The shelter dilemma


Everyone can start to break the impasse between private practitioners and shelters by listening.

In a busy hallway, out of the sight of potential adopters, a staff member and two kennel volunteers at Wayside Waifs Humane Society in Kansas City, Mo., crowd around a video camera. They're watching film of a Yorkshire terrier snapping angrily at a plastic hand on a stick positioned near her food. Even when the hand leaves the food bowl, the Yorkie chases it to the corner of the room. "I was scared," admits one volunteer who was in the room with the Yorkie during the test. The dog won't be put up for adoption without behavior modification. But who will provide that training? The shelter? A behaviorist? A private practitioner?

The advocate: Dr. Luke Pickett (pictured with a newly neutered cat) turned away from private practice to become a veterinarian at Wayside Waifs Humane Society. "I'm the advocate for these animals without owners," he says. (PHOTOS BY MARK MCDONALD)

At first glance, it may seem like private practitioners are on the same team as shelter personnel, animal control officers, and rescue groups. Everyone wants the best for the pets who wind up in their facilities.

But beneath this unified surface runs an undercurrent of suspicion. Shelter staff worry that veterinarians are badmouthing them when treating pets adopted from their facilities: "This disease should have been diagnosed. This animal had to have been sick at the shelter." In turn, veterinarians worry that shelters tell folks that private-practice doctors are heartless profitmongers because they have the audacity to charge for their services when so many animals need help.

These are extreme positions, and neither is entirely valid. Pets adopted from shelters may indeed become sick soon after they leave, but symptoms often don't appear during the shelter stay, medical treatment is costly, and close quarters are inevitable. On the other hand, idealistic animal-welfare personnel may have a hard time grasping the financial realities of running a private practice. These misunderstandings continue, and the reality remains: Homeless pets need help.

In the trenches

Are you ready to break the impasse? Do you want to help but don't know how to balance animal-welfare needs with those of your business? Well, many of the shelter personnel we talked to want just one thing from you: A listening ear. They have stories to tell. They're reaching out. Can you spare a minute?

The big, fancy shelter

In Wayside Waifs' lobby, a receptionist sits at an information desk, signs point toward dog and cat adoption areas, and, on this day, a volunteer explains to a new adopter that a resident dog's behavior issues stem from abuse by a previous owner. Unlike many animal control facilities and shelters, Wayside Waifs can afford a staff of more than 50, including four technicians and two full-time veterinarians who maintain protocols for behavioral assessment, disease treatment, and other health considerations.

Through a door and down a clean-smelling corridor is the intake area, where everyone who enters must wipe their feet on a trifectant-soaked mat to keep from spreading pathogens. Cages behind big glass windows hold newly arrived cats that will be in quarantine for at least two weeks. They can't move on to the adoption area because one of the cats was diagnosed with a contagious disease, and shelter staff need to be sure none of the others are infected. Disease outbreaks happen.

Beneficial relationship: Private practitioner Dr. John Lyle (left) helps shelter veterinarian Dr. Luke Pickett. (PHOTOS BY MARK MCDONALD)

Courtney Thomas, director of operations, has been working at Wayside Waifs since 2002 and knows that reality. This shelter is Kansas City's largest and one of its finest, but it's not immune from the problems every shelter faces. "The moment an animal walks into a shelter, it's potentially exposed," Thomas says. "The best we can do is vaccinate on intake, cut down on stress levels, and do our best to limit the spread of disease."

Some private practition understand this, Thomas says—but she wishes more did. All they would have to do is visit. They'd see that shelters and animal control officers are doing the best they can with their different budgets. "I just want veterinarians to get to know the shelters in their communities," she says.

But Thomas is careful not to criticize doctors. She wants them to speak as well of shelters as she speaks of private practitioners. She knows some of them worry that nonprofits bring down prices and steal business from private practices that don't have the luxury of operating on goodwill and donations. But Wayside Waifs offers post-adoption medical services for only 10 days. "We're not here to take business away from them, and we're not here to offer low-cost services to the general public," she says. "We're here to do our best to send veterinarians healthy patients."

The local animal control

Twenty miles away at Olathe Animal Control in Olathe, Kan., supervisor Lesa Murray echoes Thomas. The aim is always to reunite lost pets with owners and adopt out cats and dogs—just like Wayside Waifs. But like most municipal shelter directors, Murray has a limited budget, so there's no way she can provide perfect medical care for every pet that arrives at the facility.

