Veterinary teams serve pets and people of the Lakota tribe
Along the southern end of the Badlands in South Dakota sits the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation. As the eighth-largest reservation in the United States, it occupies 3,468 square miles. This place, where Kevin Costner starred in the movie Dances with Wolves, is also among the poorest counties in the United States. Not a single veterinary clinic calls this place home.
That’s where the Lakota Animal Care Project, a 501(c)(3) community-based nonprofit organization, steps in. Relying on mostly volunteer veterinary professionals and community members, the project serves as a mobile veterinary clinic that sets up in churches, gyms and schools around the reservation.
Nora Kleps, DVM, a mixed-animal veterinarian from Long Island, New York, felt called to volunteer her services when she read about the Lakota Animal Care Project in the February 2014 issue of dvm360 magazine (Veterinarians, techs invited to Pine Ridge Reservation). “I’ve always wanted to donate my services on a trip, and I wanted to stay within the United States,” she says. “When I read about the Lakota project, I immediately called for more information, and I knew it was the trip for me.”
Kleps has more than 20 years’ experience in mixed-animal practice, and now owns Hooves, Paws, and Claws, a mobile house call practice. Flexibility in her job schedule gave her a chance to get away and to experience a different way of doing medicine.
“Coming from a densely populated New York suburb, I was struck by the peaceful expanse of land on and around the reservation,” Kleps says. “The area is so different from where I live and practice." After flying into Rapid City, South Dakota, Kleps drove another two hours to reach one of the two motels available on the reservation. All volunteers pay their own travel expenses.
For the next three days, she joined forces with another doctor and a technician to spay and neuter more than 60 dogs and eight cats. Kleps says the clinic was unlike anything she had seen before.
“All of the equipment, from gauze to surgery tables to anesthesia machines, is transported from location to location in two trailers,” she says. “I brought my own preanesthetic medication and suture material, while volunteers set up the equipment in a school gym.”
Kleps had hoped to interact more with the Lakota people, but found that volunteers transport all the animals to the clinic and back again. Very few of the Lakota residents actually made the trip in to see the clinic. “Many of the Lakota people don’t have a way to get to the clinic or are homebound,” she says. “It’s easier for a volunteer to bring their pets to us.”
This strategy gave the doctor and technician more time to do what they do best—care for the animals. Meshing several personalities—total strangers—together in an intense three-day clinic has the makings for disaster written all over it. But most remarkably, Kleps says she and the team worked together beautifully. “For strangers to meet for the first time and work in the same rhythm and flow as each other was extraordinary,” she says. “We made our own rules in an unfamiliar working environment, setting up our own system and protocol. I’ve worked with people in clinics for years that didn’t mesh as well as this crew did.”
The Lakota Animal Care Project takes place twice a month, and its organizers are always looking for more volunteers to care for pets and improve the quality of animal life on the reservation. The physical pay is nonexistent. In fact, volunteers pay their own way for the opportunity to serve.
“We did receive small gifts from the few residents who came to the clinic,” Kleps says. “But the biggest gift was being able to help. And learning that there is a commonality with everyone, no matter where you work. Be it a big city or not, wealthy or not, people love their pets. And we love helping them live healthier lives.”