Sunday, October 25, 2009

Follow animal instincts to vet a vet

Dr. Kimberly Barron works on this Labrador's ears.

When people ask me how to choose a vet, I always tell them the same thing.

If the veterinary team in question is committed to assisting the animal rescue mission, then you’ve found a keeper.

It’s true, I admit it—I’m biased. But after two decades as an animal rescuer, this litmus test has served me well. Veterinarians and their assistants who support animal welfare are almost always knowledgeable and compassionate. And they have the animals’ best interests at heart. Plus they care about the well-being of all creatures in their community, not just the clinic’s bottom line.

When I moved to Bellingham, Washington in 2001, one of my first stops was a visit to Dr. Kimberly Barron, owner of Northshore Veterinary Hospital.

Kim has served on the Whatcom Humane Society board of directors. She’s donated her time and medical skills to rescue groups and supported initiatives such as spay-neuter days at her clinic. She understands the issues.

Eight years later, I’m proud to call Kim a friend.

When my cat Opus fell sick recently, the knowledge that I had Kim in the pocket was a source of great comfort. If the worst happened, Kim would be there to help me take Opus’ life as humanely and painlessly as possible.

Kim’s competence alone would have been enough to endear her to me. And her personality complements her skills. Kind but not gushy, matter-of-fact but nowhere near cold, Kim has a friendly, good-humored demeanor that inspires serenity and soothes grief.

But that doesn’t mean she isn’t affected by her work.

Those in veterinary medicine who truly care about their charges face the same risks of compassion fatigue and burnout that test shelter workers and other rescuers.

But there’s a difference. At a shelter or rescue group, the human guardian most often walks away, leaving the animal behind as the only creature in need.

In a vet clinic, a human being is the first patient to present in need, characterized by sorrow, heartbreak, or other personal problems such as divorce, illness, and job loss, even a need to give up an animal because of an unexpected move or other change in circumstances.

At Kim’s clinic on Electric Avenue, any one of her clients might be losing a member of the family on any day. Or every day.

That means Kim and the rest in her veterinary ranks minister to the people just as much as they help the animals.

It takes its toll on her to support her clients’ emotions.

“Sometimes it comes out as being really irritable or depressed, and I don’t really know where it’s coming from,” Kim said. “And then I realize I’ve been doing a ton of euthanasias. Even if it’s for the good of the animals, it’s still really hard to do it.”

Before I arrived with Opus on her final day, Kim had decided she was going to take a break from euthanizing until the following week. She had already taken the lives of two cats and a dog in the previous 24 hours.

When the bodies start to pile up, Kim doesn’t sleep well.

“It’s not guilt or remorse,” she said. “I know it needs to be done. But it takes its toll.”

Another veterinarian at her clinic had offered to take over for a bit while Kim recuperated.

But in the end, Kim decided to perform the procedure. To follow the case through to its final conclusion.

It wasn’t an easy euthanasia. Opus doesn’t react well to leaving her home environment. Just like when she’s receiving a simple vaccination, Opus fought the injection that would shut her system down for good.

It’s the third cat Kim has euthanized for me in four years.

I know there will be more goodbyes in my future. But I’m comforted to think that Kim will be there, and not just for my animals.

For me, too.

To read the full story of Opus, go to "And then there were eight".

If you are interested in hearing more about Dr. Kim Barron and her animal rescue experiences, check out this story I wrote about animal hoarding. Kim's story is the lede.

Janet Erchinger-Davis rescued this pug from Craigslist to be a friend for her other four-year-old pug St. Coco. This one got an even loftier name: Basil the Great.

This woman brought a bird in for her daughter Korren, who has three rescued birds including one saved from a rodeo clown. This one, a sulfur-crested Cockatoo named Daphne, came by for a check-up.

The clinic had a record-setting day for number of teeth pulled: 42. Nine came from the mouth of eight-year-old Chunky B, a rescued Chihuahua who had been fed people food his whole life. He's been fixed up good as new, except for a new feature that's oddly endearing: his tongue has a tendency to stick out.

Licensed veterinary technician Rose Eastman does the Kennel Card Shuffle.

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