Dr. Shelley Lenz, DVM, Ph.D., loves the challenge of problem-solving, be it the diagnosis and treatment of an ill animal or how to feed hungry children in impoverished areas.
She is the owner of the State Avenue Vet Clinic and the Killdeer Vet Clinic, but she dedicates time for projects in Central America and recently returned from Uganda.
"It's humanitarian work," Dr. Shelley said. "It's not faith-based, but we have very similar goals," she said.
Realizing her life's vocation was to bring veterinary care to underserved areas, she established her practice in western North Dakota and she volunteers internationally.
"In developing countries, people use animals, especially Central America as their tractor. In coffee growing regions, sometimes only a horse or a mule can get up there. And so these areas rely heavily on animals, but they are really lacking veterinary services. It's super important to elevate the animal's condition, which helps the owner as well. I've been going to Central America for 10 years,-about two weeks at a time-to Nicaragua, Guatemala, Peru, Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras."
Dr. Shelley was first affiliated with Rural Area Veterinary Services (RAVS), a non-profit veterinary outreach program to bring free veterinary services to underserved rural communities.
"It took us a while to figure out the suffering of animals will never be less than the suffering of people," she said. "They need a secure food source, they need an economic base, they need to be educated. We need to build a community human infrastructure to make any sort of impact on the animals, and that's how it turned into a humanitarian effort."
Her solution was to start the Sustainable Vets International Foundation in 2014 having its mission of "reducing animal suffering globally." It's a 501c3 nonprofit having three arms-veterinary care (creating models for sustainable veterinary services), agriculture (creating sustainable food sources) and skill development (providing scholarships and local vocational training).
She started with food security.
"I started working on how to develop more locally produced food. We use a technique called permaculture farming-working with rather than against nature."
The farm produces foods such as rice, beans and corn without the use of pesticides or other chemicals. It's farming by stacking different functions together-growing the three 'sisters' (corn, beans and squash) together, creating earthworm farms, building up the soil and introducing diverse food sources such as yuca, pronounced YOO-ka, the root of the Cassava plant. Another crop is jamica, also known as rosehips-a great source of Vitamin C.
Dr. Shelley purchased 40 acres of land on Ometepe Island of Nicaragua and hired a crew of 25 farm employees to manage it. (Two-thirds of the land was taken by a rebel family.) It's within the rural community of San Pedro, population of about 3,000 people.
A veterinary clinic was built on the island, and it employs three local Nicaraguan veterinarians that she trained. Its where she treats mules and horses-emancipated animals with open sores or broken vertebrae caused by carrying heavy loads down the mountains.
She realized the people were malnourished and developed various diseases such as diabetes because they ate cheap calories-sugar and rice, but very little protein. So, she started a children's nutrition program, providing a meal of protein, vegetables and milk twice a week.
"We grow food on the farm for the Kids Kafe, but I haven't moved to the animal part yet. When I introduce animals, we'll need someone to guard them every day and night."
The Shelley Lenz solution to malnutrition was to purchase hamburger for the children. Twice a week, about 50 kids are served cheeseburgers-eating three burgers at a time until they are full-or about half a pound all together.
"Now they get cheeseburgers (without the bun) and they love them," she said. "It's huge, it's been transformative," she said. "The meat is a superfood, with all the essential amino acids, all the essential fatty acids. They are getting a fully nutritious meal."
"I'm the only one providing jobs in that area and they are good jobs," she said. "It's been really successful, it's taken a lot of heartache, but good enough so that several other countries reached out -Pakistan and Uganda. And that brings us to Uganda."
Returning from Uganda
Dr. Shelley recently returned from Kayunga, Uganda. Setting out to build relationships on her first visit, she asked the women to weave her hair just like theirs.
"It's something women do together, they always love talking about hair. Rural people are rural people. I'd say North Dakota has more in common with Nicaraguans and Ugandans than people from Fargo-does that make sense? You're building community and getting to know one another.It's really exciting to watch leaders emerge."
She was invited to visit Uganda by Denise Sandvick of Killdeer, who is involved with the AIDS Spirit project out of Billings. Uganda has 2.4 million orphans due to war and the AIDS epidemic, and so AIDS Spirit has chosen to develop an orphanage for the babies abandoned in the woods or left on the doorstep of the orphanage.
She learned how former President Idi Amin (1971-79) murdered 300,000 of the country's intellectuals-the doctors, dentists, professors, successful farmers and businessmen-anyone who was a threat to his authority "That's why Uganda has so many orphans, too... it was political murder."
