Where Reservations Need You
Outside groups partner with tribal members to bring veterinary care to underserved community
by Jim Baker
Life is hard for people on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in Arizona, and it’s tough for their animals, too.
There’s a high rate of canine infectious disease, such as parvovirus and distemper, and there are occasional human deaths due to Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a zoonotic, tick-borne illness. Pet overpopulation is rampant, because residents lack both the ability to pay for spay/neuter surgery as well as access to the services.
“The only service [on the reservation] is the picking up of dead animals that are hit by cars, and that’s because of transportation laws by the state and the federal government,” says Kathleen Norton, former board president and a volunteer at the Humane Society of the White Mountains in Lakeside.
Many of the roughly 15,000 residents are poor and unemployed, and many live in communities located a lengthy drive from a veterinary clinic or animal shelter. An average trip for veterinary care is a one-hour drive each way, and a typical household has one vehicle that’s shared by five or more family members. Insurance coverage is spotty, and travel is burdensome, Norton says.
The shelter and the tribe have been trying to improve the quality of life for animals on the 2,600-square-mile reservation, working for the past eight years with the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association-Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) at annual, weeklong clinics where owned pets are spayed or neutered, diagnosed and treated for illnesses or injuries, and receive wellness care at no cost to tribal members.
The collaboration has attracted the attention of other Arizona shelters that also want to extend essential veterinary services onto tribal lands near their communities.
The relationship between the Humane Society of the White Mountains and HSVMA-RAVS is unusual, according to Windi Wojdak, director of the nonprofit veterinary outreach program, which brings free services to rural communities where poverty and geographic isolation make regular veterinary care inaccessible. “There are very few shelters that are making that bridge and going into the reservation communities. Even if they’re relatively close by, there’s usually a pretty big gap there, and so it’s really exciting to have them doing work in collaboration with the tribal communities,” says Wojdak.
HSVMA-RAVS held its first clinic at the reservation in 2003, and the organization has returned every year since, with a team of staff and volunteer veterinary professionals, plus about 30 veterinary students from schools around the country. The clinic typically sees 600-650 animals each trip.
Pet Allies, a rescue group with a low-cost, spay/neuter clinic in Show Low, paved the way for the HSVMA-RAVS clinics, according to RJ Owens, the group’s director. With the tribe’s help, Pet Allies found suitable locations for the clinics, fed the staff and volunteers, and provided veterinary supplies.
Owens says her group kept turning to Norton as an intermediary between the tribe and Pet Allies, since Norton knew the right people to talk to, and how to get permission to help support the RAVS clinics on tribal lands. In addition to her ties to the humane society, Norton is a faculty member for the Johns Hopkins Center for American Indian Health, where she is field director for the center’s offices on several reservations.
Now, Norton and her shelter work with the White Mountain Apache tribal administration to find suitable locations for the clinics—the one in March was held in a school gymnasium—and get supplies when they run short.
Christine Holden, treasurer of the shelter’s board and a White Mountain Apache tribal member, is a key contact between the humane society and the tribe. She communicates with the tribal council to get approval for any shelter activities on its lands.
“I’ve never been around people who are so dedicated to serving animals and protecting them,” Holden says of the humane society’s board and staff. “I love that they’re really open to partnering with the tribe.”
This year, about two weeks before the RAVS clinic, Pet Allies and the shelter organized their own vaccine clinic for pets on White Mountain Apache tribal lands.
Many of the patients seen by the clinic are sick and not ready for spay/neuter, so the advance preparation with vaccine work is helpful—a way to begin shifting the health status of more animals in the community, Wojdak says.
Angelina Reid, a Navajo tribal member who lives on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, is among those who brought pets to the latest RAVS clinic. She first took her cat Mila to be spayed, and she was so pleased that she returned the following Saturday to have her German shepherd Oso and Lhasa apso Chewy vaccinated for rabies and distemper.
A veterinary student who was examining Chewy felt a lump on his abdomen, and asked a RAVS veterinarian to look at it. It turned out that the dog had a hernia that had gone undetected, and Reid subsequently got him scheduled for surgery at Pet Allies. “They knew what they were doing,” Reid says of the RAVS clinic staff and volunteers. “If they hadn’t spotted that [hernia], I wouldn’t have seen it either, and who knows what would have happened to my dog?”
Dr. Meredith Beard, owner of Sunrise Small Animal Mobile Vet in Show Low, often provides follow-up treatment for clients referred by RAVS. One dog she treated was a Rottweiler mix named Ryder; at the clinic for vaccination and neutering, Ryder was diagnosed with transmissible venereal tumor, and his owner was referred to Beard for follow-up care. Since then, the dog has gotten better, and Ryder’s owner has made an appointment to bring in another dog for vaccinations and other treatment.
Beard is happy to help pet owners get their animals appropriate care. “Especially when you know that that treatment, one injection once a week or every couple of weeks, for a few times, is going to take care of a situation like that,” she says.
At the RAVS clinic in March, the 40-member team of 12 veterinary professionals and 28 veterinary students from six universities treated 523 animals, according to Wojdak.
This year, Kat Knauff, animal services manager at the Humane Society of Central Arizona in Payson, drove up to see the clinic in action. She had told them spay/neuter was a big passion of hers, and “they were like, ‘You should definitely come to the RAVS clinic, because you’re going to just be really impressed,’ and they were right,” Knauff says. “For the amount of services they were offering at no cost, it was phenomenal, and the staff was so nice.” Knauff says she’d like to invite an organization like HSVMA-RAVS to come to her community, and help it offer similar veterinary services on Tonto Apache tribal lands near Payson.
Norton hopes the support that her shelter and Pet Allies offer to RAVS clinics can serve as a model for other animal welfare organizations that want to bring basic veterinary care to pets on tribal lands. “When I visited [the Humane Society of Central Arizona], and I told them we have lines of hundreds of people waiting before the doors open in the morning, I think they just wanted to come and make sure I was telling the truth,” she says, laughing. “But it is the truth, and we’re really thrilled.”
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