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Different Means to the Same End

By developing cooperative relationships, veterinarians and shelter professionals can work together towards a world full of healthy, well-loved animals

The philosophical differences between animal advocacy groups and local veterinarians can make relationship-building a challenge. Vets and shelter workers tend to vary on a number of issues, including declawing, fertility and reproduction, ear cropping, tail docking, and early-age sterilization. But when animal control agencies, shelters, humane societies, and community veterinarians find a way to become partners, the benefits to the shelter, the veterinary practice, and most importantly, the animals, are enormous; our common ground makes our differences seem less significant.

Shelter workers, ACOs, veterinarians, veterinary technicians, and breed-placement partners are always searching for ways to expand their knowledge and find opportunities for continuing education. The popularity of annual conferences and workshops that cater to all of these groups is testament to that. Participants, presenters, and organizers are frequently professionals and paraprofessionals in their fields, and the sort of cross-training available to people involved in all areas of animal care is invaluable. Such seminars and conferences also present valuable opportunities for networking and sharing ideas and resources that transcend philosophies. Trade magazines such as Veterinary Technician, Animals’ Advocate, Animal Sheltering, and even the Fancy publications are extremely popular among professionals in animal control agencies and shelters—and also in veterinary clinics.

This sort of crossover in information is only the tip of the iceberg, and the more shelters and veterinarians work with and learn from each other, the more understanding they gain for each other’s role in the community. The animal shelters, animal care and control agencies, and rescue organizations that have allied themselves with private veterinarians have almost always found the relationships to be of mutual benefit. Shelters turn to vets for necessary medical knowledge and procedures—including sterilization surgeries, a backbone of any responsible shelter—and vets get new clients from adopted animals. And as more and more humane societies become centers of knowledge for local pet guardians, the community need for sound veterinary advice grows too; veterinarians and their staff perform a much needed service in filling in the knowledge gap for new guardians of companion animals.

As director of education for a humane society in South Florida, I produce workshops and seminars so the public can learn about important companion animal issues. The local veterinary community is my main source of instructors for these classes, and the vets are only too happy to oblige. In a workshop entitled “Why does he DO that?” we discuss behavior modification and some “problem” pet behaviors: using the bed for a litter box or jumping on visitors. Another workshop deals with some of the dangers in the home that animals face, especially around the holidays. The most popular workshop, held monthly, is a Pet CPR/First AID class that teaches people how to perform CPR on dogs and cats, and suggests important steps to take after an injury but before arriving at the veterinarian’s office.

For our bird workshop, we invited a local avian vet to discuss the health and welfare of pet birds. We invited a reptile vet to talk to snake and lizard owners, and a holistic vet to teach us about holistic veterinary medicine. The veterinarians who speak at the monthly workshops are encouraged to hand out their cards and clinic newsletters, and the exposure to prospective clients is invaluable—you cannot buy that kind of advertising, with all its attendant goodwill and face-to-face contact.

National Homeless Animals Day vigils are an excellent opportunity for private clinics and local animal protection organizations to come together. Recently the Village Animal Clinic in Palm Beach Gardens held a public service at its facility and invited all the breed-placement groups, shelters, and animal control agencies to come and read a prayer, sing a song, recite a poem, and introduce attendees to recently adopted animals as well as those still in need of homes. One of the most poignant moments during this event was when a uniformed animal control officer read the heartbreaking poem “On Euthanasia” that tells the tale of a euthanasia technician bringing a lovely dog to the table to be euthanized. This moment brought together—for the first time in local history—animal control officers, shelter workers, breed-placement groups, and veterinarians and their staff.

Many of the animal control workers attending the vigil were off-duty, and though they did not want to be recognized publicly, their presence that night confirmed their sincerity, commitment, and solidarity. The vigil was well-attended and fostered a unique spirit of goodwill among the community animal advocates. The clinic’s clientele and the curious public who came to witness a beautiful ceremony learned something: There is a common goal among those working for animals. The clear implication is that public support of any of these organizations and agencies would serve to help all of us reach that goal: the decline in the number of homeless animals and, subsequently, the decline in the need for euthanasia. The event attracted many pet owners who might never have stopped in to see the clinic otherwise.

Dr. Michael Berkenblit of the Village Animal Clinic furthers the collaboration between his practice and the local shelters. Not only does he serve on several committees at the county animal regulation agency, but he gives back to the community in other ways as well. He has developed a partnership with local shelters to perform free 10-day medical checkups and sterilization suture removal for all adopted animals. This frees up the shelter veterinary staff’s time to perform more emergency care and spay/neuter surgeries. He has helped with complicated “hit by car” injuries that would require too much time for a shelter veterinarian, charging very low fees to the shelter or guardians. He also assists independent cat rescuers and local adoption groups such as Akita Rescue, Golden Retriever Rescue, Greyhound Rescue, and the Animal Rescue Force by offering emergency boarding, euthanasia, low-cost heartworm treatment, and free or low-cost spay/neuters. Furthermore, he keeps a vertical cat “condo” in his lobby for the odd litter of kittens who need homes, making sure they are all sterilized before they go.

Aside from the personal fulfillment that comes from helping animals, Dr. Berkenblit also gets newly adopted animals from the local shelter as new patients. He gets plenty of feline, Akita, greyhound, and golden retriever patients, and he gets loyal clients who sing his praises to all their friends. By serving on the dog-bite board, he meets regularly with the directors of the county animal control agency, the shelters and humane societies, and local breed-placement groups.

His dogs, Woody and Katie, have built a solid reputation as one of the best activity dog teams in South Florida, and I frequently take them to classrooms, hospitals, and civic groups for my humane education programs and pet-facilitated therapy. My shelter gets certified, trustworthy assistance dogs for all our programs, and I make sure that everyone who meets Woody and Katie knows from whence they came. The dogs enjoy the work, the kids enjoy the dogs, so everybody wins!

Everybody also wins when veterinarians form good relationships with animal rights lobbyists. When an animal rights group in Florida filed an injunction to stop a county fair from forcing mules to dive from a 20-foot high-dive, the group recruited an equestrian vet to describe displays of fear and anxiety in mules. This same vet had been assigned to a racetrack in New York, an endeavor obviously at odds with an animal-rights agenda. Differences were easily set aside, however, in an effort to spare the mules the terror of being forced to dive into a small pool for the entertainment of onlookers.

There have been instances of troubled relationships, even lawsuits, among veterinarians and humane societies, especially when those humane societies have their own clinics and can undercut the prices of sterilization surgeries. The fact that sheltering groups offer spay/neuter surgery for $10 to $20 irritates some veterinarians, who routinely charge $120 or more for the same procedures. But if veterinarians can look beyond that small percentage of medical care—a one-time surgery compared to years of medical care for someone’s beloved companion animal—they are sure to find the sacrifice well worth making, and the reduction of unwanted animals is something all of us, whether we’re animal control, animal protection, or just plain animal lovers, can agree upon.

Michelle A. Rivera is the director of education for the Animal Rescue League in West Palm Beach, Florida, and the author of Hospice Hounds: Animals and Healing at the Borders of Death. She lives in Jupiter, Florida.


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