MARQUETTE - Dr. Tim Hunt hopes his recent trip to Alaska was the start of building trust between the veterinary community and the people who live in some rural parts of the 49th state.
Hunt, whose Bayshore Veterinary Hospital is located in Harvey, conducted a spay/neuter and vaccination clinic, working in conjunction with two other people, in several villages along the Kuskokwim River in western Alaska.
"There were 40 dogs that were neutered/spayed which is much higher number than we thought we'd do," Hunt said. "I hope we're building trust in the villages so next time, even more animals can be seen."
Dr. Tim Hunt performs surgery on a dog in a rural Alaskan village. Hunt was part of a group that visited several small villages in the 49th state to offer veterinary care to pets. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Tim Hunt)
Children were especially enthusiastic about the strangers visiting their communities. Hunt said groups of kids would lead the veterinary team to houses that have dogs throughout the villages. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Tim Hunt)
Hunt left the Upper Peninsula June 28, arriving in Bethel, Alaska, first, then traveling with one person from the Rural Native Veterinary Service and another from Yukon Delta Health Services, headed via boat to Napaskiak, a small village of Yup'ik people.
But one cruical piece of equipment didn't arrive with him.
"We arrived at Napaskiak and quickly set up our M*A*S*H practice in a machine shop, though without my anesthetic machine," he said. "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 who enthusiastically pointed out the homes of families with dogs."
Hunt's party spent the night in a health clinic, still waiting for the anesthetic machine to appear.
"The airline kept telling me no one had seen it," Hunt said of the machine. "So I finally said I was on a medical mission and the equipment was for brain surgery and three hours later, it showed up."
The group backtracked to Bethel to pick up the missing equipment - which was donated to the effort by the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine - returned to Napaskiak then moved on to another village, Kwethluk.
"In Kwethluk, we again did a house-to-house vaccination tour, followed by a spay/neuter clinic the following day," Hunt said. "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."
With a boat filled with medical equipment and some fishing poles for late-night casting - "daylight never really ends this time of year in Alaska," he said - the group headed toward Akiak, which they found, eventually, after being lost for two hours.
"Some villages have a very strict stray dog policy and this was evident here," Hunt said. The group did 12 spay/neuters there along with a number of vaccinations.
"Our final leg of the journey was back to our first village, Napaskiak, where we concluded our odyssey with 10 more spays/neuters," he said.
Along the way, Hunt met quite a few people, including one older gentleman whose stories especially fascinated the veterinarian.
"He was an old-timer, probably about 88 years old, and he told me about how it was when he was a kid. His dad used dogs to work the traplines," Hunt said. "Now they've gone to using snowmobiles and powerboats."
Life is not easy for many of the dogs in the region, Hunt said, but something else was quite evident.
"It was really neat Some villages have the look of a certain dog," he said. "One village in particular had all short-legged tan dogs running around. You could tell whoever that dog was, he made his mark."
While the greatest chunk of his time was spent doing veterinary work, Hunt did get in a bit of fishing, including catching halibut with 2013 Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey.
"Mitch caught a 60-pound halibut," Hunt said. "Mine was 45 pounds."
Hunt said the hope is the frequency of these kind of rural veterinary care clinics can increase. The volunteer effort is done through Yukon Kuskokwim Delta Health Corporation, a 501(c)(3)nonprofit corporation, and Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Inc.
"Offering something back is what we all need to do and sometimes just finding the right time and place can be difficult," he said. "But these animals would never be afforded any vet care without this direct approach. 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."
Anyone who'd like to know more can contact Hunt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Renee Prusi can be contacted at 906-228-2500, ext. 253. Her email address is email@example.com.