There is a fine line between volunteering and getting in the way. I may have crossed that line for this adventure, but Clinico deserved further investigation and nothing is cooler than posing as a medical professional for the day.
The American Humane Association estimates that 9.6 million companion animals are euthanized in the United States each year. That statistic is not only cruel, but also represents a huge drain on resources and the environment. Spaying and neutering could fix pet overpopulation, but people are detoured from seeking these simple operations because the procedure can be expensive. The non-profit Clinico, a chain of low cost spay and neuter clinics in Southern California, is trying to make spay and neuter surgeries accessible to everyone by offering the service at a fraction of the cost. The genius of the program is not only do they help prevent animal cruelty, but by completing their volunteer program you become a fully trained vet tech (though certification is not included). The program lasts for several weeks and has five stages. Each volunteer spends weeks learning every stage of the spay and neuter process before they can “graduate.” Because of the uniqueness of “Mission 50” I was only going to spend one day with the staff learning the ropes, helping with the animals, and above all trying not to get in the way.
Clinico starts their day bright and early, as all animals must be checked in between 6:30 a.m. to 7:30 a.m. When I arrived Chelsea, the volunteer coordinator, informed me this would be a slow day since they would only have 10 animals. They can do up to 50 in one day, but unfortunately the community does not know about the clinic and their services. They need help getting the word out because they have to be operating at maximum capacity to build more clinics. Clinico would like to expand indefinitely, but right now they just have 2 clinics in low-income areas.
My first job was shadowing vet tech Carlos during check in. He gave each of the animals a check up, reviewed their health notes, and then placed them in a nice clean cage with a towel on the bottom to await their surgery. Easy enough. While he nimbly worked with each cat and dog Carlos told me about his days working in a city animal shelter. He told me about the bad days when he had to euthanize dozens of animals and how much it hurt his heart. He said he liked working at Clinico because at least it was a hopeful place; he knew they were making a difference.
While we were busy checking the animals in Dr. Snook, the veterinary surgeon, looked over some special cases and then prepped for surgery. The amazing thing about Dr. Snook is he just does spays and neuters all day. Imagine the expertise he has gained from doing hundreds of these surgeries. Clearly an animal lover Dr. Snook’s dog, Preston, accompanied him around the clinic as the Doctor visited with various patients. Preston then settled down in his own special carrier to wait for “dad” to finish surgery.
Once the two surgery beds were ready the animals were brought in one at a time to be anesthetized, and intubated. If anyone is concerned about their animal being put under let me reassure you it’s a tiny shot, which goes into their arm, and by the count of 5 they are asleep with tongue hanging out. Each motionless animal was carried into surgery and hooked up to a heart monitor (factoid: the heart monitor attaches to their tongues – it’s actually kinda cute), and then Dr. Snook got to work. Spay and neuter is a simple surgery and the Doctor flowed through each like it was a dance. The procedure seems to be easy on the animals too – many owners report their pets jumping around the day after surgery.
With surgery behind them the animals moved to recovery, which was my favorite stage cause I actually got to help. The animals were laid out on heated, fluffy blankets and watched by a vet tech and myself. As soon as their swallow reflex returned their intubation tubes were pulled out. Then any vaccines, flea treatments, or microchips were administered (at severely reduced prices as well). We continued to watch the animals to make sure they were coming out of anesthesia properly. Following instructions I rubbed the animals gently, and talked to them to calm their nerves. Once they were awake enough they were carefully carried back to their cages, and covered up with a warm towel.
Once all the animals had been through surgery I cleaned the break room because volunteers are required to share chores. I then begged Chelsea to take me to the Harbor Animal Shelter next door. The two groups aren’t affiliated, but Clinico handles most of the shelters spay and neuter needs. The shelter was closed to the public, but the animals still put on a show for Chelsea and I, each of them auditioning to be saved. This shelter does euthanize so each little face I looked at almost killed me. Kittens happily put their hands on the cage bars and meowed begging to play. A pure bred blonde lab, only a year old and close to 100 lbs, barked at me and wagged his tail as I passed. I inadvertently hit the side of my leg in frustration. If I just had a house I could save him. Why can’t I save them? They didn’t do anything wrong so why do they have to suffer? I couldn’t save any of them and I had no way to force anyone else to.
Back at the clinic I sat behind the front desk during checkout thinking about the animals next door and helping Chelsea unpack syringes. As the owners arrived each of the animals was brought forward. The staff gave the owners detailed post-surgical instructions and pain medication for the animals and sent them on their way. Towards the end of the workday a group of poorly educated women dragged a very sweet looking pit bull through the doors of the clinic and asked if the shelter was closed. Chelsea said yes. “Well, this is our aunt’s dog,” they said. “And she’s sick and we got no place to keep him.” Clinico is not an animal shelter so they had no where to keep him. The women looked frustrated and sighed, but never looked at the dog. The dog never took his eyes off the women. He wagged his tail and looked up at them with his tongue hanging out of his mouth probably wondering what was up. They dragged him back out the doors not bothering to check if it hit him on the way through. Clinico can’t save all the animals, I know they wish they could, but at the very least they are an important piece of the equation.
I found Clinico while searching for a place to get my new kitten, Fry, spayed. One persistent rumor I ran into over and over again online was that low cost spay and neuter clinics don’t give the same quality care to animals as a standard veterinary office. Having worked in both places (for more on my failed vet career go to Volunteer Journal 36) I can say that the Clinico operation gave superior care for spay and neuter surgery. It’s their specialty. It’s what they do morning and night.
Clinico needs customers. It needs volunteers. Most of all it needs it’s communities support. They want to open more offices, hire more people, train more vet techs, and prevent the deaths of thousands of animals. They need your help.