An unconventional traditionalist

Dr. Tolani Francisco charts unique career path while remaining true to her Native American heritage
Published on May 02, 2016
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It’s March 19—the feast day of St. Joseph—and the Pueblo of Laguna Tribe of New Mexico is celebrating with a fiesta. There’s a carnivallike atmosphere on the Laguna reservation, located roughly 45 miles west of Albuquerque; ceremonial dancers perform before an icon of the saint beneath a row of deer heads adorned with turquoise necklaces. Vendors line a dusty road selling fry bread, handmade jewelry, and traditional tribal clothing.

Dr. Tolani Francisco moves among the crowd, stopping to chat with friends and relatives. She’s home for the weekend to spend time with her family, one of her regular visits from Aurora, Colorado, where Dr. Francisco is stationed as a veterinary epidemiologist with the Department of Agriculture. She tells everyone that Reaching UP, the AVMA’s high-quality, high-volume spay-neuter clinic for underserved populations, is returning.

Dr. Francisco
Dr. Tolani Francisco, Pueblo of Laguna Tribe member and veterinary epidemiologist (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

“We’re having three clinics this year,” Dr. Francisco says. “The next one’s in April, then in July and again in November. Please spread the word.” More than a hundred reservation dogs and cats were castrated and spayed when Reaching UP came to the Pueblo for four days last November (seeReaching UP in New Mexico”).

Working with the Native America Humane Society, Dr. Francisco brought the clinic to her reservation because, as she explained, the Laguna people have a sacred responsibility for the welfare of their “four-legged brothers and sisters.” Dr. Francisco takes leave from the USDA to do the clinics; she hopes her participation shows Laguna boys and girls that, like her, they can be educated without compromising their Native American heritage.

“I want the kids here on the reservation to know that school is important,” said Dr. Francisco, who has both a DVM degree and a master’s in public health. “Just because you become educated, you don’t forget your native identity. You don’t forget your customs and traditions; you add to them.”

Traditional beginnings

Dr. Francisco is an American Indian and proud of it. “Tolani,” she points out, is a Navajo word describing a place with an abundance of water. Her father is Laguna, and her mother is a granddaughter of Samuel Blue, the Catawba Nation chief thought to be the last native speaker of the Catawba language. In college, Dr. Francisco became a competitive distance runner because she is a member of the Road Runner Clan within the Laguna tribe. “Traditionally, our clan was messengers who ran between villages, so I wanted to keep that part of me very much intact,” she said.

I want the kids here on the reservation to know that school is important. Just because you become educated, you don’t forget your native identity. You don’t forget your customs and traditions; you add to them.

Dr. Tolani Francisco, Pueblo of Laguna Tribe member and veterinary epidemiologist

Growing up on the Laguna Pueblo reservation, Dr. Francisco was surrounded by cattle, horses, and sheep. Her father and grandfather were cattlemen; her great-uncle raised sheep, as the Laguna people had done for centuries. “I always liked it, being around animals,” Dr. Francisco recalled. “I always had a dog, a cat, and a horse. Any critter I could bring home and save, I was always trying to do that.”

As a high school sophomore, around the time she learned how to castrate calves with a pocket knife, Dr. Francisco began to seriously consider a career in veterinary medicine. In 1986, she enrolled at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine with plans of opening a veterinary clinic on the Laguna reservation. By the time Dr. Francisco graduated four years later, however, her idealism had been tempered by the harsh realities of starting a small business in an impoverished community.

“This was an economically suppressed area,” she explained. “It was no longer an agrarian society, and people weren’t willing to put money in their animals, and livestock production was in decline.”

A young Tolani Francisco
Dr. Tolani Francisco was raised on the Laguna reservation of New Mexico with animals as constant companions. A young Dr. Francisco is seen here with her pet horse Stranger. (Courtesy of the Francisco family)

Instead of returning to the reservation, Dr. Francisco took a job at a small animal practice in Las Vegas. But after eight weeks of 12-hour days, six days a week for $20,000 a year, she called it quits. Almost immediately, Dr. Francisco was hired as an associate at a mixed animal practice in Reno, and there she stayed for two years before moving to Albuquerque to work as a relief veterinarian.

