A number of U.S. medical groups send volunteer doctors and specialists around the world to treat victims of famine, war, or poverty. The twist in this next story is that all the patients being treated are furry. Volunteer veterinarians and vet students are going to some of the poorest and most remote corners of the world with scalpel and clamps in hand.
We catch up with the traveling vet clinic at a coastal Indian reservation in Washington State. The first thing that hits you is the noise, an unceasing chorus of barking dogs waiting their turn on the operating table.
Then the eye takes in the small army dressed in blue or green surgical scrubs. Paul Bruce shows off the set-up. "We have six surgical suites going. We have a huge anesthetic area. We have a full pharmacy and lab."
Bruce helped transform this tribal community center into a temporary pet hospital. He's with the Humane Society of the United States, which sponsors the Rural Area Veterinary Services team. Every year, RAVS visits more than 80 underserved communities, from island nations in the Pacific and Caribbean, to Latin American villages, to impoverished U.S. communities and Native American reservations like this one, the Quinault Indian reservation on the Washington Coast.
Tribal resident Melissa Underwood arrives with a beautiful 2-year-old Husky mix. The dog's name is Kodiak. "He's coming in to get fixed so he doesn't run out and make a bunch of pups," she says. "There are a lot of stray dogs around here and I don't want to contribute to that."
The mobile clinic will do the surgery and everything else today for free. That's important, because many pet owners can't afford to vaccinate their animals against rabies and other diseases, or pay for the operation to keep their pets from breeding. Underwood says her veterinarian would charge her around $300 to do the surgery, and she doesn't have the money for that.
California veterinarian Eric Davis founded the traveling clinic. He says the idea for using a rotating cast of volunteers came 12 years ago. It was inspired by a rabies control mission to a poverty-stricken South Dakota Indian reservation. "It's difficult to get veterinarians in this day and age to work in rural communities," he points out. "I can tell you it is a life-consuming rat race. It is not a job. It is a lifestyle." And indeed, there's no resident vet on the Quinault Reservation. Nor is there one on the Colville Indian Reservation where Davis led the team the week before.
The free clinic has traveled all the way to Easter Island in the south Pacific for the same reason. Upcoming missions include Mexico and return visits to poor Appalachian counties in the eastern United States. "We make a definite effort to go to places where nobody else will or can go," Davis says, adding that helping animals in need makes the wider community safer. "On a very basic public health level, we're getting an awful lot of dogs vaccinated for rabies that may not otherwise be vaccinated and that's a public health issue."
The Quinault Nation's animal control officer says he's observed a steep drop in the number of feral dogs and cats and unwanted litters since the veterinary MASH unit started making annual visits. The Nez Perce tribe in Idaho reports similar results.
More than 40 volunteers from all over the country are helping the handful of professional vets this day. Most are from veterinary schools, like 3rd-year University of California-Davis student Elizabeth Bukowski. "In the last day or two, I did my first surgeries ever," she marvels. "I got to spay a dog and neuter a cat and neuter a dog also yesterday. And today I'm helping out with anesthesia."
Another vet student heads over to the makeshift waiting room, where cat lover Mary Hart sits, surrounded by pet carriers. She gives him two pregnant cats to prep for surgery, the last of the 16 cats she's brought in. They're just a handful of the more than 20,000 animals the vets of RAVS will treat this year.