Victoria Vets for Pets: triage with heart

Volunteer vets aren’t simply caring for the pets of the needy at Our Place, they’re providing care for pet owners’ souls

Jane Vermeulen

With his sunken cheeks and darting, wide eyes, Raymond Ramsay’s face is evidence of a hard life lived, one that has aged him well beyond his 31 years.

Around him, some of Greater Victoria’s neediest – the homeless, the working poor and those dependent on disability payments or social assistance – stream into the courtyard at Our Place in downtown Victoria.

Some have been waiting more than an hour to ensure their pets are examined by a nine-member volunteer team of veterinarians, veterinary nurses and assistants, who set up shop in the courtyard on the second Thursday of every month, from 2 to 4 p.m.

The appointment book at Dr. Jane Vermeulen’s Philanthropic Vaccine Clinic – better known as Vets for Pets – fills up quickly.

During his appointment, Ramsay receives care instructions and a baggy of medicine to treat his neighbour’s dogs. Typically, Ramsay brings his beloved cat, Minou, to the clinic, a place he says has made pet ownership more affordable.

He was shocked a few months ago when he was saddled with a $200 bill for a flea treatment at a for-profit clinic.

“That’s when I started to come here, because it’s free,” he says.

His disability payments only go so far, and despite the expense that comes with owning an animal, he won’t give up his cat.

Ramsay credits his feline companion for giving him a reason to kick a drug habit, as well as stay out of jail and remain housed for almost two years.

“When we’re sitting outside on the sidewalk (panhandling), people are looking at us in different ways, because we’re dirty and we dress different. They call us drug addicts,” says Ramsay, an alcoholic and a recovering heroin addict. “But a dog will not judge you. My cat loves me no matter what. And for a person like me, love means a lot. If you only have hurt and anger in your world, it’s not a good world to live in.”

The accomplishment of being able to feed Minou and keep her healthy makes Ramsay feel “happy.”

“It gives me a sense of purpose,” he says.

Vets for Pets makes that possible.

A veterinary clinic on the run

A team of four volunteers treated just eight pets when Vermeulen opened the clinic in September 2009.

Today, nine volunteers administer vaccines for rabies, kennel cough, distemper and other contagious diseases, as well as flea and worm controls to 60 animals – mostly dogs, cats, rabbits and rats – in just two hours.

“Part of the reason why we do this is it keeps the disease level lower, because these dogs have a lot of contact with other dogs,” Vermeulen says.

Her team cares for animals in an intense, fast-paced environment in which there is an element of risk; some clients arrive high on drugs, though most are able to function well.

Regardless, Vermeulen says the work is rewarding.

“We all feel we’re doing something valuable for animals,” the Esquimalt resident says. “We became veterinarians to help animals, and sometimes you kind of forget about that a bit. It’s kind of nice to get back to the basics.”

‘The basics’ include medicines donated by pharmaceutical companies, and supplies purchased by Vermeulen.

Donated pet food is available outside the cat clinic, which operates out of the no-frills shipping and receiving room at Our Place. Outside, Vermeulen and her volunteers treat their canine patients in a space surrounded by large garbage dumpsters, sheltered by an overhang.

Her team sometimes encounters pets that are in very poor health – those cases are referred to the B.C. SPCA for follow-up – but “not as many as people would think,” she says.

“Some of these are the best-kept animals in Victoria. They’re with their owners all the time.”

Evidence of the growing need for her clinic is close at hand.

In one corner of the courtyard, a cat dozes on the chest of a young man who is lying on a blanket, surrounded by his few worldly possessions. Nearby, men hover near their overflowing shopping carts, their dogs by their side.

Everywhere, canine critters strain on their leashes in an effort to sniff one another. Barking erupts loudly in one corner. Several nervous lap cats are comforted by their humans.

Some pet owners make the trip each month from as far away as Sooke.

Looking after the owners, not just the pets

Veterinarian Horace Yeung drives in from Duncan to donate his time and expertise.

“This is very basic medicine, but the bottom line is we do our best to help the animals,” says Yeung, who helps out in the cat clinic. “Yes, we do have limited supplies of medications and assistance or diagnostic tests, but we use our knowledge, our judgment to do the best for the patient. That’s a crucial part of medicine. It doesn’t need to be fancy.”

A man approaches the doctor and, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye, says, “I have a guppy who has a drinking problem.”

Yeung laughs. “I don’t know if I can help you too much.”

His work at the clinic is about much more than caring for his four-legged patients.

“In a setting like this or a small-animal clinic, you often have two patients: the owner and the animal.”

Monthly visits to the clinic are a highlight for regulars Mary-Lee Cunningham and Chris McMenamie.

Both say the free service is the reason why many impoverished people are able to keep the pets that give meaning to their lives.

“There’s lots of times we want something that we can’t afford,” says McMenamie, his cat, Loki, perched on his shoulder. “Loki is a part of my life and I don’t want to get rid of him for anything. I would gladly do without to make sure he has the food that he needs.”

Cunningham’s cats Storm and Tigger are like family, providing her with the unconditional love she went without while struggling with addiction and living for almost a decade on Victoria’s streets. Her life turned around two years ago.

“They’ve kept me grounded, kept me home, gave me something to look forward to – a start, because I’d lost my family for some time,” she says.

Vets for Pets is her ticket to responsible pet ownership.

“These people actually take their time out to come and help us that can’t afford to get these shots – I mean, some of these shots are $150,” Cunningham says. “There’s just no way I could afford it.”

Meanwhile, things are looking up for Ramsay and Minou. They will soon move to a better place on Store Street.

“It’s one bedroom, $375 (a month) and they’ll allow my cat,” Ramsay says proudly. He plans to add a second feline to his family once he settles in.

Finding a place that welcomes pets was just as important, he says, as getting out of the “crack shack” apartment building where he currently lives in Victoria.

“People are not going to get rid of their pets,” Vermeulen says. “People say, ‘Well, they shouldn’t have a pet if they can’t afford it.’ It’s not going to happen. It’s companionship.

“Now we can at least make sure the pets are healthy and the diseases are under control,” she says, before launching herself back onto the front lines of providing care not only to needy pets, but also for the most grateful of pet owners.

“That’s why we do this.”

How to help

• Vets for Pets needs to purchase or receive a donated hand-held otoscope for ear examinations.

Veterinarian Jane Vermeulen’s wish list also includes pet food, antibiotics, parasite controls, thermometers, office supplies, syringes and monetary donations.

• For details or to donate, email

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