Monday, July 29, 2002
Blending Academe and Activism
By COURTNEY DILLARD
I am tired and dirty -- really tired and really dirty. I've just finished an internship,
and it feels nothing like turning in a paper or finishing an exam. Not only do
I need a cup of strong coffee, I need a shower and a week's worth of sleep in
my own bed. Strangely, though, I feel great.
Guidance from the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation on careers for
I've spent the last week on the Colville Indian Reservation in a part of northern
Washington state so remote we had to take a small ferry to get there. I worked
with a team of veterinarians, veterinary students, and representatives from the
Humane Society of the United States to offer a weeklong clinic for spaying and
neutering pets, and to conduct animal-care seminars on the reservation.
The project is part of a campaign called Native Nations that is designed to
raise awareness of animal-population problems on Indian reservations. The program
recruits veterinarians and veterinary students from around the country to develop
their skills while serving remote regions that typically lack animal-care facilities.
As a doctoral candidate in communication studies at the University of Texas at
Austin, my contribution was to the program's "humane education" component, which
focuses on teaching the basics of animal care and safety to elementary-school
In graduate school, I had intentionally crafted a career plan that blended
academe and activism. I had been studying animal protection as a social movement,
and had participated in various campaigns over the years. After I moved to Oregon
and began writing my dissertation, I thought that an internship would be an effective
way to demonstrate how the discipline of communication studies could contribute
to the goals of animal-protection organizations, strengthen my regional contacts,
and perhaps open doors to future consulting opportunities.
The first step I took to set up the internship was to contact the Oregon representative
of the Humane Society. I had met her during a campaign to ban body-gripping animal
traps, and she suggested that I look into the Native Nations program. After a
conference call with representatives from Washington and California, we set up
a nine-month timeline to achieve three goals: to raise public awareness about
the program, to develop a humane-education curriculum, and to carry it out. My
first task was to persuade a reservation with an animal population problem to
sign up for the program.
From September to December, I reached out to various tribal leaders to promote
the program. Native Nations was already active in much of the West, but many reservations
in Washington and Oregon were still unfamiliar with it. After several meetings
and conference calls with staff members from the Humane Society, I set up a plan
to introduce tribal leaders to the program, highlight the fact that it was a free
service, and alert them to the follow-up call I would make in a few weeks. While
I sent out information to a number of tribal leaders, I quickly identified three
reservations that I intended to pursue more vigorously. All three had clear problems
with pet overpopulation, as well as contacts willing to help us promote the clinic.
I spent the next several months trying to speak with the key decision makers
for each of the tribes and securing permission for the event from the tribal councils.
Of the three reservations we pursued in earnest, the Colville Reservation was
the only one that signed up to act as host for the clinic by the deadline. While
my work in the field of communication studies helped me to sell the idea of the
clinic, I learned a valuable lesson here. No matter how attractive your campaign
is, or how needed the service may be, if you cannot get opinion leaders in the
community to champion your cause all the way through, you will not be successful.
Whom you know really does matter!
By February, my colleague from the Seattle office of the Humane Society, Stephanie
Bell, and I began to explore the details of offering the clinic and the seminar
on the Colville Reservation. The first step was to confirm the tribe's commitment
through a meeting on the reservation. After being deterred for two weeks by a
snowstorm, we made the seven-hour drive north to meet with representatives from
the tribe. In addition to laying out the expected day-to-day operations of the
clinic for the tribal police and other representatives, we surveyed the stray-animal
population. The animal-control officer assured us we would be able to spay/neuter
more than 50 animals a day. We also spoke with a representative from the state
extension service who expressed interest in setting up school visits. Finally,
the tribe agreed to house and feed the volunteers while we were working on the
reservation. Before concluding the meeting, we set a date for the event: May 21
I spent March and April collecting various pamphlets, brochures, and other
materials on animal-care education. Even though I had developed materials while
teaching during graduate school, I encountered new challenges in creating this
curriculum. First, very few publications had been crafted with an eye toward Native
American populations. And some of the material that was directed at these populations
ignored the uniqueness of reservation life and the existence of historical Indian
perspectives on animals, and perhaps even insulted residents of the reservations.
By modifying existing documents and creating new approaches in our own curriculum,
we were able to develop more-effective messages. For example, many of the existing
materials for schoolchildren talked about animal care in terms of obedience school
and in-house pet training. Recognizing that most families on the reservation keep
their animals outside and have neither access to nor money for obedience classes,
we focused on providing basic care such as food, water, and shelter, and talked
extensively about dog bites, which are a major problem.
May finally arrived and we packed up the vans with everything from educational
grab bags for the kids to hundreds of doses of rabies vaccine for the animals.
The team consisted of four volunteers and staff members from the Humane Society,
three veterinarians, and close to 40 veterinary students from several institutions,
including the Universities of Pennsylvania and Tennessee. We set up three clinics
on the reservation, in gymnasiums and a community center. We all slept in sleeping
bags, usually under the operating tables, and every night after the last animal
went home, we swapped stories over pasta and salad. Members of the tribe often
would join us. I learned a lot about vet school, as well as a Native American
culture that historically has great respect for animals. I was also pleased to
discover that almost everyone on the reservation was happy we were there and supported
While the vets worked at the clinic, I had two very different venues to engage
in humane education. My primary responsibility was to give talks to a number of
elementary-school classes. Often, because the schools were small, they would combine
classrooms into an assembly. I would spend close to 30 minutes talking about animal
care, dog behavior, and dog bites. I would then close by answering questions.
While I had spent the last several years in the college classroom, on the reservation
I learned a lot about the uniqueness of a young audience. I had to repeat myself
often, and constantly had to try to refocus the students' attention on my message.
Many children wanted to tell me about their animals, or the time they were chased
by a dog, or what their cat liked to eat. By the end of the week, I had given
my talk to almost 100 students.
When I wasn't in the classroom, I was interacting with older members of the
community who brought their animals to the clinic. My persuasion skills were challenged
in myriad ways every day: I tried to encourage wary individuals to get their animal
spayed or neutered, talked with various people about caring for their animals
better, and even taught vet students how to more effectively handle frightened
and potentially dangerous animals. Some pet owners worried that the operation
would hurt the animal or make it lazier, and often I was able to calm their fears.
One skeptic eventually brought in his seven cats, two dogs, and even a neighbor's
dog for treatment. Whenever I persuaded someone to bring in his or her pet, or
worked with a vet student to be more patient with an animal, I felt a sense of
accomplishment. It made all the sleepless nights on the gymnasium floor worthwhile.
By the end of the clinic, we had altered 358 animals.
My internship was a wonderful experience. It confirmed my belief that academics
can make a powerful difference in the wider world. Having completed my Ph.D. this
summer, I hope to begin a career that keeps to my goal of combining academe with
activism. This fall, I will teach communication courses such as "Mass Media and
Persuasion" at a small, liberal-arts college in the Portland area. I will also
continue my work in the arena of animal protection. Through the contacts I established
during my internship, I will be writing grant applications and developing advertising
campaigns for local and national animal-protection organizations. One specific
project I will work on involves the promotion of vegetarianism to young Portlanders.
I would highly recommend this internship experience to anyone -- even those academics
who might not immediately be attracted to nonacademic work. I may be tired and
dirty, but I know one thing for sure: I have never felt more useful.
Courtney Dillard recently
received her Ph.D. from the department of communication studies at the University
of Texas at Austin.