Nontraditional career

It was 1992, and after five months of relief work, Dr. Francisco was recruited into the USDA’s Public Veterinary Practice Career Program. Participants were groomed to work for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and were taught how to protect the nation’s animals from economically important animal diseases such as bovine tuberculosis and foot-and-mouth disease.

At first, Dr. Francisco was conflicted about switching from private to public practice. After all, she still longed to return to Laguna and start a practice. Yet, the costs of such a venture continued to keep her dream out of reach.

Dr. Francisco sits with her father, Eldon Francisco
Dr. Tolani Francisco sits with her father, Eldon Francisco, in the family home. A portrait of her great-grandfather Samuel Blue, a chief of the Catawba Nation, hangs prominently in the room.(Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

So in October 1992, Dr. Francisco moved to Helena, Montana, where she spent the next nine months training as a field veterinary medical officer and dealing with a tuberculosis outbreak in cervids, conducting rabies clinics on the state’s Native American reservations, and addressing a Brucella infection in bison and elk at Yellowstone National Park. When the program ended, Dr. Francisco was assigned to APHIS’ Albuquerque office to continue her animal disease investigations for the New Mexico region.

From May 1999 until August 2001, Dr. Francisco was a USDA representative in a multinational effort to eradicate FMD in Bolivia. During that period, Ann Veneman, the U.S. agriculture secretary at the time, appointed Dr. Francisco as tribal liaison for APHIS Veterinary Services. In that capacity, when she was stateside, Dr. Francisco visited American Indian reservations across the country to discuss issues relating to animal health.

FMD and 9/11

In February 2001, as Dr. Francisco was trying to eliminate endemic FMD in Bolivia, the first cases of the disease were being reported in the United Kingdom. By the time the U.K. epizootic was finally contained that October, an estimated 10 million sheep and cattle had been slaughtered in a grim effort to contain the virus.

Given her experience with FMD, Dr. Francisco readily volunteered when the USDA called on U.S. veterinarians to assist their U.K. colleagues. She arrived in England in late March and was dispatched to the northern part of the country near the Scottish border. Her task was to determine whether the FMD virus was present on farms where infection was suspected.

The memory of one such visit in particular, to a sheep farm outside Cockermouth, in Cumbria, still brings tears to Dr. Francisco’s eyes more than a decade later. She said it was immediately clear that most of the animals on the farm were infected. She phoned headquarters to make her report, and a depopulation team was dispatched.

“While we were waiting for the euthanasia crew, the farmer explained to me these sheep had been in his family for 400 years,” Dr. Francisco said. “It took a half day to depopulate his farm. I found out later from his wife that he took his life. He had said, ‘Without my sheep, I don’t know how I’m going to support my family.’”

“It was really, really hard to be part of that,” she continued. “I didn’t go to veterinary school to kill animals. That was probably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, Dr. Francisco felt a “burning desire” to serve her country. In August 2002, she joined the Air Force as a public health officer with the rank of captain and, until March 2006, remained on active duty.

“We always had someone in our family serve in the military, and that was important to me,” Dr. Francisco said. The next month, she returned to the USDA as an epidemiologist with APHIS Veterinary Services, her current position.

Dream on

Her ethnicity, international experiences, and nontraditional veterinary career make Dr. Francisco a much- sought-after speaker at public schools and veterinary colleges alike. And while she’s happy talking about alternative careers, Dr. Francisco is eager to return to private practice when she retires from the USDA.

For years, Dr. Francisco has eyed an abandoned house near her parents’ Laguna home for the brick-and-mortar clinic she’s dreamed of since her days as a veterinary student. She envisions veterinarians and senior-level veterinary students working at the clinic for one week every month, providing high-quality veterinary care to the reservation animals.

Dilapidated house
Dr. Tolani Francisco hopes to one day transform this dilapidated house into a clinic where veterinarians and veterinary students could treat the Laguna people’s pets. (Photo by R. Scott Nolen)

“You don’t have to go to Africa to work in a developing area,” Dr. Francisco said. “We have over 500 tribes in the United States, and I haven’t been to a reservation yet that is prosperous, where people have money to spend on their animals like they do on non-native lands.

“Reservation animals still deserve the same quality care as those living in more prosperous areas. We owe that much to our four-legged brothers and sisters.”