As a veterinarian for the Navajo Nation, Dr. Scott Bender’s practice spans more than 18 million acres in the Four Corners region of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and Utah.

His enormous workload includes treating everything from sheep, horses, cattle, goats, dogs, and cats to elk and cougars. Periodically, he even gets to clean the teeth of a 19-year-old bear at the Navajo Nation Zoo and Botanical Park, Window Rock, Arizona, the only tribal-run zoo in the United States.

“There are 250,000 people who live on the reservation and only four vets to cover them,” he says. “It can be a little daunting at times.”

That’s an understatement, considering that Bender (’95 D.V.M.), Dr. Joseph Bahe (’87 D.V.M.)-a Navajo tribal member-and two other veterinarians are divided among four clinics in the Navajo veterinary program, and make do on an annual budget of only $148,000.

“We have to work with what we have,” Bender says. “If it isn’t there, we can’t use it.” His clinic at Chinle, Arizona, currently lacks an X-ray machine. “We provide the best service we can, but if you are impatient, you are not going to like us.”

With such sparse resources, he is forced to find alternative ways to deal with problems in his own practice, and as a wildlife and zoo-animal veterinarian.

One of his innovations brought him back to Washington State University last year to help researchers improve a test for scrapie. The fatal disease affects the brain and central nervous system in sheep. It is similar to mad cow disease in cattle and chronic wasting disease in deer and elk.

Researchers at the USDA and WSU College of Veterinary Medicine recently developed a test that involves sampling the inner eyelid of sheep to detect the disease. Until this method was discovered, the only way to test for scrapie was to examine the brain of an animal after it died or use a genetic test to find those sheep most at risk.

Now, through research on the Pullman campus, the eyelid test allows producers and veterinarians to detect scrapie before animals display symptoms of the disease.

Unfortunately, sheep do not have a lot of lymphoid tissue under the eyelids, and it can be difficult to reach, explained Janet Alverson, USDA lead scientist on the scrapie project at WSU.

This is where Bender’s findings are important.

After a miserable day of examining sheep during a windstorm on the reservation in 2002, he found through the irritation of dust and manure in his own eyes that histamines can make the eyelid tissue inflamed-and also make it easier to get a sample.

“I thought, ‘if I’m taking an antihistamine for this, and the sheep looked the same, would histamines make the tissue stand out?'” he says. After testing his theory with histamine eye drops, he found out that, “sure enough, they did.”

On hearing of his development, WSU researchers flew Bender to Pullman last winter to show the scrapie investigators how to use the technique.

“The eye drops make sampling the tissue so much easier. We are hoping to incorporate it in the standard practice for the test,” Alverson says. The finding is currently being included in WSU’s research. Information on the technique will be published soon.

But that is not the extent of Bender’s work. He has also developed a vaccine for pigeon fever on the reservation, a disease that causes abscesses in horses. He has found ways to deal with several outbreaks of distemper and type-C botulism as well, and tackles rabies, whirling disease, and chronic wasting disease that affect the wild and domestic animals he and his colleagues treat.

The veterinarian also put together an emergency response plan for foot-and-mouth disease following an outbreak in Great Britain, and consulted for other tribes about it, including the Yakama and Umatilla.

In other projects, Bender monitors animals for West Nile virus, conducts DNA testing on desert bighorn sheep, and places microchips in horses and wildlife because, he notes, “Rustling still occasionally occurs in that area.”

“The great part about being a wildlife veterinarian is that I can go hunting 12 months out of the year,” he says. “And when I am done, the animal gets to run off.”


Emmy Sunleaf Widman (’02 Ag. Econ.) has been a frequent contributor to Washington State Magazine.