Community vet clinics

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community vet clinics

For the many pet owners existing on the margins of society, there are community vet clinics working hard to ensure they don’t fall through the gaps, writes Rachel Smith.

When Lobby the dog jumped up to investigate a noise at her owner’s front door one night, she accidentally twisted her leg and ruptured her anterior cruciate ligament. Lobby’s owner Janine lived in public housing and knew she couldn’t afford the $5000 operation to fix her pet’s leg—and the alternative for the staffy bull terrier was to be lame for life.

Enter Woolloomooloo’s HopeStreet Clinic, an initiative between BaptistCare and The University of Sydney’s veterinary teaching hospital. Its veterinarian Dr Peter Higgins, who manages the initiative, facilitated the five-hour operation to fix Lobby’s leg and organised for the bulk of the fee to be paid by the university.

 “I remember when Janine brought Lobby in,” said Dr Higgins, who volunteers in the pop-up clinic one day a month. “She was just so distraught because she knew the dog wasn’t going to be able to walk properly ever again. She only had $200 in the bank … what do you do? There was no hesitation on the university’s part once I explained the situation. Since the operation Lobby has been like a puppy again—there literally is a spring in her step.”

Keeping people with their pets

It’s just one memorable case Dr Higgins has managed, and he clearly loves the chance to help those who ‘live for their pets’ but can’t afford veterinary services.

“I know the area, I went to school there, and for me, it’s about giving back,” he explains. “Whether it’s a dog or cat or ferret or blue-tongue lizard or snake, it really is a win-win. If you’re homeless and living out under a railway aqueduct, or financially destitute in public housing, your dog or cat becomes your lifeline. HopeStreet Clinic helps the animals, keeps them in perfect condition, gives the owners a reason for living and one thing less to worry about. It’s also a win for the community.”

That sentiment is echoed by Simone Chmielewski, regional clinic administrator for AWLQ’s Community Veterinary Clinics on QLD’s Gold Coast. Its clinic has been operating since 2001 under the Animal Welfare League Queensland, and has an ethos that it will never turn away an animal that’s sick or suffering, irrespective of an owner’s capacity to pay.

When you’re able to give an animal the care they need and send it home with its owners—that puts a smile on my face every day.” 

Simone Chmielewski, regional clinic administrator, AWLQ’s Community Veterinary Clinics

“We’re quite unique in that we don’t means test,” she says. “We have all kinds of clients: people who are looking for housing, working class people on low incomes, a lot of seniors who rely heavily on their pet for companionship. We don’t feel it’s in the best interests for our community, for these people to be faced with having to make difficult decisions such as euthanasia. So supporting and enabling people to keep their pets underpins what we do.” 

Who funds community vet clinics?

Back in the late 1990s, a generous donation enabled AWLQ to contemplate starting a community vet clinic, which launched in 2001. “That’s sort of how the clinic got started—as a shelter and rehoming centre, we were seeing firsthand the need in the community and how many people were unable to get the vet care they needed,” says Chmielewski.

For his Woollomooloo initiative, Dr Higgins spearheaded a crowdfunding effort with the University of Sydney and raised about $20,000 to start HopeStreet Clinic. On the days the clinic is open, Dr Higgins is there with a nurse or two and usually a veterinary student. 

“They see a side of a veterinary practice that not many people see and it’s good experience for them, even though it’s a full-on day; we do 18-20 consultations on that day generally,” he says. “The main challenges are that we can only do minor procedures, so any surgeries that are needed have to come to the university’s teaching hospital. None of our clients have a car and we don’t have an ambulance, so that’s frustrating in a way, because what I would consider fairly simple procedures I can’t do at the clinic we have, because we’re not licensed to do them.”

Obtaining a Class C license is on the cards so the clinic can offer more to its clients, and HopeStreet is always in need of donations. Although other charitable animal initiatives in the inner city are available such as Pets in the Park, which involves vets donating their time to pet owners in the forecourt of a church, Dr Higgins says he’s not aware of others like HopeStreet.

“We operate like a private practice, only no money changes hands,” he says. “There’s so much need in this area, I can see us eventually doing the clinic two days a month and then one day a week. It’s good to get away from the business decisions you have as a vet in private practice, and just focus on the clinical stuff. I enjoy that. And when you can treat a dog with a major heart condition and prolong its life, the relief on the owner’s face is hard to describe.” 

Chmielewski agrees. She recalls a case where a dog fell off the back of a car and AWLQ spent six months treating the animal to get him back to full health. “It was a lot of work for our team and it would never have been possible for that owner to afford the treatment,” she says. “It was so rewarding at the end of it, when the dog was able to go home. When you’re able to give an animal the care they need and send it home with its owners—that puts a smile on my face every day.”

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