Can You Afford (Not to Do) Welfare and Charity Work

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By Nancy S. Loving DVM

February 17, 2017


Dr. Harry Werner has long been involved with the Equitarian Initiative.

The increasing number of unwanted horses in recent years has given rise to increasing numbers of horse rescue organizations in the United States—as well as equine welfare agencies around the world—that minister to the working horse, mule and donkey (collectively referred to as equids).

This affords equine practitioners many opportunities to get involved in welfare and charity work. Perhaps you are active in this already, or you are considering becoming involved. In what way does this benefit you on both a personal and professional level?

We posed this question to Harry Werner, VMD, of Werner Equine in Granby, Connecticut. Werner’s dedication to the equine industry is outstanding. Besides his daily equine veterinary practice, he was a past President of AAEP and has been actively involved in the Equitarian Initiative.

Similar to the principle behind Doctors without Borders, the Equitarian Initiative sends practitioners to Central America and other countries to treat working equids that would otherwise receive no medical care. “Horses are totally dependent on humans to chart the course of their lives,” he explained. “Since people use them for work and recreation, rather than the equids strictly living as wild animals, this is our obligation to them.

“The vast majority of equine practitioners entered the profession out of genuine concern for the health and welfare of the horse,” he continued. “So it seems logical to follow that tendency through one’s professional life, given available time and finances. Many who participate in these activities are quite a ways into their careers. Early on, there is often scarcity of free time and finances, especially for those building a practice and a young family. But when resources are available, most practitioners welcome the opportunity to participate in equine welfare activities.”

Reasons for Getting Involved

“As equine practitioners, we have a collective and individual responsibility to those equids that don’t have adequate care or any care whatsoever,” stressed Werner. He said the ultimate reward is personal satisfaction gained from going out of your way.

A possible side benefit of equine welfare is how it could change client perceptions of you. As Werner reflected, “There is no question that if clients learn that you are involved in equine welfare work, they have great admiration and increased respect for you as an individual, as well as a professional.”

To that end, he often includes a paragraph and photos about his Equitarian involvement and welfare work in his practice newsletters, noting, “This brings attention to the project and may facilitate acquisition of more funding.”

It might seem that you are making a special effort when you help an equine rescue or welfare organization, but consider this: In daily practice, you likely have cases of regular clients from time to time who are unable to pay for recommended procedures that are in the best interest of their horses. You often end up doing “charity” work, and in many cases “welfare” work, although you might not consciously recognize it as such. The horse has a need, and in the absence of adequate resources to pay for it, you still do it pro bono. So with that in mind, you might find it personally satisfying to extend this same principle to a larger group of horses in need.

Evaluating Organizations

Given a challenged economy and the increasing number of unwanted horses, “rescue” facilities and organizations continually appear, looking for help both in veterinary care and in funding.

Before a practitioner jumps in blindly with help and resources, Werner advised, “There needs to be a certain amount of ‘kicking the tires.’ In some cases, there may be doubtful legitimacy. If a welfare operation has a non-profit, tax-exempt 501(c)(3) or 501(c)(4) designation, then they are required by law to account for their resources, incoming and outgoing. This makes them a legitimate operation.”

He recommended that the practitioner be judiciously observant of the operation and conduct a careful check for 501 papers. “It is your responsibility to look for the details as to what percentage of dollars gets to the shelters,” said Werner. “If the operation isn’t willing to disclose its legitimacy, then it is best to walk away.”

This is similar to advice you might give a client if a seller refuses to disclose a horse’s medical history in a prepurchase exam. Fortunately, as Werner stated, “Most outfits are well-intentioned for equine care and are legitimate nonprofit organizations.”

Nevertheless, it pays to do your homework so that you, as the practitioner, can ensure you’re giving your time and resources to only worthy causes.

Getting Involved

Becoming involved can take many forms: hands-on medicine and surgery; donations of money, pharmaceuticals, supplies and equipment; and through educational efforts. These resources and links can help you decide which welfare organizations and facilities have merit.

1. Contact the Unwanted Horse Coalition (UHC) (unwantedhorsecoalition.org), which is working to educate industry groups and to help people learn to “own responsibly.” The UHC includes 30 partners, including the AAEP, which helped found the coalition. The website provides lists of initiatives if you want to get involved.

2. Contact the American Horse Council (horsecouncil.org) to learn about welfare operations in your area.

3. Donate time and/or money to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) in foreign countries. Werner recommended ensuring that these are NGOs because you want your check to go to the equid organization rather than get lost in the coffers of a foreign country. Examples of NGOs that are known to be well-funded and not on the brink of going out of business include:

4. If you’d like to participate in handson veterinary care in a foreign venue, then contact individuals who are leaders within the Equitarian Initiative (equitarianinitiative.org). While Werner has been to the Dominican Republic twice to participate in Project Samana, Drs. Jay Merriam, Julia Wilson, Tracy Turner, Derek Knottenbelt, Steve O’Grady, Eric Davis and Dave Turoff are actively involved in providing veterinary and farrier care through the Equitarian Initiative, R-Vets (Rural Veterinary Experience, Teaching and Service) and HSVMA (Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association). The Equitarian initiative is supported by the AAEP Foundation, so donations can also be made through AAEP. The Equitarian mission statement is as follows: “to provide education, leadership and assistance to the working equid and by extension their families.” Their programs involve international venues such as Haiti, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Morocco, Peru and Central America (Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Costa Rica).

5. The Christian Veterinary Mission project (cvmusa.org) has provided equid health care in Mongolia. Drs. Johnny Haffner and Tom Juergens have been instrumental in leading the Mongolian project, which is supported by the AAEP Foundation. For the past 15 summers, they and their colleagues have been teaching modern veterinary medicine to herders and remote veterinarians in Mongolia. Juergens stressed another important point about this kind of welfare: “We, as equine practitioners, are helping not just the horses, but also the people who depend on their horses.”

Take-Home Message

Werner suggested that as professionals in the equine industry, we have an obligation—as time and finances allow—to go beyond the list of paid cases to help animals that can’t get care. He commented, “You may be able to afford to never do any equine welfare or charity work if, at the end of your career, you will be content with less than full personal satisfaction.

“Just try it,” Werner continued, likening this obligation to ‘paying it forward.’ “You don’t have to make a life-long commitment. Once you try it, then you are able to define for yourself the satisfaction and reward that comes from involving yourself in equine welfare and charity work.”

Editor’s Note: Recent research from Nielsen showed that “giving back” can mean more to your bottom line. Read "Nielsen Survey Shows that Consumers will Spend More with Socially Responsible Companies.” 

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