Alaskan Rural Veterinary Program

Recently, I had the opportunity to conduct a spay/neuter and vaccination clinic in several Yup’ik villages along the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska. Funded by an USDA grant and working in conjunction 2 other people, one from the Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Corporation and the other from Yukon Kuskokwim Delta Health Corporation we left Bethel, Alaska via the “Kusko”, headed first for Napaskiak, a small village of Yup’ik.

We arrived at Napaskiak and quickly set up our M.A.S.H. practice in a machine shop, though without my anesthetic machine; the airline didn’t know where it was! We used the downtime to walk the village of 200 to vaccinate dogs, and followed the lead of a gaggle of excited kids (strangers in town!) who enthusiastically pointed out the homes of families with dogs. Many of the dogs were very similar in stature, age and color though out the village and vaccinating close to 50 dogs was an accomplishment.ruralvet3

We then spent the night in the health clinic, hoping the anesthetic machine wasn’t circling the luggage carousel in some far-away airport. After a few phone calls to the airline explaining that we needed this machine for “brain surgery”, it finally and mysteriously show up at the Bethel Airport; we back-tracked to Bethel, returned to Napaskiak and pulled up anchor for our next village, Kwethluk.

In Kwethluk we again did a house-to-house vaccination tour, followed by a spay/neuter clinic the following day. We set up our mobile surgical unit in the village police station and were able to spay and neuter 18 dogs and vaccinate over 50 dogs in that community. The area residents were happy and supportive of our services and although we could have done more surgeries yet, we had additional ground to cover up the river.ruralvet1

Our anesthetic protocol included the use of a mobile gas anesthetic machine, generously donated for this trip by the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, an autoclave for sterilizing the surgical packs, injectable induction agents, and intubation for maintaining the patient.

Our boat was full of medical gear, plus a few fishing poles for some late-night casting, as daylight never really ends this time of year in Alaska.We started off towards Akiak but, unfortunately, we got lost for a good two hours on various sloughs until finally circling back to Kwethluk and starting all over again. The second time around, we found the village despite rough water on the river.

Akiak is another small settlement roughly 15 miles farther up the Kuskokwim River and has a population of about 200 people and just a few strays. Some villages have a very strict stray dog policy and this was evident here. We dropped our personal gear in the health clinic, as we had done in the previous villages, set up the surgical area in the local bingo hall and at the end of the day we had 12 more spays and neuters under our belt, plus additional vaccinations.ruralvet9

Our final leg of the journey was back to our first village, Napaskiak, where we concluded our odyssey with 10 more spays/neuters. We ended up with a total of 40 spays and neuters and close to 200 dogs being vaccinated-a successful trip!

We hope to increase the frequency of these rural spay/neuter/vaccine clinics as more vets become intrigued with spending a week or so in the bush. This is not hospital style surgery, so adaptation is required but definitely doable, enjoyable and fulfilling with the right crew. There are not après-clinic martini bars, restaurants or coffee shops, but there is great fishing, solitude and the opportunity to connect with an entirely wonderful, indigenous culture; hopefully, others down the road will want to connect, as well. If you are interested, please drop me a line at or the director of the Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Corporation, a 501.3c non profit organization , Angie Fitch, at For more detailed information and statistics, some grim, please visit .

Offering something back is what we all need to do and sometimes just finding the right time and place can be difficult; but these animals would never be afforded any vet care without this direct approach, and it’s not just the animals that benefit, but the “participant observer” children who keenly watch this happen. It’s a powerful experience and together, we can make a difference.