OREGON — Judy Batker knows veterinarians around her age who already are burned out from the heavy workload and moved on to find something else to do.
They need to take a drink from Batker’s fountain of youth.
These days, Batker, 42, who has been an equine vet in Oregon for 17 years, has never been more excited to go to work. She credits her mission work over the past three years — to rural parts of Costa Rica, Mexico and South Dakota, where she offered free veterinary services — for making her both a better veterinarian and a better person.
“I feel empowered and so inspired by going to these places,” the co-owner of Country View Veterinary Services in the town of Oregon said. “Even if I go twice a year, it’s enough to keep me going until the next one.”
Batker has helped treat more than 1,000 horses and donkeys near the rainforests of Costa Rica’s Oso peninsula, impoverished areas of Veracruz, Mexico, and the plains of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.
Some owners in Costa Rica and Mexico ride their horses and donkeys 20 or 30 miles from primitive homes with no electricity and plumbing to get them treated by the dozens of veterinarians, vet students and vet techs who run the free clinics led by nonprofit groups American Association of Equine Practitioners and the Equitarian Initiative.
“What we’re trying to do with our program is to find a way to provide these services, basic health care to animals who have received little or no care,” said Julia Wilson, the co-founder of the Equitarian Initiative, which is based in Stillwater, Minn. “It means so much to the poor people, and it means a lot to the animals as well. They’ve been sort of the neglected livestock from a global perspective.”
None of the animals in Costa Rica or Mexico was owned for pleasure riding and none was hauled to the vet site in a trailer. They all work hard and won’t live long. But many are loved as much, if not more, as their cousins are around here. A man with one leg rode three hours on his donkey from his home to the Mexico vet site so his beloved animal could get treatment.
“That was his wheelchair,” Batker said. “That’s all he had. That’s not something we see here.”
Batker, who mostly worked as a triage vet in Mexico and Costa Rica, saw horses with ears completely covered in ticks, mouths with rotten teeth, legs and hooves battered and bruised from years of hard labor and necks bitten by vampire bats. Most of the animals had never been treated before because the closest vet was 100 miles away in some cases, or because their owners couldn’t afford it.
“I was told that 90 percent of working horses and donkeys live in developing countries and only one percent of the vets are there,” Batker said.
The biggest eye-opener for the vets in
Costa Rica and Mexico was the number of horses that had equine infectious anemia, a virus with no known cure. Ho
rses with the disease are permanently quarantined or euthanized in the United States. That’s not the case in Costa Rica, where Batker said 35 percent of the horses the vets treated tested positive for EIA.
Some horses had EIA as well as bites from vampire bats. “The poor things are already anemic, and the bats are sucking their blood,” said Batker.
The AAEP started the mission trips two years ago, in part to teach vets how to work internationally and with tropical diseases and different cultures. There is no state-of-the-art equipment to help them, so vets must rely on their basic skills in most cases. The drugs they bring are paid for by grants or donations.
“It makes you a better vet because when we’re looking at these horses, we don’t have an ultrasound, we don’t have much equipment like X-rays so you have to go back to your basic skills, and you have to really pay attention to what you’re feeling and seeing,” Batker said.
Sun Prairie vet tech Paula Arnold led the trip to Pine Ridge in South Dakota last year, a trip that included Wisconsin veterinarians and students from the UW-Madison veterinary school. It’s familiar territory for Arnold, who is treated like family there because she has been there so many times.
The horses are healthier because they can find plenty of food in the area where the movie “Dances With Wolves” was filmed. They also are wilder. The leaders of the reservation hope to use the horses as a way for the youth to find healthy alternatives to drugs and alcohol.
“It changes everybody’s lives after they meet the people there and work with them and be around them,” Arnold said. “You’re doing it for the kids. The horses are for
Batker’s goal is to lead a mission trip to Haiti, maybe in one or two years, where she would treat mostly donkeys and goats. The thought of it puts a bounce in her step.
“I’ve always been interested in mission-type work,” she said. “When you hear about church groups or different groups going to build a house or something like that, it interested me but it wasn’t quite what I wanted to do. Then I heard about this, and it was perfect because it was doing what I already know what to do for somebody else. And the fact these horses have no veterinary care and the people completely depend on them makes it so much more inspiring to do.”
Batker knows a vet from California who is going to visit a different country each month this year to work as a mission vet. “That’s all he’d do if he could,” she said.
So would Batker. “If you’re passionate about it,” she said, “it just inspires you to keep trying to help.”