The shelter dilemma

The shelter dilemma

Is it possible to find passion and a profitable partnership in the world of lost and abandoned pets? Some veterinarians have found a way.
May 01, 2008

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)
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?

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.

In the trenches
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.

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.

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

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."