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Tolani Francisco: The Animal Healer

Dr. Tolani Francisco is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna and a dedicated veterinarian who has cared for her four-legged brothers and sisters both on her reservation and around the world.

This podcast is a production of Rebel Girls. It’s based on the book series Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. This story was produced by Haley Dapkus with sound design and mixing by Bianca Salinas. It was written by Nicole Haroutunian and edited by Abby Sher. Fact-checking by Joe Rhatigan. Narration by Elise Randall Modica. Original theme music was composed and performed by Elettra Bargiacchi. Our executive producer was Joy Smith. Thank you to the whole Rebel Girls team who make this podcast possible. Stay rebel!

Transcript

Under the wide sky of the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico, her boots kicking up desert dust, fifteen-year-old Tolani Francisco joined the troop of sheep shearers, ready to get in on the action. 

Tolani was helping with her family’s wooly, wiggling sheep, when she heard her grandmother calling. 

Gee-yao! Granddaughter! 

Tolani ran to her grandmother’s side, finding her crouched next to a fallen sheep. 

There’d been an accident. One of the sheep had been hurt, badly. It was heartbreaking. Tolani felt helpless, watching the sheep suffer. She decided right then and there that she was going to study all about animals and how to care for them. Tolani would become a veterinarian.

I’m Elise Randall Modica. And this is Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls.

A fairy tale podcast about the real-life rebel women who inspire us. 

On this episode, we’ll meet Dr. Tolani Francisco, a veterinarian who makes sure animals of all shapes and sizes are able to thrive.

Tolani was surrounded by animals from the very start—her father put her on a horse at only two weeks old! Tolani’s grandfather was a cattleman and both of her parents worked as agriculture instructors. The whole family was enmeshed with their four-legged brothers and sisters, just as their ancestors had been. 

A citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, Tolani was half Laguna, a quarter Catawba, and a quarter Anglo. She spent a lot of time at her grandparents’ adobe home on the reservation, the only girl among a brother and bevy of boy cousins. Their house was heated only by a wood-burning stove—Tolani slept beside it on a sheep pelt at night. 

Tolani loved growing up here. She especially loved dancing the butterfly dance as her grandfather sang traditional songs, and listening to her grandmother talk about human and animal ancestors, called kopishtaya.  

Tolani felt such a strong bond with all the animals around her. She led the herds in the desert to water,; cradled sick lambs in her arms, and became so attached to her school principal’s dog that he wound up following Tolani home and refused to leave!

Just as Tolani was drawn to animals, they were clearly drawn to her, too.  

In high school, Tolani made an appointment with the school counselor to share her dream of becoming a veterinarian. “You know, Tolani,” the counselor said. “You’re not so smart and you aren’t pretty. The best you can hope for is to find a man, get married, and have babies.” Tolani sank down in her chair, her heart sinking with her. 

But she knew better than to believe those hurtful words. She said to herself, “You’re a duck. The bad things people say roll off your back like water.” She focused on all the people and animals who loved and supported her.  And with hard work and perseverance, Tolani became school valedictorian, heading off to study medicine at New Mexico State University. 

Tolani continued on to veterinary school, and felt instantly at home. She was one of very few women in the program, and by her estimation, only the third indigenous woman ever to become a veterinarian! Tolani was so proud to be blazing the way with this small but impressive sisterhood.

As she likes to say, just because you become educated, you don’t forget your native identity. You don’t forget your customs and traditions; you add to them.”  

After she graduated, Tolani returned home, eager to treat reservation animals just like she’d imagined since that day with her grandmother and the injured sheep. But Tolani  was disappointed to learn that her tribe wasn’t willing to invest in a veterinary clinic. Things had changed over the years on the reservation — not as many people depended on animals for their livelihood anymore. 

Without funding, Tolani couldn’t build a new space, or buy big equipment like x-ray machines. It would take a million dollars to build a proper clinic, and she just didn’t have that kind of money. And yet, Tolani refused to give up. She set up a makeshift clinic in her parents’ garage, doing what she could to fix pets and vaccinate cattle. 

