Gulf coast practices report drop in business

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Veterinary practices in the Gulf Coast are feeling the financial impact of the oil spill

NATIONAL REPORT — While it is business as usual for some veterinarians along the Gulf Coast, others are feeling the effects of the April 21 oil spill.

"I'm scared," says Dr. Anne Laurent of Best Friends Animal Hospital in Houma, La., who has been in business for six months. "We were booming in the beginning, before the oil spill. The practice is still growing, but we are definitely not making our numbers because of boarding."

On a Thursday afternoon in August, five cats and two dogs were boarded, with no additional bookings for the weekend.

"Our boarding numbers are down," she says. "People either can't afford to take a vacation or they are guarding their jobs and afraid to take a vacation."

Laurent also noticed that her clients are more particular now when it comes to extra treatments.

"We were doing more diagnostics, but now they pick and choose what they want us to do," she says. "There are not as many extras."

A state away, in Pascagoula, Miss., the staff at Pet Harbor Veterinary Hospital also have noticed an "unbelievable drop" in clients boarding their pets, says hospital manager Alison Benson.

"We are usually turning people away two to three weeks before the July 4 weekend," she says. "This year we had only a handful of boarders."

Pascagoula, 1½ miles from the coast, has had a few tar balls wash up on shore, Benson says, adding the fishing has not been affected much.

"I am an avid fisherman, and I've been fishing toward the mouth of the river, catching all the usual fish," she adds.

In Foley, Ala., Kim Forbes, with the Animal Medical Center, says the oil spill has not affected business much at all.

Located five miles from the beach, Forbes says they have done a lot of boarding this season too.

"They really did a good job cleaning up," she says. "About a month ago, the area smelled a little like a garage, but now the water looks gorgeous."

Forbes also volunteers to help sea turtles, and has monitored nests along the Alabama coast.

She says wildlife experts decided not to let the eggs hatch in the area. "About 10 days before they hatch, the eggs are gathered up and transported by special trucks to Cape Canaveral, Fla., where they will hatch."

North of Cape Canaveral, in Wakulla County, Fla., Dr. Norm Griggs says the oil never touched the Florida panhandle.

"I have mainly noticed that many people are holding their money a bit tighter," he says. "Pets are still getting cared for but things like dentals are sometimes getting pushed back until better times."

Griggs says the coastal community experienced a "significant economic impact from the oil spill."

"There was a mass hysteria created by the coverage that indicated the seafood from the Gulf was no longer fit to eat. Nationwide demand for fish, shrimp and oysters skidded to a stop," he says. "Our community will survive this, but there is a great deal of bitterness toward BP and the national government. The waste of resources and manpower around here when there was no oil was laughable. I can only imagine what it was like over in Alabama and westward."

To help keep families and pets together, the Louisiana SPCA and several local shelters are offering free pet care and food to those affected by the spill.

Residents of Plaquemines, St. Bernard, Terrebonne and Jefferson parishes in Louisiana, who work within the fishing industry, are eligible for free vet care including basic exams, tests, annual vaccinations, spaying or neutering, microchips and pet food.

The Terrebonne Parish Animal Shelter, in Houma, La., is offering free dog food as part of the program.

"We have seen a slight increase — mostly dogs — at the shelter," says manager Valerie Robinson. "Hopefully [by offering free services and food] we caught the situation before people have to make the decision to surrender their pets."

Robinson adds that several animals were transported from shelters along the coast to the shelters in the northern part of the United States in early August to make room for other animals.

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