When Lorraine Monfils took in a dying 4 week old puppy, her calls for help from the vets went unanswered.
“Nobody would take us,” said Monfils. “I called my vet in Canada and she tried to help. He died in my arms. It’s very sad …. It’s devastating. When an animal dies, it’s terrible. ”
Monfils operates the Ark Animal Sanctuary, a 40 acre animal sanctuary in Houlton. A veterinarian from Florenceville, New Brunswick, has been looking after the Monfils animals since 2009. When the border closed last year, she was left without a vet.
The Ark currently has 50 cats with special needs that require more medical attention. Three cats died last year because no vet was available to help. And even if her own dog had a stroke, Monfils would have to drive two hours to the vet office in Brewer to take care of her.
“It makes you feel sinking,” she said.
A 2020 study by Banfield Pet Hospital – a national chain of about 300 veterinary clinics – estimates that 75 million pets in the U.S. could be without the veterinary care they need by 2030.
There are currently approximately 420 active veterinary licenses in Maine, according to the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. That’s less than a 2019 Bureau of Labor Statistics number 540.
There are several reasons for the shortage, including lower wages, high student loan debt, and a lack of interest from new graduates in rural areas. Additionally, the American Veterinary Association draws attention to the need to educate students about the profession and the importance of diversity, and to attract Indigenous and color students.
In Aroostook County, most vets don’t take in new clients, and some don’t even take names for a waiting list because the list they have is already so long. And even the veterinary practices fortunate to have attracted a different veterinarian are still unable to accept new animals.
Take, for example, the North Country Animal Hospital in Caribou. A new vet is coming soon, but until then they will be limited and the emergency services will only be reserved for established customers, according to their website.
Betsy Gagnon’s Oakley Chocolate Lab started having seizures, but when one of them struck longer than usual, she panicked.
“It was scary. I called all these vets and no one answered our call,” she said. “After all, North Country talked us about it.”
Gagnon, from Fort Kent, said she thinks they answered her call because she established a relationship with the Caribou vet with a previous dog.
She tells a worse story of a friend who had to drive three and a half hours from Fort Kent to the Eastern Maine Emergency Veterinary Clinic in Brewer to get help for her dog.
“You [the dog] didn’t make it. It is terrible. And then someone has to go back without their pet or with a pet that has passed away, ”she said.
Part of the problem is that as more vets retire, fewer students are in the profession.
A recent study by Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine of high school and college students found that 57 percent of pre-veterinary students were persuaded by counselors or a family member to change their career goals.
Most veterinary students pay about $ 68,000 a year in education for four years, and then post-graduate salaries can’t bear as much debt. In Maine, the median veterinarian salary is $ 92,260, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to $ 120,000 or more in states like New York and Texas.
Additionally, states with veterinary schools have a better chance of retaining new graduates in the state. The closest accredited schools to Maine are Tufts University in Massachusetts and Universite de Montreal in Quebec.
Recent calls to many practices in The County revealed that only one is ready to attract new clients.
“I work alone and for three years I’ve been trying to find someone to come over,” said veterinarian Jean Ennis, owner of the Island Falls Animal Health Clinic. “We really care about the animals and it hurts us to say ‘no’. I would take more if I could. “
Before the pandemic, there was already a serious shortage of veterinarians in rural areas of the country. Add in an influx of people having puppies and kittens during COVID-19 and the pressure was too great for vets as many struggled to serve even existing customers.
“If we’re open from nine to three, we’ll stay here until eight,” said Ennis. “And yet we still reject people.”
Ennis said she spoke to a Pennsylvania veterinarian and tried to get him to her practice.
“It’s a great fit,” she said, adding that he was hoping to find something closer to Pennsylvania. “But we haven’t closed the door yet.”
Not only is there a shortage of small vets, there’s just one major vet in the county and he may be retiring soon, said Monfils, the owner of Ark Animal Sanctuary.
Additionally, the Maine State Veterinarian (USD through 2021) has repeatedly filed applications with the USDA to designate certain areas of the state, including counties of Hancock, Knox, Waldo, and Washington, as critically critical due to a lack of livestock and public vets.
There are currently 221 designated veterinary shortage areas in 48 states, according to the USDA. And once an area is designated as a shortage area, qualified veterinarians can offset a significant portion of the veterinary training debt in exchange for working in one of those areas through the Veterinary Loan Repayment Program.
“It offers veterinarians and public health professionals up to $ 25,000 per year in student loan repayment in return for at least three years of service in one of the USDA-designated rural veterinary scarcity areas,” said Mark Rosati, spokesman for American Veterinary Medical Association. “The American Veterinary Medical Association was instrumental in securing $ 8.5 million for the veterinary loan payment program for fiscal 2021, an increase of $ 500,000 year over year. This will allow the USDA to award more veterinarians this year. “
When Monfils looked for a veterinarian to help the animals in the sanctuary after the border was closed, Monfils sent letters to most of the veterinarians in the area and only heard from one who agreed to take them in. And now Monfils makes an hour and a half animal walk to Chester every Thursday to look after the animals.
Monfils has a fully equipped veterinary clinic in the sanctuary, and she said she hopes to hire a vet for hire free of charge to help reduce the cost of the animal shelter and eligible low-income families in the area.
“We have to find the right person to move here,” she said. “I think they could really make money because there is such a need and we are offering the room with all the equipment for free.”
Initially, Ark went to online provider IHireVeterinary.com and paid $ 650 to access veterinarians looking for jobs.
“We sent 250 letters and got nothing,” she said.
Now Monfils and her board of directors came up with the idea of setting up a veterinary practice in another part of the state in order to set up a satellite office in their clinic. And just this week they finished their recruiting pamphlets: “Start your own clinic with the Ark Animal Sanctuary, a unique opportunity in North Maine … A fully equipped veterinary clinic is available rent-free.”
Monfils said she was excited and not giving up.
“We are a severely underserved area,” said Monfils. “There has to be a way to get a vet to Aroostook County. If there’s a badly injured animal, how can you just turn it away? ”