While she had found a way to help local animals on the weekend, she still needed a job to pay the bills. She had such a unique set of skills and so much potential. Now she just needed a place to use them!

Soon, Tolani was hired by the United States Department of Agriculture, or the USDA.

She was sent into the Montana wilderness to diagnose deer with tuberculosis and into Yellowstone National Forest to treat bison with Brucella [broo-SELL-uh]. Tolani was small next to the shaggy, hulking brown bison, but she wasn’t intimidated. Not by them, nor by the wolves she helped reintroduce to the wild, nor the giant elk with their spiky antlers. 

That’s not to say that those huge animals didn’t give her occasional trouble. Like one day, when Tolani and some colleagues were treating a sick elk bull. He was sedated so they could tend to him, a towel over his eyes. When the doctors reversed the medication so the elkbull could start to wake up, it was Tolani’s job to pull the towel off his eyes and hop into the vets’ truck to get out of his way. 

Tolani knelt beside the hulking animal, waiting. Then, the elk’s legs started to twitch. Quick and agile, Tolani grabbed the corner of the towel and pulled. But– it snagged on the elk’s antlers! Before she could get it off, the elk was awake and furious. Who were these people and what were they doing? He didn’t know they were there to help. The outraged elk pointed his six-point antlers at her and prepared to charge. 

Thank goodness Tolani was good at running! 

Heart pounding, she took off at a sprint and jumped into the truck just in the nick of time. 

Tolani has gotten all kinds of mementos from working with her wild patients—broken ribs and a hip, cuts, and bruises and scars. Her wounds healed, for the most part, all except for one: a permanent hoof-print on her bottom! 

Tolani’s expertise took her all over the world, to treat animals and contain diseases. Recognizing her unique combination of veterinary skill and indigenous knowledge, the USDA sent her to visit many reservations, too. There, Tolani provided holistic care, thinking about the animals’ entire lives and environments. 

Tolani continued to have even more adventures. In 2002, Tolani wanted to serve her country in the military, and joined the Air Force as a public health officer. 

One day, as she taught an aerobics class on the Air Force base, she got a call from the canine center next door. There’d been a fight between two military dogs and a favorite of hers, Arno, was gravely injured. 

Still in her spandex workout gear, Tolani burst out the door and into action. Her job in the Air Force was with people, not animals, but her training—and her adrenaline—kicked in. She whisked Arno to the only place nearby with the equipment she needed to save his life. Not giving anyone a chance to say no, she commandeered a human Emergency Room! She gave him painkillers and sewed up his wounds. She knew she might get in trouble later, but she had to help him. She gave him painkillers and sewed up his wounds. Saving Arno was what mattered most. 

Later, Tolani did get in trouble with her Air Force commander. He thought she’d overstepped her job and that Arno should have waited to be treated by Army veterinarians. That was the protocol. But, both Tolani and the Army knew that they would have arrived too late. Overruling Tolani’s commander, the Army recognized her quick, selfless action and issued her a commendation. It was almost unheard of for a person serving in the Air Force to get an award from a different branch of the military, and Tolani earned it by trusting her gut. 

Today, Tolani is the Southwest Region Wild Horse and Burro coordinator of the USDA Forest Services. It’s a long name for a big job. She works with ranchers, environmentalists, and animals, trying to balance all of their needs. It can be challenging—she can’t make everyone happy all the time—but she’s up to the task. She calls on wisdom from all the kopishtaya, like the sheep who inspired her to become a vet and Arno, who recovered from his surgery to live a long and happy life. She heals animals in their moments of need, and they give her strength, too. 

And…in 2016, Tolani established Native Healing LLC. Housed in an environmentally sustainable steel Quonset hut in the Pueblo of Laguna, Tolani’s veterinary clinic cares for reservation animals both large and small. Her ambition is to bring Wellness Centers to reservations across the United States, helping where help is needed most.

Tolani says, “Part of what Native healing is about…[is] we all believe that the two-legged, the finned, the feathered, the creepin’ and crawlin’—they’re all our relations. We as the two-leggeds have a responsibility to help them as much as we can.”