As dusk falls over Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, Veterinarian Ray Heinrichs lowers the back door of his toy hauler—a type of RV typically used to transport motorcycles and four-wheelers. He looks out over the half dozen horses grazing at the ranch next door.
They’re a familiar sight for Dr. Ray, who has been in practice for 30 years and who has spent a long few days volunteering his vet services to horses all over Pine Ridge Reservation.
Now, more than 12 hours after his day began, he is preparing to spay a 6-month-old labrador mix. In the back of his toy hauler.
Dr. Ray and his wife of 35 years, Deb, had backed in their 35-foot trailer next to ours a few nights earlier in complete darkness. Dan and I ventured out to introduce ourselves and see if they needed any help. We quickly learned that Dr. Ray was a veterinarian from southern Illinois who had converted the rig into a surgical space.
Inside, he showed us a surgical table, tool chest, and dozens of boxes of vet supplies. There’s a scale for weighing animals, and a bath that could fit cats and dogs as large as 50 lbs.
Dr. Ray told us then that he would be performing a spay surgery on a female dog a few days later. I asked if we could photograph it, and he agreed.
The night of the surgery, Deb carries a medium-sized brown dog into the trailer’s side door, and places it on the scale. She guesses its weight before it registers: 36 lbs. Then, she carries it to the back and places it on the surgical table, where Dr. Ray’s assistant keeps it calm and still. She wraps her arms around the pup, and pets it while Dr. Ray gathers the anesthesia he’ll need.
He turns on a desk lamp positioned above the surgical table and begins quizzing the group of veterinary students gathered on the toy hauler’s ramp. The students are also volunteering on the reservation this week. They’ve mostly come from Wisconsin, and are here to watch the procedure, which will begin in mere minutes.
Treating the Horse Spirit
The group of veterinarians and vet students goes by the name Sung Oyate (Lakota for Horse People). They've been volunteering on Pine Ridge (where the people speak Lakota) for a week each year since 2008, and work in conjunction with Pine Ridge-based non-profit Horse Spirit Society, which honors Lakota traditions and values through horse camps for the youth.
Horse Spirit Society connects the Sung Oyate veterinarians with people on Pine Ridge in need of care for their animals. In addition to treating animals, the veterinarians teach people on the reservation how to do things like stitch injuries. This enables the people to take care of minor issues if they can’t afford to pay a veterinarian to come out and check their animals.
Dr. Ray was one of the first veterinarians to volunteer with Sung Oyate, which was founded by his friend and Veterinary Technician Paula Arnold. In 2009, Dr. Ray drove 1,100 miles from his home, and has been coming back every year since.
This is the first year Dr. Ray brought along his trailer. The space is large enough to treat horses, but tonight will be used for a puppy. Dr. Ray purchased the trailer off Craigslist last year, and has been converting it slowly ever since.
“I’ve got a surgery light I haven’t put up there yet, and I’ll probably do gas anesthesia. I’m doing it a little bit at a time. The thing is the expense. You can spend $100 grand to get the equipment before you see your first dog or cat or horse,” Dr. Ray says.
The Puppy Population
The dog he’s spaying and vaccinating tonight comes from Slim Butte, South Dakota. Next to the vet students, a mom holds her young daughter at the edge of the trailer, quietly watching their puppy.
“She’s my granddaughter’s dog,” says the young girl’s grandfather, Marvin Goings. “Basically, it costs too much to go to the vets. This is offered for free.”
Back at home, he says they have too many dogs, including an older female who has had two litters. “The pups are hard to get rid of, so this way, there’s no other dogs running around the house,” Marvin says.
He adds that one Easter, the family held an Easter egg hunt, and he used the event as an opportunity to free up some space around his home. “Those plastic eggs, I put a grand prize in there: ‘See Grandpa.’ I got rid of puppies that way,” he says with a laugh. “The parents didn’t like it, but the kids loved it.”
The closest vet is about 20 miles from Marvin’s home, and he expresses gratitude for Dr. Ray’s Mobile Clinic.
“The people out here are so appreciative, and I see that they don’t have a lot, but they have family. If we can help with their horses and dogs, then great,” Dr. Ray says.
Inspiration in Chaos
Dr. Ray advertises the clinic with a sign on the side of the pickup truck he uses to haul his trailer. He explains that his work with Union County Animal Control in Illinois, as well as learning about disaster situations like Hurricane Katrina, inspired the trailer conversion.
“I had two or three days free a week, so I had to do something. I could convert my house or my garage, and I thought, ‘Well, we could do that, or I could just get an RV and convert that.’ I can plug it in, and I can take it to a disaster. Basically, if FEMA gives me a little bit of gas and some propane, I could sit somewhere for a week,” he says. “We learned a lot after Katrina. It was a mess. When we plan for disasters, we also need to include plans for all the animals that are affected by such disasters."
On Pine Ridge, the energy is light and exciting as Dr. Ray begins the surgery. Some of the vet students have met Dr. Ray in years before this, but none has seen a surgery in the back of an RV before. They talk about the procedure and crack jokes just a few feet away from Dr. Ray as he administers anesthesia to the pup.
He waits while she drifts off. Then, he cuts into her side, and begins removing her ovaries and uterus—pink organs just slightly bigger than kidney beans.
The entire procedure lasts about 30 minutes, and the dog twitches slightly as it begins to wake up. Dr. Ray will spend the next hour in the trailer with her while everyone else walks over to a cabin 50 ft. away. There, they enjoy a barbecue dinner together with some of the people from Horse Spirit Society.
Over a a late dinner later, Dr. Ray says of his volunteer work, “I get a lot out of it. It’s nice to give back. Deb and I worked our rear ends off, and it’s been interesting.”
Dr. Ray is undoubtedly unique in his approach to animal care, and I feel lucky that he was our first neighbor on this journey. I'm not sure that anyone in the country is using their RV in quite the same way. While some veterinarians do make mobile house calls, I haven't met any others who have dedicated their lives to making vet care more accessible in emergency situations or otherwise.