Driving through her neighborhood on the Red Lake Reservation, Betty Hanson saw something unexpected in an open field on the side of the road. But when she learned it was a vet clinic, Hanson hurried home, loaded up her pets and headed back.
On that sweltering afternoon in the Back of Town area of the reservation, shielded from the sun by pop-up canopy tents, an all-star nonprofit group of animal care organizations was offering free vaccinations and wellness checks to pets.
While each organization has cared for the animals of Red Lake in the past, this was the first time in the tribe’s history that a weeklong pet clinic was held with six groups at once. It was a typhoon of relief for pet owners experiencing a health care drought.
This was also a possible first step in creating an affordable and accessible infrastructure all residents can benefit from. Another purpose for the event was to help bridge the cultural divide surrounding what pet care and ownership looks like on the reservation because to outsiders it can be complicated to understand.
Just because an animal is outdoors doesn’t mean it’s not loved and cared for or doesn’t have a home. It’s common for the animals of Red Lake to adopt families instead of the other way around. While off the reservation these animals would be considered stray or feral, here they’re family.
Hanson returned to the clinic minutes later with her two dogs and cat. Although the big dogs were in an unfamiliar environment, they bounded around the mobile setup giving everyone an introductory sniff.
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“I was so happy that they came out to the field to us, to the community, whereas I can’t get out to the rescue,” Hanson said. “I was happy that they’re here because look at all the animals that are out, and these are animals that wouldn’t have got any care if the clinic wasn’t here today.”
Hanson used the moment as a teaching tool, bringing her granddaughter along for the experience.
“They’re part of our family, we cry for them when they hurt,” she said.
Alyssa Beaulieu’s two dogs were treated at the pet clinic. She acts as an animal foster parent on the reservation and sometimes teams with the tribe’s own nonprofit, Awesiinyag (Animals) are Loved, when it needs help. Beaulieu said her stepmother taught her at an early age to honor and respect animals.
“I always remember her saying animals aren’t gifts, dogs aren’t gifts and that happens around here a lot,” she said. “Someone thinks it’s a good idea to bring a little 3-year-old a puppy or a cat for their birthday when, in reality, they can’t take care of them.”
When Beaulieu learned about the clinic through Facebook she was elated. Unlike Hanson’s rambunctious duo, Beaulieu’s dogs chose to hang out in the shade of one of the tents.
“It’s awesome that people are able to organize this because growing up it was sad, you’d go to the dumps and there’d be like a litter of kittens or a little box of puppies,” she said. “Growing up and seeing that, it’s amazing to see how it is now and this encourages people to take care of their animals a lot more now, like they have more of a bond with their animals.”
The field clinic was operated on a walk-up, first-come, first-served basis. Pet owners checking in filled out forms with their pet’s name and overall health information. The sheet was handed off to Secondhand Hounds’ Kate Sobraske, who tracked the veterinarian’s wait list, as well as care received.
Meanwhile, Companions and Animals for Reform and Equity (CARE) and Awesiinyag are Loved distributed pet supplies to families.
“There’s a lot of wonderful animals that we’ve been seeing. Some of them have been very straightforward — flea, tick, rabies vaccination — some of them have been much more complicated cases,” said Sobraske. “Our first client yesterday was a dog who, unfortunately, engaged with a porcupine, and he was great, he was a total champ, but he took some work and that was something we don’t see a lot of down in the Cities.”
Earlier in the day, at the Red Lake tribal college, Minnesota Spay Neuter Assistance Program (MN SNAP) set up its mobile station for surgical appointments.
Mitakamizi Liberty, a MN SNAP veterinary technician and an enrolled member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, said demand for the procedures was so high all available openings filled up before the clinic started. Liberty added the surgeries take about 15-20 minutes depending on the size of the pet and barring any complications. After waking up, the staff keep the dog or cat under observation to make sure they are not experiencing any adverse effects from the anesthesia before sending them home.
Liberty described his involvement in the pet clinic as cathartic — a way to reconnect with his culture, which hasn’t always been easy since moving to the Cities.
“It feels good to be home and it feels good to be actively helping my community,” Liberty said.
Key to making the pet clinic possible was CARE’s Marilou Chanrasmi. She said this event was important for Red Lake because the infrastructure to give all animals basic care is still being established, “just like a human being, if we don’t take care of ourselves then we start going downhill, no different from the animal, we’re all connected, we’re all related.”
Awesiinyag and Loved led the effort to make the pet clinic a reality. Cofounder Lucas Bratvold said at its heart Awesiinyag are Loved is a grassroots organization.
“It’s nice to be able to help the animals in need and to help the people as well because a lot of what we’re doing is getting resources to families, to pet owners. Sometimes we will get involved with some wild animals, like there’s been some injured hawks and we picked them up and transported them to a rehabilitation center, but mostly pet animals, and it’s rewarding personally,” Bratvold said. “It’s also nice to do things for the community and also a big part of what we do is promoting our traditional culture of animals.”
On the fourth day of the pet clinic, University of Minnesota Student Initiative for Reservation Veterinary Services (SIRVS) — a student-run organization — arrived with around 12 veterinarian students, including one enrolled Red Lake member. They stayed the remainder of the week doing wellness checks.
Assistant professor Lauren Bernstein said this event was unique because it emphasized relationship building between students and community members, as well as the university and community. It also offered students real-world experience.
“They’re learning about their role as health professionals in all of these different systems; they’re learning about how they’re perceived in different communities. They’re learning that what they say matters and carries weight, so they’re learning empathy and cultural humility. They’re understanding what knowledge people already have and how to elevate that, and they’re learning that what they’re learning in the classroom is one part of their education,” she said.
Bernstein added the biggest takeaway students got out of the experience was connecting with people and learning about the importance of communicating in accessible language while demonstrating empathy and reflective listening.
By the end of the pet clinic, the coalition of animal care organizations had completed 121 surgeries, 312 wellness checkups and distributed over 4,800 pounds of pet food and treats.
People and Pets also contributed to the event.