing him back into wakefulness. Afterward, another staffer provides the pet owners with discharge instructions, explaining that the incision site cannot get wet. The kids eagerly take colorful fleece blankets and nylon collars for their pets.

In all three villages, local children provide free publicity for the events. It’s summer vacation, and when a boat full of outsiders and giant plastic crates shows up, the kids inevitably greet the team with questions. In Napakiak, a pair of twin girls meets the boat, telling the team about their dogs and promising to bring them in. Mostly they’re excited, but they have sad stories, too—about dogs who got sick and had no recourse for treatment. The kids are eager to learn about spay/neuter surgeries and vaccinations—and about Dr. Laura Pfeifer, a veterinarian who performs the majority of surgeries with rapid precision over the bulge of her pregnant belly. She allows some time for questions and answers. At least one young girl is impressed, saying she’d never seen a woman do something like that while she was pregnant.

Taking it all in

These first three clinics are as much about information gathering as they are about providing services, says Arrington. Figuring out standard operating procedures for surgeries. Identifying the most efficient means of travel between villages. Getting to know the spaces they’ll be using for future clinics.

The team encounters challenges they’ve never faced in communities in the Lower 48. One especially chilly morning, their boat captain, Shawn, calls to say his boat is stuck in the mud and he can’t push it into the river. He doesn’t ask for help, but the team volunteers their collective muscle. They troop up the river, lugging the supplies meant for the day’s clinic in Kwethluk. Everyone wades into the water, pushing the boat until it comes loose with a sucking sound and a cheer.

All three days bring problems with electricity. In Napaskiak, a power line is down, and the veterinarians must improvise a new anesthesia protocol without the use of an electric oxygen machine. Something similar happens in Kwethluk, where the clinic is staged in a police station, and again the team comes up with a new protocol. When they arrive in Napakiak for the day, the electricity hasn’t yet been turned on. Fitch has to go to the village’s general store to pre-pay the bill before the lights come on. And in the middle of the day, an overhead light blows out suddenly, shooting out sparks and a whiff of ozone. Nobody is fazed. An electrician comes and gives them the OK to keep going.

  • PFL's Jason Schipkowski keeps an eye on Mighty in Napaskiak.. Photo by Kelly L. Williams/The HSUS.

No matter what happens, the PFL team carries on. They made a commitment to the community, and they will keep it—even when it involves extra manual labor. In Napaskiak, Burke spends much of the morning with Mighty, a huge shaggy black dog with “the wimpiest bark ever.” Yet the kids were scared of him, explains Burke, PFL senior program manager, so he monitors a leashed Mighty outside the bingo hall until it’s Mighty’s turn for surgery. Afterward, Burke and Schipkowski carry the massive dog—still a bit loopy from anesthesia— back to his home on the other side of the village.

The way forward

Over three days, the team performs 106 surgeries, administers 295 rabies and distemper shots and coaxes 176 dogs into taking dewormer pills. They buy out the entire stock of leashes and collars at a store in Bethel, giving them all away for free. They jot down contact information for clients they can’t serve, either because they’ve exhausted their supply of dewormer or because the veterinarians can’t fit in another surgery after the 12-hour days. They don’t see a cat until the final clinic, in Kwethluk; cats just aren’t common in the area. Everyone gives the kitty extra attention.

They treat large dogs and small, proud hounds and tiny Chihuahua mixes. During the Napakiak clinic, the veterinarians alter nine fluffy puppies, brought in by a woman and her kids because they know that nine puppies now can lead to a whole lot more puppies down the road. When the oldest boy, a teenager, says he’s interested in going into the veterinary field, Schipkowski demonstrates how to give dewormer pills. The boy helps deworm the wiggly puppies “like a champ,” says Schipkowski.

But, says Arrington, the clinics are only part of the work. They help familiarize villagers with the program, but they are only the start of creating real, lasting change. “The goal is to go several times a year until we get the population under control,” explains Fitch. “Then we can maintain it. We don’t just go in every so often.” Part of the work is introducing people to the upsides of spay/neuter surgery. Beyond the obvious benefit of reducing the population, male dogs may be less aggressive after surgery, while females are less prone to pyometra, a life-threatening uterine disease.

After the clinics, the Pets for Life team works with Fitch to hire an outreach coordinator based in Bethel. The coordinator will help organize clinics, working within the communities to provide services on a regular basis and serving as a point of contact for the villagers. Offering frequent spay/neuter and wellness services—both of which require licensed veterinarians—can be a challenge thanks to the area’s “extreme isolation,” says Schipkowski. But the team is determined to maintain a sustained approach. Eventually, as the population stabilizes, they can taper off the number of clinics and move into maintenance mode, offering less frequent spay/neuter surgeries. They’ll remain in the area, though, acting as a consistent and reliable resource. They’re in it for the long haul.

In Kwethluk, a woman waits her turn with a sleepy puppy. Photo by Jason Schipkowski/The HSUS.

At the tiny airport in Bethel, the hub from which everyone will fly to Anchorage and then back to their homes in the Lower 48, the team chats quietly, decompressing and sharing their thoughts on the week, when an older man approaches. He asks them if they’re teachers, a few of the dozens of educators who are brought in each year to work in Alaska’s remote communities. Burke says no and explains what they’re doing, about the free clinics and the more easily accessible pet services. The man listens, nodding. He says he lives 70 miles by plane—more than 100 by boat—from Napaskiak, but he asks the team to give him a call next time they’re doing services in the villages. He has a dog and he’d like her to be spayed. It’s worth the trip. It’s worth the work.

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