ElleVet brings vet med to those in need

The ElleVet Project provides free veterinary care with an RV, donated supplies, and a team of volunteers. And they want you to join them.

By Cara Hopkins

The Crow Nation is at the intersection of Big Horn, Yellowstone, and Treasure counties in southern Montana, right up against the Wyoming border. About two-thirds of the 11,000 total members of the Crow people live on the reservation, along with their pets. And they don’t have nearly enough veterinary care.  

A few weeks ago, this became the latest stop for the ElleVan, a 32-foot RV carrying food, medicine, and other supplies along with a volunteer team for the ElleVet Project. 

“The need was just incredible—there were just so many pets everywhere,” said ElleVet co-founder Amanda Howland. “We had two veterinarians who are experienced at working on reservations; then we recruited a third volunteer veterinarian and many support staff. We saw over 70 pets every day, which is mind-boggling.” Then there were the emergencies: “Right off the bat, a dog got hit by a car.”  

Find the invisible pets 

The ElleVet Project is the nonprofit arm of ElleVet Sciences, which Howland and her co-founder, Christian Kjaer, began as a pet CBD+CBDA company in 2017. When COVID-19 caused massive shutdowns, they had the idea to launch their first mobile pet-relief program in California, where they partnered with local veterinarians to seek out and provide basic care to homeless and vulnerable pets.  

They flew from Maine to San Diego, where they rented an RV. “Neither of us had ever even been in an RV before, or driven an RV, so we’re at the top of this steep driveway, and the guy who rented it was like, ‘Would you like me to drive this to the end of the driveway for you?’” Howland said. “We’re like: Yes, please!” 

They got good at driving that RV pretty quickly, as they spent the summer going up the West coast, then back through Central Los Angeles, then back to San Diego. Among other things, they administered vaccinations, flea and tick prevention, and antibiotics, as well as providing wound care, treatment for eye and ear problems, medical diagnoses, and pet-owner education. 

They later went to Las Vegas for the WVC conference where they did a talk on street medicine, and to Arizona and New Mexico—all places where the biggest challenge turned out to be the heat. While people and their pets routinely waited six or seven hours, the ElleVet team saw 60 to 70 pets per day in “dangerously hot” temperatures of up to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. They revamped schedules to find cooler weather, but still encountered hotter than normal temps even in Seattle. This fall, they’re going to Boston in October, and New York in November. 

Many of ElleVet’s stops are well-known encampments, like LA’s Skid Row or San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. But Howland said they also look for underserved places where lack of services makes it harder for people to get their pets any kind of care. To find these places in your own community, Howland suggests asking, “Where are the invisible pets?” 

“Where are there people who can’t drive or where they have no transportation to get free or low-cost care? Where are the people who can’t get anywhere?”  

For example, this question led the ElleVan to a dry riverbed in Stockton, California, full of tents in “the middle of nowhere.” Howland said providing veterinary care in these places is the best service that can be given to those who need it most.  

ElleVet founders Christian Kjaer and Amanda Howland

Pet owners living on the street 

The full impact of COVID-19 on homelessness is not yet known. While it’s estimated that more than 326,000 people in the United States on any single night in 2021 stayed in a homeless shelter according to the 2021 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress, the numbers of unsheltered homeless—those out on the streets—were not counted in most communities due to health concerns over unvaccinated populations and potential COVID outbreaks.  

Access to shelters is often denied to people with pets or limited to only those with proof of up-to-date vaccinations, so it’s likely that many people living on the street with pets did not get counted in these estimates. One thing existing research does tell us is that most houseless pet owners would rather sleep outside than be separated from their pets, and that many of them sacrifice their own meals so their pets can eat.  

Stories of how these pets came to their people are often heartbreaking: from animal abuse, to former owners going to jail, to rescuing a puppy that had just ingested meth. “They said, ‘I took him to the emergency room and now he’s safe; and I’m going to keep him safe,’” Howland said. “There’s all kind of circumstances, but often this person had stepped in to help—it’s pretty extraordinary.”  

Before 2020, Howland had never had these kinds of conversations with houseless people, and neither had her co-founder. “Christian is from Denmark and there’s not really a homeless or street pet population there, so it was brand new to him.”  

But once the stories started to flow, she said, it was easy to see the value in these simple interactions. 

“The first time somebody comes up to the [ElleVet] table with their pet, you look them right in the eye and say, ‘Oh, what a cute dog—tell me about him,’ and then you start talking and it’s just a normal conversation that you could have with anyone,” she said. “Then you keep going, and you say, ‘You’re doing a great job, you know; he looks great—really well socialized. You’re a good pet owner,’ and you end up having a conversation you didn’t expect.” 

“Before you do it, it’s just a concept, and you might have sympathy or say, ‘That’s terrible,’ but after you’ve had your first conversation and treated the first pet, it really touches you in a way that you just know: I have to keep doing this,” she said. “There’s so much ugliness in the world, and this is something you can go out and do right now to help people, to help pets, right here and now. It’s so important.” 

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Building a nationwide network 

The ElleVet Project is growing and continuously on the move, but Howland says, the problem is so huge that the more people who want to offer these services, the better. They are always open to volunteers joining them on the road—especially veterinarians who are licensed in the state, as well as support staff and students.  

“We had some vet students on the van this year from Cornell who were just incredible. They were the best. We adore them. And they said it was such a great experience that they want to come back next year,” Howland said. This could grow into externships with vet schools in the future to let students experience street medicine firsthand.  

Ultimately, she would love to see a connected network of veterinary street medicine providers that collaborates to share advice, information, and services. There is need all across the United States and worldwide: “We just sent product over to Romania to help pets in Ukraine,” she said. “A lot of veterinarians have traveled over there—there’s just a lot of people doing some great things.” 

Quill comes home 

On the return trip from the Crow Nation in Montana to ElleVet’s home base in Portland, Maine, the ElleVan picked up two additional passengers. 

“Some people came to us and said: ‘You have to help; you have to rescue this dog from this horribly abusive situation—please, please get her away,’” said Howland. So, with a lot of help from the locals, and with nowhere nearby to rehome her, the dog came back to Maine. 

The other dog approached the ElleVan all by himself.  

“He just sort of wandered over as a stray with a face full of quills, huge bite wounds, and his tail actually bitten off,” Howland said. “I mean, it was horrible. Awful.” 

Howland said the veterinarian ran to get something to anesthetize him, and then “she actually cried as she removed the quills … he’d been walking around like this for a while.” 

But it ended happily. 

Howland said, for a dog who’s probably never lived inside before, Quill, as they named him, has “adjusted beautifully to the couch.” 

See where the ElleVan is headed next and learn more about how to support the ElleVet Project at ellevetproject.org 

1 Rhoades, H., Winetrobe, H., & Rice, E. (2015, April). Pet ownership among homeless youth: Associations with Mental Health, service utilization and housing status. Child Psychiatry and Human Development.    

 

 

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