Rich Man/Poor Man


Larry Kelly, D.V.M., pays his debt to society and shares his perspective on life

By Vic Otten
Rancho Palos Verdes, Calif.

Many of us travel though life carrying the baggage of things beyond our control. Our life experiences shape who we are and how we perceive the world. Many of us use those experiences in a productive way to try and make the world a better place. For veterinarian Larry Kelly, it was the cruel treatment of livestock by his grandparents that changed him forever. Haunted by the memories of mules being worked to near exhaustion and having to sleep outside at an altitude of 10,000 feet, Kelly’s destiny was being forged as a young boy, and he did not even realize it.

This is a story about extreme poverty and what at first glance appears to be horrific cruelty to animals. Hopefully, you will take away from this article a renewed understanding of how good we have it in this country and take a moment to help someone less fortunate.

The Calling

Larry Kelly has been a large-animal veterinarian in Los Angeles County for many years. He was raised in the Colorado mountains and his family relied on mules and horses to survive. “My grandfather was a mule skinner. He and my father really treated the animals horribly; they were truly beasts of burden, but that is how people survived in those times. They did not know any better,” said Kelly. “Some of the family photographs just make me cringe to this day,” Kelly added.

“When you think about it, the invention of modern transportation really saved equines in this country. They became pleasure animals and not worked to death. In poor countries, animals are still the primary source of transportation. They are worked extremely hard and there is rarely veterinary care available,” said Kelly.

Victor Delgado is Kelly’s assistant. He was born in Fresnillo Zacatecas (west of Mexico City). Like most immigrants, he came to this country for a better life. Delgado was amazed at how long horses were used in America. He would tell Kelly, “Do you realize how old horses are in my country? In Mexico, my father cannot use a horse older than about 14 years.” Delgado explained to Kelly that this was primarily due to a complete lack of veterinary care and how hard the animals are worked. In many parts of Mexico there are no vets, there are no farriers, there is no worming, and people use homemade tack. He would tell Kelly, “If you go down there you can really help the people; help the animals and you will help the people.”

The Concept

With a specialty in equine dentistry, it made sense that Kelly’s concept was to improve the equine’s mouth. “If we can improve the mouth, the animals will last longer. They will eat better and get better nutrition. Their teeth will last longer and the animal will live a longer, more productive life. It is like tuning up a car; you get more miles out of it,” says Kelly.

Since 2004, Kelly and Delgado have been traveling to the poorest parts of Mexico to provide free vet services. All but one trip has been financed by Kelly with some help from friends.

The Mexico City Dump

I would imagine that there are few places on this planet that are sadder than the dump outside of Mexico City that hundreds of families call home. What could strip away a person’s dignity and self worth faster than living in cardboard houses surrounded by trash?

For the people that live at the dump, life is a constant struggle. They get up early in the morning and collect people’s trash. They are not paid to do this but occasionally get a tip. Once they get the trash back to the dump, they sort through it scavenging for anything usable including food.

Kelly says that the conditions of the animals here are the worst that he has seen in Mexico. “Their teeth are bad. Their skin is full of saddle sores. They use discarded doormats and used tires as saddle pads. There is no surrounding vegetation for the animals to graze on. The people feed the animals cardboard. The people and their horses are emaciated,” said Kelly.

Despite their living situation, Kelly says that the people seem happy. Kelly says that they are constantly smiling and that the traditional family unit is present.

The Return to Veracruz

Last November, Kelly and Delgado returned to Veracruz. They had been reluctant to travel to Mexico because of escalating violence related to organized crime. As an estimated 28,000 people have been murdered in Mexico in the last four years, they had a legitimate concern. And only a couple of years prior, Veracruz had 20 murders, several missing officials, and a grenade attack on a tourist area in one month. In addition, Kelly and Delgado had previously been detained -- held at gunpoint by a 12-year-old boy -- because they were traveling with medicine. They were told by airport workers that they did not have the proper paper work but it was really just a shakedown for money.

Because of the vegetation, the animals in Veracruz are less emaciated than in other parts of Mexico. Yet the horses have major dental issues, bad skin, bad hooves, and parasite infestations. “We would sit there and pull hundreds of ticks off these animals; there were even ticks in the mouths of some of the animals,” said Kelly.

The last day that Kelly and Delgado were in Veracruz, they returned to a village that they had visited two years earlier. Delgado pointed out a horse that they had previously treated. At that time, it was so emaciated that Delgado hung his hat on the animal’s hipbone and took a picture. This time around, the horse had gained so much weight that Kelly did not recognize the animal.

The Barriers To Help

I asked Kelly what the barriers to being able to do more to help the people were and he said it could best be explained by telling a story.

Kelly explained that he has more tools in his truck than the entire surgical room at the veterinarian school. He said that the vets desperately need tools and supplies. He remarked that they reuse almost everything -- including wound wrappings and syringes. He has witnessed vets sharpening old syringes that have become dull.

Kelly said that in the old days, he would try to send tools to the local vets through the proper channels. But the cost and paperwork associated with shipping supplies became inefficient and cost prohibitive. As an example, several years ago Kelly sent down a generator. The company that made the generator said that it shipped to Mexico. Kelly paid for the generator and was told that it arrived in customs. The local vet, however, did not have the money to get the generator because the government charged a twenty-percent customs fee and taxes. When Kelly arrived in customs, he was told that the generator was not there. He had to pay the guy at customs $100 to find it.

“Because of the government and corruption, there simply is no way to send stuff to Mexico through the proper channels. The people are so needy, and we cannot even send them supplies. The same is true with drugs. You cannot purchase the drugs we need in Mexico; they simply do not exist. We have to smuggle them in,” said Kelly.

Rich Man/Poor Man

Kelly explained that when they arrive at a village, they are treated with incredible hospitality. After work, they are invited into the mayor’s house and offered food. Each home has a water basin to clean up; the water is generally brown and putrid. There will be a small amount of food on the table. The family will stand behind them while they sit at the table. “In many cases, the food they are offering you is all they would have to eat in the entire day. They are starving and yet they insist you eat,” said Kelly.

Kelly and Delgado have come up with a name for experiences like this. They call it “Rich Man/ Poor Man.” “These people are some of the poorest on earth yet they are rich in spirit. They are starving but will offer you their food.” According to Kelly, the people are rich in spirit but impoverished. “Sometimes in the US we will be working on a person’s animal and be told to be careful not to scratch the barn. We refer to those people as Poor Man / Rich Man -- they are poor in spirit but have lots of money,” Kelly said.

Kelly explained that despite the condition of the animals, there is a symbiotic relation between the extremely impoverished and their animals -- each needs the other to survive. Kelly stated that one of the people on his last trip was very upset with how the animals were treated. He tried to explain to her that the poor are victims of where they were born. They have no money and not even basic education. They don’t even know about trimming hooves or worming. “Look how the world has treated them,” Kelly stated.

I asked Kelly why he goes on these trips and he said, “I owe it to society.” Kelly went on to explain that “these people are no different from my family -- they simply do not know any better. I was blessed to be able to go to veterinary school and have a moral obligation to the less fortunate.”

Kelly added what he and Delgado have done is like planting a tree and he needs to make sure that it continues to grow. If you would like to help Kelly’s tree grow, he always needs donations of money and medicine. Kelly can be contacted through the author at vjotten@cox.net