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Nonprofit group brings animal clinic to tribes

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By Ben Swan
Santa Fe, New Mexico (AP) May 2010

 (AP/The Santa Fe New Mexican,
Ben Swan) Veterinary student
Meghan McIntosh gives a puppy a
shot while Ruth Colding holds
Two brown dogs lounge in the shade of a Honda Element as a group of veterinarians and support staff set up shop at Cochiti Pueblo. Other dogs wander casually in and out of the group, some looking for attention in the form of a pat on the back, while one or two merely stand in the distance, curious about the new sights and sounds in the peaceful pueblo.

Inside the Santa Fe Animal Shelter & Humane Society’s mobile spay unit, Heather Nueman, a vet tech student, preps a large black-and-tan dog for surgery as veterinarian John Moffa carefully watches her clean the dog.

“How many pads are you going to use?” Moffa asks, a hint of mischievousness in his voice.

“Um, three?” Nueman replies, wiping the freshly shaved area with sterilizing pads. “We always use three..."
Moffa interrupts: “Until it’s clean,” he smiles. “It’s a trick question.”

Outside the van, veterinarians Eric Chafetz and Terry Fitzgerald, along with other helpers, are creating a makeshift surgery table in the pueblo’s storage building. It’s been relatively slow, but the group is expecting a steady rush as word spreads about free veterinary services.

What started nine years ago with three veterinarians volunteering in the underserved Navajo Nation has blossomed to twice yearly trips with as many as 40 veterinary health practitioners. The volunteers, almost all from Pennsylvania, sign up for one- or two-week stints, said Ted Robinson, the veterinarian who formed the group.

This is the second year the nonprofit Native American Veterinary Services, a division of the Pennsylvania Veterinary Foundation, has included Cochiti Pueblo in its itinerary.

“All the volunteers, and especially the veterinarians, are successful veterinarians who feel like they want to give back,” Robinson said. “We feel that over the decades and centuries, Native Americans have gotten the raw end of the stick, and we should help people here in the U.S before we go to other parts of the world.”


Robinson hit upon the idea of offering veterinary services on Indian lands at a fundraiser for Americans for Native Americans, a Pennsylvania-based group that provides essential goods and programs to improve the quality of life for Native Americans. At the event, Robinson said he learned that veterinary care was almost nonexistent on the Navajo reservation. He considered what he could do and then offered to form a volunteer team.

The first visit was so successful that the group was asked to return. The treks were eventually expanded to include the Papago Indian Reservation in southern Arizona. The group has now turned its attention to other reservations, including the Zuni and Hopi tribes.

It took some time for the group, which has since grown to include veterinary technicians and students, to be accepted on the reservations. But when the people understood the group had no ulterior motive, it was welcomed.

“Once it was established that we were only there to help the animals and the people, we became family,” Robinson said. “We have ongoing relationships. I’m meeting Zuni counsel to hopefully put up a permanent facility. Once we leave, they have nothing.”

While volunteers normally work in makeshift rooms and on site, having the Santa Fe animal shelter’s mobile clinic has been a comfortable addition. It’s the first year the shelter has freed up the mobile spay and neuter van for the group.

Mary Martin, the shelter’s executive director, said she was happy to help Robinson and Cochiti. Many reservation dogs end up in the shelter, she said, so it’s a win-win for everyone.

Controlling the pueblo’s feral animal population is critical, Robinson said.

“They had that problem in Zuni, and still do,” Robinson said. “We’ve been there five years, and it’s cut down tremendously. The other problem is the dogs don’t get vaccinated in time and a lot are dying from parvo and distemper.”

People in Cochiti are receptive to the program, said Calvin Suina, the pueblo’s health and human services director. About 100 animals were altered in the two visits last year. This year he hopes for more.

“We have a lot of rez dogs, stray dogs that roam the reservations, and that’s a problem,” he said. “Some are dangerous to cats and livestock, and we thought, it’s a free service and people around here don’t have the money for those services, so what better way?”

Crews have rounded up several “puppy makers” for sterilization, Suina said, which has made a difference. Educating people about healthy animals is equally important.

“Sometimes if your pets aren’t healthy, it poses a risk to the rest of your family,” he said. “We’re trying to make people aware of that.”

Carolyn Fletcher, a veterinarian who practices at an Albuquerque clinic but lives at Cochiti Lake, helped coordinate the local effort. She had heard of the need for veterinary services on reservations even before she moved to the area five years ago, she said, and happened to read about Robinson’s program.

She had considered starting her own program, but changed her mind when Robinson said he was interested in helping.

“The closest (veterinary) practice is Santa Fe or Albuquerque,” she said, “and a lot of people don’t have the transportation or means to go to those places with their pets. So we can at least provide some basic services, which is really exciting.”

Animals are sacred to most of the tribes the group works with, Robinson said. The Zuni, for example, carve fetishes and use them as a conduit from humans to their god. Prayers to various animals are an important ritual on hunting expeditions.

“Animals play an important role in their spirituality,” Robinson said, noting that the volunteers usually have guides and lectures during the visits to learn more about the culture. “The Hopi, for example, use every part of the animal and pray for the animal’s soul.”

The group’s work is funded in part by Americans for Native Americans and the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association. Robinson has also received grants from PetSmart Charities, along with donations from various veterinary drug and vaccine companies.

The economic downturn cut into fundraising, Robinson said, although the group still received donations from the same organizations, just not as much. While the volunteers all pay for transportation and room and board, the Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Association supports two University of Pennsylvania students. This year, two Cornell Veterinary School students are among the volunteers.

An additional goal of the visits is to nurture interest in veterinary medical practice among the reservations’ inhabitants. This year in Zuni, a handful of students have been selected to observe and help the volunteers.

“If a student really wants to go on, we will help out with tuition,” Robinson said.

Many of the volunteers at Cochiti said they enjoy the cultural exchange, along with sharing their love of animal welfare. Veterinarian technician student Ruth Codling said the hands-on experience is invaluable.

“We all leave with a sense of satisfaction that we’ve accomplished something,” Robinson said. “The students and technicians all say it’s a life-changing experience. You go home and you feel like you’ve done something good.”

While the twice-yearly visits merely scratch the surface, Fletcher, the local veterinarian, said it’s an important start.

“People here love their pets and want to take care of them,” she said. “But sometimes it’s just a matter of having the resources and the ability to do that ... and the education. So that’s what we’re trying to help with.”