Through Denise, she became the sponsor of an orphan child, Joseph, age 15 who she will support through college.
"They came to me to develop sustainable regenerative farming-again it's about food security. They eat crappy-beans and rice. Animal products are the superfoods-eggs and meat."
"I've learned you don't want to solve the wrong problem, and that's the value of getting to know the people and their situation. Their infrastructure is good. They have solid people who are community oriented," she said. "They asked me to come because of what we've done in Nicaragua-how can we make this happen for our orphans. Again, food security is super important."
Dr. Shelley was inspired by her Ugandan experiences.
"The kids were great.I learned what kind of food they were eating, the limitations they had and their resources-the vibrancy of life-the music and dancing and gratefulness."
She worked in partnership with a Ugandan veterinarian and the orphanage staff to develop a sustainable farm on very little land.
"In the developing world, we have a lot of landless people.. How do we make the land really productive and sustainable," she said. "So the first thing is to learn to trust me and that takes a while... like having my hair done."
She enjoyed meeting the children, such four-year-old Bob, who was dropped at the front door step of the orphanage with his little brother-sick and starving. His little brother couldn't be saved.
While there in May, another child, Jorey, came to the orphanage. He had reddish hair instead of black, indicating severe malnutrition.
"The two things kids need are food and love," she said. "So what was the best way to get him up to speed-- animal sources. This little boy needed an egg right now."
Hence, another Shelley Lenz solution-the production of more eggs. She currently purchases enough eggs from local farmers so that each child gets two eggs a day for nourishment-that's about 40 children in the orphanage and another 35 living with extended family.
"It puts money in the community for the producer and the eggs are super important for brain development and nutrients," she said. "No single plant source has all the essential amino acids. Dr. Shelley added that before the chickens, the population was eating a lot of plant-based food starch. It may have filled their bellies, but it wasn't nutritious.
"Humans don't need carbs that's not how we evolved. We need essential fatty acids and essential amino acids-that's what the body cannot make and must get from meat sources," she said.
So the next step is to start raising chickens at the farm. Again, it's back to permaculture-take the manure from the cows (pigs or goats), let the flies lay their eggs in the manure, cover it with a tarp and wait until maggots develop. Then feed the maggots to the chickens.
"Its making free protein for the chickens, creating good soil and using waste products from the cow."
Dr. Shelley works closely with equine surgeon, Dr. Raul Casas-Dolz at her clinic in Dickinson and on international projects. He comes from Puerto Rico and speaks fluent Spanish. They met through RAVS while he was doing humanitarian work in Central America. He had completed a year-long internship at an equine clinic in the high-end sport horse country of South Florida and spent 9 years as a staff surgeon.
"I needed an equine surgeon in my practice, and the timing worked out so he came here," she said.
He has 10 years of experience of teaching equine veterinary techniques to students throughout Latin America. Currently, he assists with field clinics in Central America and gives lectures at Central American vet schools.
"I'll bring him to Uganda in the fall to see what its about-it's hard to know how to help unless you go out," she said.
Next, Dr. Shelley is planning a trip to Pakistan.
"I go when I'm invited. It might be a year from now, and I'll go with the person who invited me," she said.
Meet Dr. Shelley Lenz
A native of Ohio, her maternal grandfather was from the Killdeer area, but left during the Depression.
Dr. Shelley earned a Ph.D. in pharmacology from the University of Pennsylvania in 1996 and her DVM degree from the Ohio State University in 2001. She worked as an equine vet in Lexington, Kentucky until 2004.
"I loved working with the best of the best, but it's a rich man's folly and people here didn't have services. A poor man's working horse is easier to stay up with in the middle of the night... and I happen to like rural life," she said.
That led her Killdeer where she opened her first practice. She enjoys the simplicity of life in her straw-bale house, living on land inherited by her mother.
How can we help?
Dr. Shelley established the Sustainable Vets International Foundation as a vehicle for people to help with the humanitarian work-either by buying a piece of veterinary equipment or something as simple as a dozen of eggs.
"There's a thousand things you can support. I try to keep everybody updated. Even a $20 donation will provide one nutrient-dense animal product meal. Donations are all direct-there's no middleman."
"So awareness-that's the biggest thing, like direct support through a fundraiser or on my website," she said. "Or helping by supporting my business -almost all the profits of my business goes to developing programs in Nicaragua, Uganda, and all over the world to develop sustainable veterinary care."
To learn how to become a partner, visit www.sustainablevetsinternational.com