The doctor is in — for pets in need
MIDDLEBURY — Knowing the love of a pet is priceless, Homeward Bound is about to make it easier for financially strapped people to afford basic surgeries for their favorite four-legged friends.
The Middlebury nonprofit, also known as the Humane Society of Addison County, has launched a new surgical unit at its Boardman Street headquarters.
Staffed by veterinarian Dr. Alan Clarisse and his assistant Chelsey Berlic, the clinic is now hosting surgeries mainly for Homeward Bound animals (mostly cats at this point), with plans in January to serve the pets of Homeward Bound’s low-income clients through the PetCORE program.
PetCORE offers free supplemental food and flea-tick preventatives, along with access to affordable pet wellness care and spay/neuter services, to households earning up to 200% of the federal poverty guideline. That’s currently $53,000 annually for a family of four.
The new surgical unit was three years in the making, according to Homeward Bound Executive Director Jessica Danyow. The shelter began advertising for a part-time veterinarian in 2018. The goal was to lessen its reliance on the county’s busy cadre of vets, who have generously offered their services when possible.
Danyow figured an in-house vet working six to 10 hours a week could ensure Homeward Bound’s animals receive basic surgeries, with the potential to expand the service to low-income families.
Unfortunately, a year went by and the ad for a vet didn’t get a nibble, Danyow said. She acknowledged the part-time hours and relative scarcity of new vet school graduates made it a tough sell, while the COVID-19 pandemic certainly didn’t help.
But that changed in 2019, when Clarisse emailed Homeward Bound — initially about a completely different matter. He and his spouse, who operate a small dairy farm in Orwell, were in the market for a new barn cat.
“I went to the Homeward Bound website just to see what they had for cats,” Clarisse recalled. “I was bouncing around on the website and noticed they had an ad for a part-time veterinarian.”
Clarisse was intrigued. Vermont’s shrinking number of dairy farms had been eroding his large-animal client base. He’d been looking to scale back his veterinary duties anyway, due both to the rigors of travel and the fact that dealing with large animals can inflict serious pain.
“I get beat up,” the veteran veterinarian said on Monday. “I got kicked in the leg today.”
He reasoned a transition to the care of small animals, on a part-time basis, would be a wise move given his age and schedule.
“I thought it would be a nice change,” he said.
Clarisse brought himself up to speed on the new medical techniques and equipment he’d be using with smaller “clients.” And he didn’t have to look far for an assistant. Berlic, a Middlebury College graduate, had worked with Clarisse during her internship with the Vergennes Large Animal Hospital after college.
“When he tapped me for this job, I’d been on an eight-year hiatus from veterinary medicine,” she said. “With my kids finally in school, the timing was fortuitous and the idea of jumping back into the medical field was exciting. Plus, knowing that I’d be serving my community (both animal and human) was a real draw.”
So officials last year began raising money to transform Homeward Bound’s former animal crematory into the new surgical suite.
TANGO SURGICAL SUITE
Thanks to a major gift from Roberta and Philip Puschel of Panton (in memory of their beloved cat Tango), renovations began in January. Danyow was thrilled to see Nop Brothers use a crane to pull the old cremator, chimney and all, out of the building. The Puschels’ gift also paid for critical equipment for what is now known as the Tango surgical suite, completed in June, for procedures that kicked off in July.
“Since then, we’ve done 162 surgeries,” Danyow said.
She noted 108 of that total have been Homeward Bound animals — cats and kittens. Dogs are about to be added to the lineup. Twenty-seven of the patients have been feral cats, and another 30 cats (thus far) have come from the Rutland County Humane Society and the Feline Connection. The two Rutland clients are paying for the service.
“They are in the same boat we were in, in having difficulty finding providers,” Danyow said.
The surgical suite has been busy considering its use has been limited to Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The service expands to Thursdays in January in order to accommodate PetCORE clients, according to Danyow.
With surgeries added to the docket, PetCORE clients will have access to a range of pet services, including vaccines (such as rabies and distemper), wellness exams (including nail trimming and ear cleaning), parasite control, and euthanasia counseling.
Danyow suspects surgeries will be scheduled on a shared online calendar, each client with a case manager to schedule the surgery appointment.
Clients will drop their animals off in the morning and pick them up at the end of the business day, with directions for post-operative care.
Danyow said the new surgical unit could someday open up to clients able to pay market rates for procedures. But she doesn’t want to set up a scenario whereby Homeward Bound is seen as competing against private practices. She believes Homeward Bound is now helping the local pet care industry by taking on clients unable to pay full freight for basic medical procedures.
“We see it as a symbiotic relationship,” she said. “We don’t want to in any way undercut the (private) practices. But we are also very cognizant of the fact that vet care — including spay/neuter — is beyond the reach of people who may even make more than the 200% of the federal poverty guideline.”
Berlic noted the major uptick in pet ownership during the pandemic, in some cases resulting in longer waits for surgeries and wellness visits.
“I think our presence would help alleviate some of the pressure these practices are feeling and provide services faster for those who need them,” she said.
So how can Homeward Bound afford to provide surgical services to clients who can only pay a fraction of the true costs of procedures?
Danyow credited Homeward Bound’s generous supporters and grants, including from the Walter Cerf Foundation.
PetCORE has this far served around 100 county residents — only a small percentage of the number eligible, according to Danyow. She’d like to see more people register for the program to help their pets live longer, healthier lives.
To learn more about PetCORE and other Homeward Bound services visit homewardboundanimals.org.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.
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