When Lorraine Monfils took in a dying 4-week-old puppy, her calls for help to veterinarians went unanswered.
“Nobody would take us,” Monfils said. “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 is dying, it’s horrifying. ”
Monfils runs the Ark Animal Sanctuary, a 40-acre animal refuge in Houlton. A Florenceville, New Brunswick, veterinarian has taken care of the Monfils’ animals since 2009. But 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. Over the last year, three cats died because there was no vet available to help. And even when her own dog had a stroke, Monfils had to drive two hours to the emergency vet practice in Brewer for care.
“It gives you a sinking feeling,” she said.
A 2020 study by Banfield Pet Hospital — a national chain of about 300 veterinary hospitals — estimates that 75 million pets in the U.S. could be without the veterinary care they need by 2030.
Currently, in Maine, there are approximately 420 active veterinary licenses, according to the Maine Department of Professional and Financial Regulation. That’s down from a Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019 number of 540.
There are several reasons behind the shortage, including lower wages, high student loan debt and a lack of interest by new graduates in rural areas. Additionally, the American Veterinary Association points to the need for educating high school students about the profession and the importance of diversity and attracting indigenous students and students of color.
In Aroostook County, most veterinarians are not taking new clients and some won’t even take names for a waiting list because the list they have is already so long. And even those veterinary practices fortunate enough to have attracted another veterinarian are still unable to take on any new animals.
Take North Country Animal Hospital in Caribou for example. A new veterinarian is coming soon, but until then they have limited availability and emergency services will be restricted to established clients only, according to their webpage.
Betsy Gagnon’s chocolate lab Oakley started having seizures, but when a longer than usual one struck, she panicked.
“It was scary. I was calling all these vets and no one was taking our call,” she said. “Finally, North Country talked us through it.”
Gagnon, of Fort Kent, said she thinks they took her call because she had established a relationship with the Caribou vet with a prior dog.
She shares a worse story of a friend who had to drive three and a half hours from Fort Kent to Eastern Maine Emergency Veterinary Clinic in Brewer to get help for their dog.
“She [the dog] didn’t make it. It’s horrible. And then someone has to drive back without their pet or with a deceased pet,” she said.
Part of the issue is that as more veterinarians retire, fewer students are pursuing the profession.
A recent Lincoln Memorial University College of Veterinary Medicine study of high school and college students indicated that 57 percent of pre-veterinary students were convinced by counselors or a family member to change career goals.
Most veterinary students rack up about $68,000 a year in educational costs for four years and then salaries once out of school cannot support that much debt. In Maine, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average veterinarian salary is about $92,260 compared with $120,000 or more in states like New York and Texas.
Additionally, states with veterinary schools have a better chance of keeping 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 found only one still willing to bring on new clients.
“I am working by myself, and for three years I have been trying to find someone to join us,” Veterinarian Jean Ennis, owner of Island Falls Animal Health Clinic, said. “We really care about the animals and it hurts us to say ‘no.’ I would take on more if I could.”
Before the pandemic there was already a serious veterinarian shortage in rural areas around the nation. Add in an influx of people getting puppies and kittens during COVID-19, and the pressure was too much for veterinarians, with many having trouble even serving existing clients.
“If we are open from nine to three, we end up staying here until eight,” Ennis said. “And despite that, we are still turning people away.”
Ennis said she’s been talking to a veterinarian in Pennsylvania and trying to bring him to her practice.
“He’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 animal vets, there is only one large animal vet in The County and he may soon be retiring, Monfils, the Ark Animal Sanctuary owner, said.
Additionally, the Maine State Veterinarian has filed repeated applications — 2017 through 2021 — with the USDA to designate certain areas of the state, including Hancock, Knox, Waldo and Washington counties, as having a critical shortage of livestock and public veterinarians.
There are currently 221 designated veterinary shortage areas in 48 states, according to the USDA. And once an area has been designated as a shortage area, qualified veterinarians can get a significant portion of veterinary education debt offset in exchange for working in one of these areas through the Veterinary Medicine Loan Repayment Program.
“It provides food animal and public health veterinarians up to $25,000 a year for student loan repayment in exchange for at least three years of service in one of the USDA-designated rural veterinary shortage areas, “ American Veterinary Medical Association Spokesman Mark Rosati said. “The American Veterinary Medical Association was instrumental in securing $8.5 million for the Veterinary Medicine Loan Payment Program for fiscal year 2021, a $500,000 increase from last year. That will allow the USDA to award more veterinarians this year.”
When Monfils started looking for a vet to help the sanctuary animals after the border closed, she sent letters to most area vets, and heard from only one who agreed to take them on. And now every Thursday, Monfils makes vet runs to Chester, an hour and a half one way, to get care for the animals.
Monfils has a completely equipped veterinary clinic at the sanctuary, and she said they are hoping to recruit a vet to the clinic rent free in exchange for reduced cost care for the sanctuary animals and eligible low income families in the area.
“We have to find that one right person to move up here,” she said. “I think they could really make money because there is such a need and we are offering the space with all the equipment for free.”
Initially, Ark went to the online, IHireVeterinary.com, and paid $650 for access to vets looking for jobs.
“We sent 250 letters and we got nothing,” she said.
So now Monfils and her board came up with the idea of trying to get a veterinary practice in another part of the state to set up a satellite office at their clinic. And just this week, they finished their recruitment brochures: “Start your own clinic with the Ark Animal Sanctuary, a unique opportunity in Northern Maine … Fully-equipped vet clinic available rent free.”
Monfils said she is passionate about this and she is not giving up.
“We are a seriously underserved area,” Monfils said. “There has to be a way to get a vet to Aroostook County. If there is a seriously injured animal, how can you just turn them away?”