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Growing up in Portola Valley, California, Dr. Eric Davis lived in a household with lots of animals around—dogs, cats, sheep, cattle and birds. He learned to treat living things humanely, but acknowledges that “little boys will be little boys.” When he was five, he taped a “daddy long-legs” spider to the floor by its legs. His mother saw him, and pointed out that he was hurting the spider, which was just as alive as he was. “My parents started me down the road to working in animal protection,” Davis remembers, “by teaching me that all living things had value and feelings, and deserved kindness and respect.”
Davis became a veterinarian and an advocate for animal welfare and outreach. “Every animal deserves to be taken care of with the best quality care possible,” he maintains. Today, he’s the director of Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS), a program of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) that provides veterinary medical services and education to underserved rural communities in the United States and around the globe. In 2005, RAVS’ four full-time veterinarians, working with hundreds of volunteers—veterinarians, vet students, vet technicians and others—provided health care to more than 32,000 animals in 115 communities. Though the estimated value for aid rendered was in excess of $1.5 million dollars, communities receive RAVS’ services at no cost.
RAVS began in 1995 as the veterinary arm of Remote Area Medical (RAM) Volunteer Corps, a private medical aid group for people, headquartered in Knoxville, Tennessee. At the time, Davis was on the faculty at the University of Tennessee; his wife, Ila, also a veterinarian, was a graduate student in immunology. At RAM’s request, the couple agreed to set up a rabies vaccination clinic in Rosebud, South Dakota. They took some supplies and three volunteers with them, and the five-member team worked hard and treated the people and animals kindly and respectfully. Neighboring tribes heard about the program through word-of-mouth, and realized that their animals could also benefit from the sort of veterinary attention that Eric and Ila Davis and their associates were providing. The program steadily grew. Davis ran this animal-aid project as part of RAM until 2001, at which time the project affiliated with HSUS and became RAVS.
The organization primarily deals with companion animals, but also treats livestock, horses and, according to one vet, “whatever critter needs help.” Basic health care services for dogs and cats include spay/neuter surgery, vaccination programs and parasite treatment and control. The education component, which is designed for both adults and children, addresses disease prevention, humane pet care and dog-bite prevention.
RAVS teams visit countless rural communities and Native American reservations in the US, places such as Scott County in Appalachia and Turtle Mountain in North Dakota, which have little or no access to veterinary care. Internationally, expeditions travel to the Pacific and Caribbean islands and Central and Latin America, among other remote locations. Even Easter Island is on RAVS’ well-beaten path.
Clinics last between two days and two weeks. Some consist of a full-service mobile veterinary facility, complete with surgery suite, state-of-the-art equipment, and separate intake and recovery areas. Others are more makeshift, operating with limited personnel, water and electricity, instruments, and supplies. Regardless of the conditions, Davis maintains strict protocols regarding pain control, basic surgical principles and anesthesia. He insists on providing whatever is needed for each animal’s comfort. He credits Ila, “the smartest veterinarian in the world” in his words, for helping him maintain this focus. In every case, he poses the question, “Are we doing the best we can for the individual animal?”
“The biggest thing I’ve learned from Dr. Davis is the absolute value of the individual animal,” says Dr. Jennifer Scarlett, a veterinarian at a private clinic in San Francisco. In her eight years with RAVS, she’s traveled to Romania, Chile, Bolivia, Micronesia, the Bahamas, the Marshall Islands and Easter Island. It can be tempting to allow standards to slip, she admits, “but if it’s not good for the individual, it’s not good.” She explains that by setting the bar higher than just getting the job done, RAVS provides a great example to communities at home and in other countries. She loves helping people by improving the lives of their animals. “RAVS has been nothing but absolute joy for me,” she says.
The realities of busy field clinics—rustic living and working conditions, long hours, unfamiliar environments and cultures, limited resources, and unforeseeable challenges—are not for everyone. However, for some, these realities are what draw them to sign up for trip after trip. Lisa Toolen, a third-year student at California’s UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, is a five-time participant. “RAVS encompasses everything I love about veterinary medicine,” she observes. “Dr. Davis is a natural-born leader.” She pays what may be a student’s ultimate compliment to a teacher: “I know there will be situations throughout my career where I’ll hear his voice in the back of my head.”
The trips offer participants a mother lode of experience: performing physical examinations, administering medications, helping with anesthesia and surgery, communicating with clients. Some vet students claim that one RAVS trip gave them more practical surgical experience than four years of school. Davis hopes participants also gain a sense of altruism and an appreciation for the animal welfare problems that exist in the US and beyond. Three of the organization’s staff veterinarians started as RAVS student volunteers. Toolen, for one, says her RAVS experience has truly shaped her career goals; in the future, she hopes to concentrate on animal overpopulation.
Randolph Runs After is a tribal environmental health specialist on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in north–central South Dakota. About 14,000 tribal members and their animals live in this remote land, and the closest veterinary care is 40 miles away. RAVS has made annual trips to the reservation since 1997. “RAVS is one of our invaluable resources,” Runs After says. “It’s an integral piece of the puzzle for our animal efforts.” His own dog, Sissy, a Blue Heeler/Lab-mix, is a rescued RAVS dog
Davis has garnered accolades and recognition for his contributions to animal welfare from a variety of sources: the American Veterinary Medical Association, the Surgeon General, his peers and students. His home is filled with gifts of appreciation: porcupine quill earrings, a rattlesnake tail, beaded bracelets, ceremonial blankets, pieces of Mayan pottery. Yet some of his greatest rewards have been simple words of thanks.
He recounts an exchange with an “old, grizzled Chiklero” (someone who harvests chicle—a gum obtained from the latex of the sapodilla tree—in the jungle) after an equine clinic in northern Guatemala. His bony horse was the only thing this man had in the world, Davis remembers, and “he thanked me for treating his animal so kindly.” The man’s gratitude touched Davis. “This told me that the people really cared about their animals and that the clinic had given them an opportunity to recognize that.”
As RAVS heads into its 11th year, there are signs that it is bringing about long-term change. In some communities, returning vets report a decrease in dog bites and mange or an increase in animals as pets as opposed to semi-ferals. They revaccinate animals they had previously spayed and neutered. Local people seem to be responding to the educational resources and support as well. High school kids volunteer in the clinics and express an interest in public health and animal welfare issues. In some communities, groups have formed humane societies, brought in an animal control officer or started raising money for a shelter.
The Davises live in Salinas, California. Ila works as a veterinarian for Monterey County, and both teach at Hartnell Community College. They have their own sanctuary, which, according to Davis, is filled with “unadoptable dogs, unadoptable bunnies, unadoptable horses, an unadoptable ox, several unadoptable sheep, and numerous unadoptable chickens and ducks.” The similarities between his own animals and those he encounters on the road are not lost on Davis. In part, they fuel his tireless efforts and dedication. “I would not operate a clinic where I would not take my own animals.”