The story of an unemployed Angola man who claimed he had found an abandoned, injured puppy in the woods, then confessed that the dog was his and that he made up the story because he was unable to afford veterinary care for her broken leg was a shock to some.
But the circumstances sounded all too familiar to local animal care professionals, who are faced daily with desperate people who cannot afford the cost of veterinary care for their ill or injured pet.
“People come here with their injured or ill animals expecting that we will be able to treat them for very little money, and that is not the case,” said Gina Browning, director of public relations for the SPCA Serving Erie County.
The Evans police chief was quick to place the blame in the recent case on greedy veterinarians, but animal doctors said the characterization not only was not true, it was not fair.
What cannot be debated is that many pet owners are struggling to pay for care for their animals.
Many people seek help from the Pet Emergency Fund, which has paid out more than $420,000 for veterinary care in Erie and Niagara counties since local vets established it in 1999.
“We get 20 to 50 phone calls a day to the main number of the Pet Emergency Fund asking for money,” said veterinarian Susan Mineo, who has been president of the local fund for three years. “There is not enough money in the world that could possibly cover everyone who is looking for a handout.”
The Pet Emergency Fund offers one-time emergency help with some veterinary bills at the sole discretion of the treating veterinarian. Its literature says the fund has helped more than 4,000 animals, so the average payment per animal is just over $100. Veterinary bills for serious illnesses and injuries can easily reach $1,000 or more.
Money from the Pet Emergency Fund is available through about 70 veterinarian offices in Erie and Niagara counties. Money is raised by such events as the group’s Run for Rover and is paid out quarterly to each veterinarian. Many offices also collect donations or run fundraisers to add to the office’s Emergency Fund account.
The use of money from the account is decided by the veterinarian.
“We don’t dictate what cases a clinic can use the money for. We make suggestions, but it’s up to them,” said Mineo. “Some practices have very strict guidelines on how to use the money, and some don’t. It takes a lot to get money into this account, and we don’t hand it out to just anyone.”
People who don’t know about or don’t qualify for help from the Pet Emergency Fund often approach the SPCA with animals that are sick or hurt, Browning said, and often are frustrated to learn that the agency is not set up to handle such problems.
“Unfortunately, setting up a low-cost veterinary care clinic is something people will have to discuss with their veterinarians,” she said.
When Browning started at the SPCA in 1990, the agency offered only euthanasia to people who had ill or injured animals. “Today we can offer care if the owner surrenders the dog,” she said. “Is that the perfect answer? No, but it is a better answer.”
The animal must be surrendered before it can be treated because “taking an animal who has to be surrendered to is us part of our mission, regardless of the reason,” she said. “Sometimes it’s divorce or people have lost their homes. Regardless of the reason, we have to be here to take these surrendered animals.”
Browning said donors who support the SPCA’s Yelp for Help fund “give their money to provide veterinary care to homeless animals, to give them a second chance at life. We deal in some way with 14,000 animals a year, and that includes wildlife, but that is one of the reasons why we cannot provide low-cost vet care too.”
The Yelp for Help fund paid for veterinary care for 1,635 animals between Jan. 1, 2010, and Friday. The highest number of animals, 624, were treated in 2013.
If an ill or injured dog must be surrendered, the SPCA does ask for a surrender fee. That ranges from $50 for a dog that is spayed or neutered and up to date on vaccinations, to $200 for an animal that has had little or no veterinary care. Browning said those fees are a fraction of the costs the SPCA incurs for each animal, and the agency will not turn away an animal if the owner cannot pay the fee.
A new option for some pet owners is a group called Hope Before Heaven, started about a year ago by a Niagara Falls couple. Linda Helfer said while she and her husband were in a vet emergency hospital last year with their sheltie, they saw several heartbroken pet owners who had to have their animals euthanized because they could not afford treatment.
Helfer said the group receives frequent calls from people seeking help. Although she could not estimate how much the group has paid out so far, she said it has paid vet bills for 13 animals. The group accepts donations through its website and runs various fundraisers.
Help Before Heaven will reimburse up to 50 percent of the cost of emergency veterinary care, up to $3,000 for an injured or ill dog or cat. To qualify, those who apply must exhaust all other resources and provide proof of income and residence.
“We are easier to work with than the Pet Emergency Fund, more accessible, and we help people all over Western New York, not just in Erie and Niagara counties,” said Helfer.
Hope Before Heaven has applied for 501(c)3 status, which is pending, Helfer said.
In the case of the Angola man, who is not being named because he was not charged, Evans Police Chief Ernest P. Masullo said the man “was extremely sincere, broke down bawling like a baby” while admitting the truth about the 4½-month-old female pug-Chihuahua mix. The man told police that after he accidentally stepped on the dog, breaking its leg, he called a veterinarian’s office to ask about costs. The man said he was told that the dog’s care could cost from $120 to $700, and he was unable to get the veterinarian’s office to agree to a payment plan.
“I don’t know where he called, but I have a feeling that because of the circumstances he called an emergency clinic,” said Mineo. “If he called an emergency clinic, do you know how many calls like that they get? There is not enough money in their account to pay for all of them.”
Rather than seeking information by phone, “the best scenario would be if they could bring the animal in, so we could at least diagnose the problem,” said Kevin Kuhn, a veterinarian who is owner and operator of Afton Animal Hospital in Amherst and administrator at the Veterinary Emergency Clinic in Cheektowaga. “That’s what it starts with.”
In a statement, the Angola man told police, “I just wanted the dog to be taken care of, because [neither] I nor my family have the means to pay for vet bills of that magnitude and didn’t want the puppy to be euthanized. I am currently unemployed and didn’t know of any other options at the time of the incident. I truly hope the public can see the goodness of my heart behind this story and forgive me for what I did. I am truly sorry.”
In explaining the circumstances of the story, Masullo said veterinary clinics should be required to provide callers with a list of groups that could help pay for care, and added, “I got a problem with these veterinarians. It’s all money, money, money.”
“That kills me,” said Mineo. “I think what people forget is that veterinary hospitals are businesses. For people to say that it’s all about the money, it’s not. We are all in this profession not because we want to make millions of dollars but because we love animals, and we have to be able to pay people to take care of these animals and do it well with the right equipment. You can’t give all your services away or you wouldn’t be an open business.”
Meanwhile, the pug mix puppy, who has been named Holly, is recovering from surgery and being fostered to adopt by Mike Franey, the Evans dog control officer who took her for care.