A passionate veterinarian and several motivated veterinary students at the University of Minnesota wanted to connect pet owners living on under-served Indian reservations with veterinary care. Their first clinic in August, 2009 served 74 patients on the Leech Lake Reservation with tests, vaccinations, de-worming and general exams and reached even more pet owners with animal care education.
Now, the organization’s 71 student members help approximately 1,000 pets hosting three clinics each year on one of the area reservations in northern Minnesota. A grant from Banfield Charitable Trust helped offset costs for a clinic on March 9-13.
“The chance to make a difference in the lives of a community and their animals while providing a novel educational experience to our veterinary students inspires me,” said faculty adviser Dr. Larissa Minicucci. “Seeing the active learning and witnessing improved animal health keeps my motivation high.”
Here, Dr. Minicucci and her students talk about how this project benefits them as much as it benefits the native communities they serve.
What motivates you or inspires you to be involved in a program like this?
Student Sara Losinski: “Participation within this program not only enables me to give back to communities in need by providing them with much needed veterinary care, but it also generates opportunities for hands-on learning experiences vital to the future of my career.”
Student Brendan Frost: “Not only is it an opportunity to learn, expand my skills, and build relationships, but it is an excellent chance to serve a community that has very little in the way of veterinary care. I can serve both the pets and the people of the community by working with them.”
How would you describe the feeling at these clinics?
Student Kate Simantz: I have been continually impressed by how my colleagues focus on creating a positive, rewarding experience for clients as they try to serve as many of their veterinary needs as possible. The students and veterinarians that I have worked with have taught me how important it is to give back to communities in need while providing professional, outstanding patient care.
Student Brendan Frost: The owners are very grateful for the work that we do, and they are also very interested in the knowledge and experience that we can share with them. On the part of the students, there is a lot of excitement at being able to apply what we know, and to learn from and teach our classmates.
Dr. Minicucci: I think for me there is a feeling of amazement to watch a group of students come together to assemble a working clinic in a gym within a matter of hours. The group works non-stop until all animals have been seen. It is the kind of tired that should make you want to sleep for three days, but rather you get up the next morning excited to do it all over again! From a client perspective, there is always extreme gratitude. Even when there is a line, individuals are willing to wait for hours to be seen. That speaks to an immense love and concern for their animals. For students to see that type of bond is incredibly valuable.
What are some of the benefits to the native population beyond the obvious veterinary care?
Student Brendan Frost: One of the biggest ones is the knowledge that we, both student and veterinarian, bring to the clinic. The owners that I worked with were very excited to share their pet’s stories and get any input or advice they could.
Dr. Minicucci: In discussions with our tribal liaison at White Earth, we have learned that preventive care for animals is increasing in demand as a result of our visits, and she is frequently contacted about when the next clinic will occur. She said that a sense of community responsibility is growing and people feel good about coming to our clinics.
Can you describe what some of the cultural differences that you and your team are sensitive to going into the native community?
Brendan Frost: We need to be aware of the differences in pet ownership mentality. While people care about their pets very deeply, their sense of the animal’s purpose or job, worth, and physical needs can be very different from what is more common in urban areas. We need to be aware and respectful of this difference, regardless of our background.
Dr. Minicucci: We encourage our students to approach the client encounter holistically, to learn from everything the client brings to the meeting. That includes expanding history questions to include beliefs about illness and home or traditional remedies that have been tried. While the treatments may be non-traditional, the students need to understand why certain methods are used and work to provide additional suggestions if necessary, all while maintaining respect and professionalism.”
The students have also been fortunate to be able to spend time with community members and elders during our clinics. The communities come together to provide meals for us, often making some traditional dishes. The chance to speak to an elder about the community and the various roles animals play, both in terms of tradition, spirituality, and companionship is so unique and valuable. We have even been fortunate enough to be part of a blessing of the animals prior to one of our clinics at Leech Lake.