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Go Spay It on the Mountain

© Thomas R. Topinka
This kitten is one of the thousands of animals helped by Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS), a program of The Humane Society of the United States that brings spay/neuter services and medical care to pets in low-income communities.

Thanks to The HSUS’s Rural Area Veterinary Services, people with limited resources can get the help they need for their beloved pets

They start arriving at sunrise, men and women cradling nervous cats in their arms and coaxing reluctant dogs who lock their legs in resistance, their claws scraping across the linoleum. Some people clutch worn cat carriers rigged shut with makeshift fasteners, while others cart animals in homemade cages of various construction: a milk crate with a plywood top, a Rubbermaid container with its lid pierced for air, even a wire rabbit cage holding a confused litter of puppies crowded around an even more confused Siamese cat.

It’s a typical morning at a Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS) Appalachia Clinic, a program of The Humane Society of the United States that brings free veterinary care to poor and underserved communities.

When RAVS rolls into town, staff and volunteers transform a local community center, school, or vacant office building into a temporary clinic that spays and neuters more than 80 animals in one weekend. RAVS benefits from the services of volunteer veterinarians, technicians, and veterinary students from across the country. For the students, the clinics are an excellent opportunity to practice what they have learned in school (under the careful supervision of certified veterinarians). For the animals and their owners, the program is a source of good medical care and helpful information on topics such as disease prevention and pet behavior.

© Thomas R. Topinka
Volunteer veterinarians, technicians, and veterinary students travel from around the country to treat animals who are often receiving medical care for the first time.

RAVS clients apply for their pets’ appointments weeks or months in advance, providing paperwork to document financial need. On Saturday or Sunday morning, they wake up early and drive their pets to clinics that are often many miles from home. If they don’t own a pet taxi or a leash, they make one from materials they have on hand—or carry their animals in their arms.

At the intake desk, local volunteers check pets’ appointments on a list of scheduled sterilizations and dozens of “standbys.” Pen in hand, they question clients about their pets’ ages, health, and vaccination histories. Most often, the animals have never seen a veterinarian.

As teams of two veterinary students take each animal for his initial health assessment, people whisper to their pets—telling them not to worry, assuring them that they’ll be going home soon, encouraging them to “be good,” or offering a tearful “Mama loves you.”

A RAVS clinic reflects the fact that, rich or poor, most people feel the same love for their pets. Take Marty, for instance. A middle-aged woman who had lost her health insurance, Marty was suffering from cancer when she signed her dog up for a Tennessee RAVS clinic in August 2005. Before the event, Marty told her friend Fran that she would be able to die in peace knowing that her beloved Jack Russell terrier mix, “Miss Lily O’Reilly”—a dog who accompanied her to chemotherapy sessions and slept on her pillow each night—would be spayed. “Men don’t watch ladies the way they should,” she said, “and I’m worried that my husband will let her outside, she’ll go into heat, and some big dog will get her and hurt her.” Though too weak to leave the car, Marty accompanied Fran to bring Miss Lily home after her spay surgery.

Or Mr. Horton, a man in his late 70s who had taken in a stray, red female mixed breed dog who’d “come down off the mountain” the winter before the clinic; though living on a fixed income, he felt obliged to take in “Red” and care for her as best he could.

© Thomas R. Topinka
RAVS has been known to roll into towns where animal shelters and veterinary offices are nonexistent. In one county, the local women’s club hosts the RAVS clinic.

Or Ms. Richards, who’d nursed her cat Sylvester when he’d had his toes cut off by a neighbor’s steeljaw leghold trap set to catch “polecats.” Or Ms. Evans, who walked through the clinic door holding a cat in a cardboard carrier, a puppy, and a six-week-old baby. At 56, Ms. Evans was receiving state support and had suddenly found herself raising the crack-addicted daughter of a great-niece who suffers from drug addiction.

These are just a few of the thousands of RAVS faces. And while people’s love for their pets may be the same regardless of extenuating circumstance, access to resources and information is not. Pet owners in rural areas are often unable to afford or even find the level of care provided to people and animals in better-served communities.

© Thomas R. Topinka
The author, Jen Hobgood (right), provides clients with behavior advice, pet care tips, post-surgical care guidance, and emotional support.

At a recent clinic, a client wept uncontrollably while telling me the horrifying story of how she’d had to kill her own pets following their exposure to a rabid skunk. After fighting with her dog, the skunk had emerged from her front porch with a kitten in his mouth—at which point the woman shot the skunk in the head, leaving no possibility of a rabies test. Knowing that her unvaccinated dog and cat—and all of their puppies and kittens— were now a possible danger to her children, she tried to have them euthanized. But the local shelter and veterinary clinics charged a per-animal fee for euthanasia that she could not afford. The woman was forced to send her children away for the weekend while she and her husband shot all the animals to death one by one and buried them in the yard.

I came to know this woman after she brought in two pets on the first day of our clinic and then brought food for volunteers the next day to thank us for helping her animals. “Money, I don’t have,” she told us. “Food, I have to share.”

Not only are family incomes lower than average in many of the counties RAVS serves, but animal services are often limited or nonexistent. Hancock County, Tennessee, for instance, has no animal control, animal shelter, humane group, or veterinarian; the RAVS clinic is hosted by the Sneedville Women’s Club.

© Thomas R. Topinka
To participate in RAVS, pet owners schedule an appointment in advance and fill out paperwork that documents financial need.

As program coordinator for The HSUS’s Southeast Regional Office, I provide humane education services at Appalachian RAVS clinics in our region. At each clinic, I converse with clients, share the unique and funny things their animal companions do, offer advice on pet care, suggest techniques for solving behavioral issues, and explain the intricacies of surgical after-care. While the veterinarians and students work to ensure the animal’s physical well-being, I strive to make each animal’s day-to-day existence a bit more comfortable by providing our clients with helpful information.

RAVS brings sterilization surgeries, veterinary care, and humane education to the areas and people who need it most, with the goal of alleviating the suffering caused by the companion animal overpopulation problem—a problem exacerbated in many rural areas by low family incomes and a lack of services. I’m proud to be able to contribute to a program that leaves each community a little more humane and safe—and a little less likely to produce so many animals.

Based near Knoxville, Tennessee, RAVS Appalachia is coordinated by Tammy Rouse. In addition to conducting clinics in the Appalachian region, RAVS operates in Native American Nations and around the globe. For more information, visit


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