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Heidi Shaffer, Published October 21 2011

Fargo nonprofit provides global animal aid

Nonprofit profile

FARGO – Developing countries and disaster-stricken communities rely on World Vets, one of the nation’s largest veterinary aid organizations, to keep their animal populations healthy.

In fact, the nonprofit coordinates a total of 3,500 volunteers to operate animal aid missions in 34 countries on six continents – and the team of seven employees does it all out of a small, nondescript office in Fargo.

“One of the things we hear most is, ‘Oh, we didn’t even know you were here,’ ” said Cathy King, World Vets founder and executive director.

“There’s people all over the world who know who we are and definitely know the name World Vets, so it would be great if Fargo also knew that, too,” she said.

King, a veterinarian, started the organization in 2006 after going on a Humane Society trip to Mexico for a spay-and-neuter project.

When she returned to her practice in Washington state, she put out a donation jar. “I never really set out to start some big organization,” King said from her First Avenue North office in downtown Fargo. “I just thought we could get some volunteers together from time to time and buy some supplies.”

From there, her side project grew. Eventually it turned into a full-time job for King. She sold her practice and moved to Fargo when her husband got a job at Essentia Health.

Fast forward to today, and the group has teams heading to all reaches of the globe about every week of the year.

Almost 700 veterinarians volunteer – paying their own expenses – to be part of the aid missions that range from helping goat populations breed to spaying and neutering entire dog populations.

Seventeen field vets lead the various projects around the world. The nonprofit also operates a free veterinary surgical training course in Nicaragua.

But the aid organization goes wherever they’re needed and helps with whatever the local issues are, King said.

Earlier this month, a group traveled to Tanzania to assist the Masai people with the welfare of the tribe’s 600,000 donkeys. Another group is there helping to set up a spay-neuter program with local vets.

World Vets has helped on livestock farms in Haiti and on U.S. Navy ships and Romanian Army bases.

But the organization is also there in times of disaster.

For example, the organization sent 42 tons of supplies to Japan after an earthquake hit earlier this year.

Locally, World Vets provided veterinarian care and supplies to pets displaced by spring flooding in Fargo.

After Minot’s record-breaking flood this summer, the group drove through campgrounds filled with displaced families and delivered about 2,000 pounds of dog and cat food.

In addition to veterinarian services, World Vets is on track to give out more than $1 million in veterinarian products, which don’t come cheap.

Several foundations and corporations sponsor missions and donate supplies, but the biggest piece of support is from public donations.

The Foundation Brigitte Bardot, a French animal-rights organization started by the actress, is one of the major supporters, as are several veterinarian supply companies.

Making a difference

Meg McBrien, a veterinarian in northeastern Pennsylvania, went on a spay-neuter trip in 2009 in Nicaragua. She works for a private practice as a veterinary internist, accustomed to doing expensive procedures on well-cared-for pets.

“The sad thing is to me that a lot of these animals are getting better medical care than most human beings around the world,” she said.

McBrien goes on World Vets missions as a way to give back and is saving her vacation for another trip abroad.

“People who are working in the veterinarian community are so willing to donate their skills and their time,” King said. “They go on these projects, and they’re paying their own expenses to go. Then they go and work really hard so that we really make a big difference.”

King’s husband, Dr. Mike Sornson, an anesthesiologist at Essentia, has traveled abroad on many World Vets projects. As a medical doctor, Sornson has seen the lapse in care for the animals’ human counterparts.

“Wherever they (World Vets) go, people ask, ‘What about us?’ ” he said.

Sornson’s solution is World Docs, a medical humanitarian nonprofit he plans to have partner with World Vets efforts.

He describes World Docs as an ant compared to the giant organization World Vets has become.

“Our approach is to go to the same locations and talk with medical professionals to see what they need,” Sornson said.

The human medical side has proved more difficult to get started up because of the red tape and politics often involved, he said.

And for now, it’s more like his hobby.

“A lot of my colleagues might go to Disneyland … on their vacations. For me, I go on missions,” he said.

Snapshot of World Vets’ work

FARGO – The Masai tribe of Tanzania in eastern Africa relies on its donkeys to transport two of life’s vital resources: water and firewood.

A trip last month by World Vets founder and executive director Cathy King is the first step in improving the health and welfare of those 600,000 animals and the families they serve.

“It’s an entirely different lifestyle for people there,” she said.

Most Maasai homes don’t have running water, and the villagers generally travel six to eight miles for water, carrying the heavy loads on their donkeys’ backs. Later in the day, it’s up to the livestock to carry home the firewood.

“The donkeys there are not very highly valued by the people. They look at them like a wheelbarrow, so they’re fairly neglected,” said King.

The animals have never been vaccinated or dewormed and most have sores from carrying heavy loads without harnesses or padding.

World Vets provides veterinary care to the animals and education for the owners.

Readers can reach Forum business editor Heidi Shaffer at (701) 241-5511