Olathe Animal Control is tucked into a municipal complex near the fire station and police department and is a fraction of the size of Wayside Waifs, with five full-time and three part-time employees, and four volunteers. The animal control officers' main job isn't the shelter, either—it's responding to animal control calls. Murray, a former veterinary assistant who has been with Olathe for 10 years and in animal control for 25, does her best with the resources she has. She and her volunteers don't flinch from scrubbing down dirty dogs or treating flea-infested, scabby pets out on the lawn. She would love to provide more diagnostics for the animals—fecal exams, parvovirus tests—but there just isn't money.

A small budget is part of the reason Murray recently visited more than two dozen local veterinarians and invited them to a meeting with city budgeting personnel and the chief of police. It was a Q&A session on bidding for the Olathe Animal Control contract for veterinary services. A local doctor gets the contract, and that doctor gets paid a set amount for various services. Murray didn't necessarily expect the private practitioners to bid for the city's contract, but she did want them to help make her case to increase the budget. She thought the veterinarians might support her quest for better diagnostics and treatment options.

But only the current contractee and one other veterinarian, who was testifying in an animal abuse case at the courthouse next door, showed up. Murray was disappointed. "I wanted more veterinarians to come to the facility to see how hard we're working and help explain to the city that more tests and vaccinations in the shelter are needed," she says. "But they didn't show." Now Murray is considering buying a microscope on eBay and doing fecals herself. In most cases, the city won't pay for them.

The current contractee, Dr. Clint Beggs, owner of Best Care Pet Hospital in Olathe, Kan., has been providing the shelter's medical care for almost 11 years. When he started, he squeezed a friend at a medical supply company for free parvovirus tests, but that didn't last more than a year. He says that the animal control work fills some empty slots in his schedule, but it "won't boost anybody's bank account."

"Some doctors think a municipal contract means money in the bank, but that is never where I was coming from," Dr. Beggs says. He says "it sucks" to euthanize animals that in other circumstances could be treated or rehabilitated, but he still does it because the contract helps him feel like he's really making a difference. "You can help a lot more animals through shelters than you can by giving a discount to the one client who can't pay for their pet's broken leg," he says.

The veterinarians who help

Like Dr. Beggs, Dr. John Lyle of Crest Animal Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., has found a way to collaborate with a shelter. For years, Wayside Waifs' Thomas has turned to Dr. Lyle for advice on containing disease outbreaks and other health issues. Dr. Lyle's wife, also a veterinarian, filled in a number of times when Wayside Waifs needed backup. Dr. Lyle helped the shelter's newest veterinarian, Dr. Luke Pickett, with tricky sutures. Dr. Lyle is on a list of recommended veterinarians that Wayside Waifs gives new adopters, and he provides free wellness exams for newly adopted patients.

Wayside Waifs is a stellar example of a shelter, Dr. Lyle says. But not all shelters and rescue groups are created equal. He has worked with organizations whose members took care of too many foster pets at once or refused to follow his medical recommendations. Their animals' poor care endangered Dr. Lyle's clients in terms of disease prevention, so he has cut ties with some of these groups. He counsels veterinarians to perform due diligence on the organizations they'd like to help.

"Spend time on site, follow staff members around, and get a feel for what the procedures are," he says. Shelters sometimes just need a little advice more than anything. "Veterinarians can find opportunities to be charitable without potentially hurting their practice," he says.

Many of your clients have adopted—or will adopt—pets from shelters. If you're motivated to help or even just meet the staff at these facilities to learn about their operations, chances abound. Working with shelters can even help your bottom line if you identify what you're willing to do, how you'll do it, and how to publicize your help.

Unfortunately, homeless animals will probably always be around—despite hopes to the contrary. On the grounds of Wayside Waifs, behind the 34,000-square-foot facility, sits a small red-brick house. It was donated to Wayside Waifs, along with the 44 acres of surrounding land, by a couple who thought that in a few decades, the pet overpopulation problem would be solved. More than 60 years later, the problem is still with us, but the state-of-the-art facility in front of the small brick home is a testament that people are still looking for solutions.

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