Chilkat Valley News - Serving Haines and Klukwan, Alaska since 1966

Vet's retirement leaves pet owners with more worries, bills


July 6, 2017

The retirement of Dr. Elizabeth Wolfe last year has sent veterinary care calls to Juneau and Whitehorse, Y.T., adding expense and stress for animal owners.

Resident Marilyn Wilson recently spent $2,000 to have her 12-year-old dog Buddy, a pug mix, seen by a Juneau veterinarian after the dog started having trouble breathing. Buddy was sick two days before Wilson sent him south. The dog died in Juneau of apparent hemorrhaging.

Wilson suspects Buddy ate her blood-thinning medicine. “It might have been my pills. He eats everything he sees. None of us knew what was the matter.”

Wilson’s vet bill included an X-ray and a blood transfusion. “I can’t afford that, but when you’re trying to save a dog you don’t even think. We need our own vet here, to keep our money in town and keep our pets here with us,” she said.

Haines Animal Rescue Kennel manager Tracy Mikowski said it’s difficult to know for sure but it’s likely that the absence of a regular vet service in the past year has led to animal deaths. “There have been animals (with health issues) and people just take care of it at home.”

In addition, HARK gets as many as a half-dozen calls a day from owners needing vet service, Mikowski said. “We spend a lot of time fielding those calls… A lot of people don’t know how to get a dog to Juneau.” (HARK has crates available for shipping animals on planes.)

In worst-case scenarios when weather shuts down air service in Lynn Canal, HARK can offer a version of tele-medicine, with Mikowski sending photos to Juneau vets, who give advice over the phone on medical techniques, including administering drugs. But that’s hardly ideal.

A former zookeeper, Mikowski stayed up all night once sticking hypothermic needles in a dog’s ribs to alleviate a fatal bloating condition.

Spaying and neutering services also have fallen off recently, Mikowski said. Neither Wolfe nor Dr. Michelle Oakley, a traveling vet from the Yukon Territory who has worked here sporadically, performed spays, a complicated procedure.

Kay Clements, executive director of HARK, said lack of vet service is a concern for her group, but is not its mission. “We work as much as we can to help people out. In extreme cases, we can put down an animal. But we don’t have a way to host a vet. We don’t have an office for vets. We’re not qualified to evaluate an animal’s condition.”

Clements recently took her own dog to a vet in Whitehorse, Y.T. for dental work. “It was a good rate because of the Canadian dollar, but it’s still a big commitment.” Residents have sold belongings on the Haines Buy-Sell-Trade Facebook page to pay their vet bills, Clements said. She cited a $500 credit card billing that is an automatic requirement for one Juneau clinic. “It’s so sad. There are people who don’t have that kind of money.”

But Clements said she understands the charge, as some clinics have been bilked by customers.

Dr. Wolfe made monthly visits to Haines. She provided service here for nearly 18 years as a traveling vet, working for Southeast Alaska Animal Medical Center, then for herself. “I’ve been trying to find a replacement. I tried a couple of times. I think it will happen, but it’s hard,” Wolfe said this week.

Her former bosses at the SAAMC have since discontinued traveling service. One of Wolfe’s recruits decided to attend law school rather than pursue a career as a small-town vet, she said.

Wolfe said there are reasons for lack of service here.

A town typically needs a population of around 8,000 to support a resident vet. Working as in itinerant vet means making appointments long-distance, locating a temporary office, working with limited tools and without support such as an anesthesiologist. Because of a tight schedule, work days are long.

“It’s a lot of work for not much money and it takes a particular kind of person,” Wolfe said. She’s performed surgeries in garages. “The old-timers are capable of that but new veterinarians aren’t interested in it.”

“Plus, it’s expensive being a vet. Maintaining licenses and buying medicine. Doing stuff for free really doesn’t cut it,” Wolfe said.

Veterinary care in small communities is a statewide issue, she said. An organization in Anchorage has been formed to raise money to provide services to villages, Wolfe said. “They succeeded in going to some places but not all. There’s definitely a need for it.”

In Skagway, an Alabama-based veterinarian sets up summertime service tied into an annual fishing trip, Wolfe said. It’s not a permanent solution, but it works, she said. “They work hard for two months. They’re dedicated doing their clinic. They do good work.”

Dr. Samuel Smith of Juneau’s Tongass Veterinary Clinic said this week he offers a $50 fee for a 30-minute exam and picks up and drops off animals at the airport for no extra charge.

After an initial diagnosis, he provides an estimate of the cost of care.

Smith said he has traveled to Haines previously.

“Being a doctor on that kind of traveling schedule is hard compared to having your own office. Somebody could do it, but it’s not going to be that lucrative. It’s a lot of work to be a traveling vet, especially if you want to offer a lot of services. It’s tough,” Smith said.


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