The humane movement: The challenge and the future of the veterinary profession

Avoid direct opposition of animal welfare groups during this cultural shift.
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Apr 01, 2013


"The face of an unwanted pet behind a kennel gate is a powerful thing." GETTY IMAGES/ANDREI SPIRACHE
Dr. Emily Strunk looked across the parking lot as she approached the old house. The lot was full of old, battered cars. She walked past a 1980s-era station wagon full of pet taxis and newspapers. Then she noticed a gleaming Jaguar parked well away from the others.

As Dr. Strunk climbed the stairs to the porch she noticed a sign reading, "All animals need to come in the back door." She smiled and hoped it didn't apply to her. She knocked. No reply. She opened the door a bit and was surprised to see several pairs of eyes staring at her.

No one said anything. The large room was still. She heard a cat meow in a distant room, followed by a muted bark. "Hello, I'm Dr. Strunk from across town," she ventured. "I was hoping to meet Dr. Thomas. Can anyone help me?" The silence was deafening.

A woman sitting at a paper-strewn desk pursed her lips and finally broke the silence. "I suppose you mean Sue," she said. "She's out for the day."

"I'm interested in meeting with her," Dr. Strunk replied. "We have many things in common, and I'd like to discuss helping out her organization." More silence.

Dr. Strunk was determined. "Could you please tell Dr. Thomas I dropped by and hope to tour the facility sometime?"

The room's occupants started to shift uncomfortably. The woman at the desk said, "We'll tell her you stopped by."

Dr. Strunk slowly backed toward the door—somehow this seemed the correct posture for exit. She turned at the top of steps and gulped in the fresh air.

A few minutes later she arrived at her veterinary hospital. "Hey, Em, did you get a tour at Hav-a-Heart Shelter and Rescue?" asked her partner, Dr. Jamie Street, as she entered. Dr. Street had just bought into the rural Texas practice after having worked for Dr. Strunk for five years. "No tour—no nothing," Dr. Strunk said, then she explained what had happened.

"I know you've been trying for years to get the veterinarians in town involved with shelter and rescue groups," Dr. Street said. "And when someone like you tries to get the ball rolling, this always seems to happen. You told me Dr. Thomas used to work at Academy Animal Hospital, right?"

"Yes, and why she left is anyone's guess," Dr. Strunk replied. "We used to talk on the phone, but I haven't spoken with her in months."

Dr. Strunk looked at the clock. It was time for lunch but she rarely ate. Today was no different. She entered her office and dialed Academy Animal Hospital.

"Sue must feel guilty," said her colleague, Dr. Joe Smith, after Dr. Strunk described her strange encounter. Then he filled her in on some background.

While she was still at Academy, Dr. Sue Thomas had started surrounding herself with friends from various rescue groups in town. Those people needed to rally around someone they could look up to because of her education and status in the community. Dr. Thomas loved that, and eventually the pull toward the humane movement became overwhelming. She came in one day and told Dr. Smith that her life purpose wasn't working with clients anymore—it was for the suffering masses of animals with no homes.

Within 30 days of leaving she and her friends had started Hav-a-Heart. Dr. Smith said Dr. Thomas hadn't taken a pay cut when she left—in fact, she now earned a little more. The corporation had good benefits, too. Within the local humane movement were smart people who knew how to form 501(c)(3) corporations using websites that provided legal documents and counseling for very little money—somewhere around $600. They also had board members with connections to a Dallas foundation that sent money. They also wrote grants and held fund-raising events. "The face of an unwanted pet behind a kennel gate is a powerful thing," Dr. Smith said.

He told Dr. Strunk that the organization's staff was made up entirely of volunteers. There was one technician who had been with the group for several years. She and Dr. Thomas could perform up to 30 spays or neuters per day. Dr. Thomas was also now seeing patients in the afternoon for other medical services—anybody who walked in the door. Although the group stated that it served only those who couldn't afford care, "it's become clear that's pretty much lip service," Dr. Smith said.

Dr. Strunk spent time over the years trying to cooperate with the shelters in the area, and she didn't understand why she was being met with silence. "You're now the competition," he said.

"What do you think we should do?" she asked.

"Do you have $600?"