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Veterinarians Without Borders starts first major international project this summer

Team headed for Liberia


June 25, 2009
By: Edie Lau
For The VIN News Service


Under the auspices of Veterinarians Without Borders, a livestock veterinarian and a small-animal practitioner will spend nearly three weeks in Liberia next month looking for ways to help the West African country rebuild following 14 years of civil war and unrest.

When they arrive, Drs. Arlene Gardsbane and Beth Miller will be the only practicing veterinarians in the entire country.

“War wiped everything out,” said Gardsbane. She speculated that some Liberians with veterinary degrees left their country during the prolonged strife and are settled elsewhere now.

Gardsbane and Miller, who were classmates in veterinary school at Louisiana State University, will take to Liberia some basic tools, including rabies vaccines and dewormer, and plan to hold a one-day clinic in the capital city of Monrovia, but their main purpose is to assess the country’s needs and develop a plan to promote the health of the people, their pets, livestock and wildlife through veterinary medicine.

The veterinarians learned of Liberia’s needs from Gardsbane’s brother-in-law, Paul Sully, an international development specialist in Maryland who spent time in Liberia in the 1970s as a Peace Corps volunteer. One of Sully’s long-time friends from that period is Joseph Boakai, who later served as Liberia’s minister of agriculture and is today the country’s vice president.

Boakai is part of an administration elected in 2005. From the U.S. State Department’s perspective, this is how things stand: “Despite nearly four years of peace and a renewal of economic growth, Liberia is still one of the poorest countries in the world and many basic services (public power, water and sewage, land line phones) are either limited or unavailable.”

During a visit to Liberia this January, Sully asked Boakai if there was anything he could do to help. The vice president replied, “We really need veterinarians here.”

Boakai said that of two veterinarians he knew of in his nation of 3 million people, one died and the other retired. “I can’t name one veterinarian in the country right now,” he told Sully.

Sully quickly sent an e-mail to his sister-in-law, Gardsbane, asking if she’d like to help. Gardsbane, who owns a small-animal practice in Maryland, agreed, and recruited Miller to join them.

A large-animal practitioner, Miller has a lot of experience in international affairs. She worked for 10 years on the staff of Heifer Project International, which promotes self-sufficiency in developing countries by donating livestock to families for food and livelihoods. Today, Miller is a private consultant in international livestock development and also teaches anatomy and physiology at a community college in Little Rock, Ark.

For the Liberia Project, the team determined that they needed a sponsoring organization. Through a Google search, Gardsbane came across Veterinarians Without Borders.

Until this year, the organization — which borrows its name from the Nobel Prize-winning international group Doctors Without Borders — had been basically a one-vet show.

That one veterinarian is Dr. Audra MacCorkle, a 1999 graduate of the University of California, Davis. As a student, MacCorkle was involved with UCD’s Mercer Clinic for the Homeless, a student-run non-profit that provides free care for the companion animals of homeless people. That experience that inspired MacCorkle to continue using her medical know-how for social good.

MacCorkle set up a holistic medicine practice in Los Angeles and searched for an organization with which to do veterinary charity work, but said she found nothing. So in 2001, she established Veterinarians Without Borders.

At the outset, she tried to set up projects in Mexico but was stymied by bureaucracy. That led her to look closer to home. “I knew I had to do something or the organization was never going to get off the ground,” she said.

In 2002, MacCorkle began holding clinics around Los Angeles for the pets of homeless people. “I do physical exams, give vaccines, bring food and toys and sweaters, reindeer antlers at Christmas time, give the people coffee and coconut water, juice, fruit...” she said.

She had help from her clinic assistant and some veterinary technicians; occasionally another veterinarian or two would help out. Between running her own practice along with a cremation business, Guardian Animal Aftercare, plus running the homeless clinics every four to six weeks, MacCorkle did not have time to expand the scope and agenda of the non-profit Veterinarians Without Borders.

Enter Drs. Roger Ellis and Thomas Graham, bovine practitioners in New York and California, respectively. The men were cooking up a plan to start an international relief organization, which they wanted to call Veterinarians Without Borders. But when Graham looked into incorporating under that name, he discovered it was taken. In fact, Ellis said, there are about 10 separate Veterinarians Without Borders groups around the world, including one in Canada.

Ellis and Graham ended up joining MacCorkle as board members of the existing American version of Veterinarians Without Borders. Now they are involved with promoting the Liberia Project, which MacCorkle enthusiastically adopted as the organization’s first major international project.

Although time was short — the team wanted to make the trip in July because Miller has teaching responsibilities in the fall and another commitment during winter break — MacCorkle decided to forge ahead. “When I started doing the homeless program, I just moved forward, or it never would have happened,” she said.

Now the group is hurrying to raise money to support the trip. Gardsbane said she’s collected more than $1,000 by holding events such as a “dog spa” bath day at her clinic and putting out a donations bucket. MacCorkle said her cremation business donated $5,000 to cover insurance and legal fees; another $8,000 is needed to cover travel expenses. By her last reckoning, they were not quite halfway toward that goal.

Regardless, the trip is on. Ellis said the urgency of the Liberia Project is helping to build momentum for Veterinarians Without Borders as a whole. “It’s wonderful to have a project because it gives us the excitement or motivation to get this organization really going,” he said.

For more information about the project and making a donation, visit http://www.vetswithoutbordersus.org.





VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email news@vin.com.



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