A RAVS Professional Volunteer Reflects on Her Experience in San Carlos

April 11, 2012

By Shari Lowen, RVT, MSW

In March 2012, I had the opportunity to be part of a Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) clinic on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona. I wanted to volunteer my time with RAVS because I felt that the program’s mission and services fit well with my personal beliefs and career goals. My position as Senior Services Coordinator at the Sacramento SPCA puts me in contact with individuals who have heartbreaking stories about their inability to pay for the veterinary needs of their companion animals. Furthermore, I am no stranger to the plight of the disenfranchised as a result of my social work background. However, none of these experiences prepared me for the emotional impact of being part of a RAVS team.

Although I have visited a few reservations as a tourist, San Carlos was my first glimpse into the reality of reservation life. I read on the U.S. Census Bureau website that close to 60% of the population on the San Carlos Reservation is living below the poverty level, with a median household income of $13,4121. Their lack of resources was evident as we drove into town: run-down houses, mobile homes, and vehicles; trash littering the ground; a lack of commercial establishments; and a population of domestic animals with a high prevalence of disease roaming freely throughout the community.

When we arrived at the first clinic site, I got to see first-hand that RAVS has perfected the art of transforming a U-Haul trailer into a traveling veterinary clinic through organization and efficient teamwork. At both clinic locations, dozens of coded containers full of veterinary equipment and supplies were unloaded by our team of 30 people to create fully-stocked examination tables, a diagnostics lab, a pharmacy and a quarantined treatment area.

On clinic days, clients started lining up before 5:30 a.m. Community members arrived with up to a dozen dogs in the back of a truck or packed into a sedan. Teams of veterinary students, working with experienced veterinarians and veterinary technicians, made their way through the parking lot to examine and treat the hundreds of animals awaiting our attention.

Sick puppy treated at San Carlos 2012 clinic
Ahne Simonsen, DVM (center left) and Liz Salan, CVT (center right) with two of the three Sippie sisters who brought their sick puppies in for treatment.
Shari Lowen

The focus of our services was "wellness," which included physical exams, vaccinations, de-worming and treatment for external parasites, but we also saw some sobering cases of generalized sarcoptic mange, canine parvoviral enteritis, canine distemper, and tick-borne diseases, like canine ehrlichiosis and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. It was clear from the client history sheets that the vast majority of the animals we examined had never been treated by a veterinarian before. Initially, I was frustrated by the apparent neglect for their pets’ health, even though on any given work day at the Sacramento SPCA I see surrendered animals in equal, if not worse shape, than the pets I examined in the San Carlos community. My attitude changed though, when I realized that the closest veterinary clinic to San Carlos is an hour away and it was evident that many of our clients lacked the resources to pay for veterinary services. I know that the availability of veterinary care does not guarantee that people will take advantage of the services, however, our clients were not only grateful for our services but, in some cases, even waited hours for their turn. The bottom line is, a lack of veterinary resources is to blame for the condition of many of the San Carlos pets, not a lack of caring.

Basic pet care education is also lacking in San Carlos. The RAVS treatment teams worked hard to educate community members on basic animal care principles. One client told a RAVS volunteer that she fed her puppy table scraps for meals because she did not know that she could buy dog kibble at the grocery store. After discussing appropriate pet nutrition with her RAVS treatment team, the client returned the next day to show the volunteer the bag of dog food that she had purchased. It was uplifting to see education in action.

Very few of the dogs that we examined lived indoors. According to a recent survey, up to 70% of dogs in the community regularly roam free. In deciding to apply for a RAVS trip, I had to put aside my preference for animals to live indoors. I also recognized that I would have to accept the role of a "rez dog." Some time on the first day, I was aware that I was not having any of my anticipated emotional difficulties. Even though "'[rez] dogs' are altogether different creatures from the pampered pets that occupy the homes of mainstream middle America", they have a freedom that many dogs don’t get to experience2. Plus, a rez dog doesn’t know that their urban and suburban cousins sleep with their humans and go to dog parks! It felt rewarding to be a part of the RAVS team, whose services were helping the dogs of San Carlos to lead happier, healthier lives.

Shari Lowen
Shari Lowen, RVT, MSW

I count participating in a RAVS clinic as one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. Not only did I have the opportunity to help bring veterinary services to a medically-underserved area while working with a team of incredibly dedicated veterinary professionals and students, but I also gained a new perspective on my work back home. It has always been emotionally draining for me to go into the kennels and visit with the animals that are up for adoption. After San Carlos, I feel good to be able to provide shelter, food, and medical care for these animals.

I look forward to applying for my next trip.


  1. United States Census Bureau, 2000 Census.
  2. "Rez Vignettes: The Good Life of a Reservation Dog", Mary Annette Pember, http://www.dailyyonder.com/rez-vignettes-good-life-reservation-dog.