Dr. David Slocum can’t count how many pets his clinic, the Hazel Dell Animal Hospital, is seeing on a daily basis right now. It’s that busy.
“It seems like a whole bunch,” said Slocum, 73. “I worked this morning. I started about a quarter to nine and we had eight or nine people in the parking lot. It’s like we should have had roller skates trying to get everything taken care of.”
Veterinarian clinics around the country have seen a substantial increase in business during the pandemic. When people were stuck at home, many adopted an animal companion to keep them company.
“There’s been quite a surge. People were home and wanted to get a pet, and now they’re spending way more time with their pets,” Slocum said. “They become more observant and start worrying about things they hadn’t really noticed before.”
But simultaneously, there’s been a shortage of workers, though Slocum’s clinic hasn’t been impacted in that regard, he said. Even before the pandemic, the profession struggled with attracting or retaining workers due to burnout and high student loan debt.
Slocum has persevered through the industry’s highs and lows, having started working at the same clinic at age 14. But soon he’ll retire and sell the business to a new owner. He’ll continue to focus on another of his passions: helping homeless individuals who own pets.
But longtime customers shouldn’t worry about massive changes to the business in the meantime.
“It’s happening very soon,” Slocum said of the impending sale. “The new owner, at least for a while, wants to keep it running the same as it has been. I’m sure there will be some changes, but they don’t want to change it too quickly.”
The Columbian caught up with Slocum to learn more.
Tell me about yourself.
I grew up in Felida. My family moved up there in the early 1950s. My folks were schoolteachers, and my dad was always a farmer before he moved to Washington. We always had a couple cows or chickens. When I was 13 or 14, I had a cow and she got sick. We had to call a vet to come out and treat her. I ran up the bill and didn’t have money to pay it except from picking strawberries. My dad suggested to work for this guy. My dad called to see if I could work for him, and it’s at the clinic I’m at now. It was owned by an old fellow named Clifford O’Neill. I cleaned cages in 1961. I got paid 50 cents an hour. That’s when I started, and I haven’t left.
I read that there’s a shortage of veterinarians right now. Has your practice seen that?
Boy, I’ve been here a long time, my staff has been there a long time. I haven’t been impacted. I’m sure there’s a lot of dynamics – not a lot of vets want to buy their own practice and instead want to work for a corporation.
The industry apparently sees a lot of burnout. How did you manage to keep going this long?
I’ve gotten super tired, but I had a wife and kids, and I didn’t have time to worry about being burned out. I had to keep going. It’s a great place to work and the clients we’ve had – when I started it was 60 years ago, we have clients who come in who are part of the same family. I treated their parents’ animals and grandparents’ and sometimes their great-grandparents’. It’s not a business where people come and go.
How has the pandemic impacted your job?
It’s been tough because we can’t let clients into the building, so our clinic and most clinics around the country have been doing curbside service where people stay in their cars and when they get to the clinic they call in or knock on the door. Then the staff goes out and brings (the pet) into the clinic and do what we need to do. It’s a lot more work. We’ve been very busy the whole time, my poor staff has just been running their tails off.
What are some of the other challenges you face working as a veterinarian?
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The biggest challenge is when an animal is sick, how can you get help for them as quickly as possible? And how can you help them without spending a huge amount of money? With all the specialists, sometimes if a dog or cat has a medical problem, it can run into the thousands of dollars. Some people just don’t have that kind of money. Pet insurance is coming on, but not everyone has pet insurance. If you have a young family with kids and you’ve got a dog or cat that develops a condition that’s going cost $6,000, that’s a hard decision. Sometimes they just can’t afford to do that. That’s a real challenge and heartbreaking for a lot of people.
What happens in those instances?
Sometimes they have to euthanize the animal because if they have a dire condition and they don’t jump in and do a major procedure, the animal will die. Quality of life and making sure they don’t suffer is a very important thing for anybody. It’s a heartbreaking thing.
What are the options for late-night emergencies?
There are several 24-hour clinics in the area. We have two in town that are very good. Years ago we didn’t have that. In the ’70s and ’80s if your client called at 2 a.m. and something was going on, you had to put your pants on and drive out and do what you needed to do.
Why do you think that changed?
I think most clinics through the last three-to-four years have been so busy, they just do the things they can do. I was glad when we didn’t have to do emergency calls because my days were so full. The more I get the less energy I have.
What are your post retirement plans?
My wife and I spend a lot of time downtown giving food to the homeless; I always have my vet bag to provide vet service and food. When I retire, it’s written into my contract that I can still do that kind of stuff. I don’t intend to quit that for as long as I can keep doing it. A lot of times that’s the only real friend they have in the world. That’s a real buddy — that’s what keeps them going.