January 26, 2013 9:30:24 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
"This is an American bitsa -- a bitsa this, a bitsa that," smiled Dr. Phil Bushby, giving a playful scratch to a small black and white pooch he carried out of the mobile veterinary clinic that is his office most days of the week. If dogs can smile, this one did. The mixed breed puppy was one of 23 canines and cats spayed or neutered Wednesday at the Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society, increasing their chances of being adopted and living out their lives in what shelter director Karen Johnwick calls their "forever homes."
The scene is regularly played out at 18 shelters in North Mississippi visited by two mobile veterinary units from Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
The first clinic on wheels went into operation in 2007; the second saw its first patient Jan. 6 of this year. Each averages about 30 surgeries per trip.
To date, just under 33,000 spay and neuter procedures have been performed, at no charge to the shelters. That is no small impact on Mississippi's dire pet overpopulation problem. It's a cause Dr. Bushby of Starkville has long cared about, ever since a post-graduate internship in New York more than 35 years ago.
"During my one-year internship with the ASPCA, which ran animal control for New York City, 132,000 dogs and cats were euthanized in that one city. In a five-day work week, that's 500 animals a day -- that number never left me," said Bushby, who received national recognition in 2012 from the American Veterinary Medical Association for his dedication to animal welfare.
"The mobile units are a blessing; we'd be lost without them. They really help us get animals adopted," said Johnwick, noting that spayed or neutered dogs and felines have significantly better chances of finding a new home.
The medical procedures are the front-line defense in reducing the flood of almost eight million stray and unwanted animals that inundate the country's shelters annually, according to the American Humane Society. Unfortunately, good homes can't be found for almost half, meaning between three and four million dogs and cats are euthanized each year nationwide. At the Columbus shelter, 2,107 animals had to be euthanized in 2012, Johnwick cited.
Inspiring new attitudes
At MSU, the Marcia Lane Endowed Chair in Humane Ethics and Animal Welfare in the veterinary school's clinical science department oversees the mobile clinics. Not only does the university outreach save the lives of hundreds of animals per month, it gives junior and senior veterinary students plenty of opportunities for hands-on surgical experience.
It also creates new generations of veterinarians more aware of the overpopulation plight and the challenges shelters face.
"The students come out very skilled in these procedures," explained Bushby, "but I think the real impact is that our graduates have a new understanding of the problem. In a two week period (in the mobile units), students will visit seven different shelters, walk past crate after crate of cats and dogs, and will know collectively the issues."
That's a notable change from the doctor's own training decades ago.
"Never once did I set food in any shelter. Never once did I hear a lecture on how the profession can help animal overpopulation; it just wasn't part of the education at that time," he shared.
At MSU, he makes sure that doesn't happen. Bushby lectures every incoming class on the epidemic. One of those speeches in the spring of 2011 sparked a remarkable response in its audience. At the time, the school had one mobile clinic.
Two are better than one
"I told the students that my one frustration was that the mobile vet program was limited in how many of them it could take and that 40 percent of them would not get to enroll," said the veterinarian who joined MSU's faculty in 1978.
Soon after, he was visited by student representatives from the class of 2014 who asked if he knew how much a second mobile unit would cost.
"I could tell them, because I had been writing grants," Bushby said. The unit, truck and equipment inside had a price tag of a quarter of a million dollars. "They didn't bat an eye," the administrator smiled.
Steven Davison was one of the ringleaders in that dedicated group.
"We started emailing and rallied the class; we went full force ahead with it," said the third year vet student from Marvel, Ark. The class worked together, with guidance from Keith Gaskin in the MSU Office of Development, and within six months had raised $56,000. In response to the students' enthusiasm, PetSmart Charities donated $250,000 toward the unit purchase. It was a red letter day when the news came.
"I don't think I could sit down," laughed Davison. "I went to everyone who helped get it started. We couldn't believe it was happening, we were overjoyed. It's one of those things that if you believe in it enough, it can happen; it's a win for the shelters, a win for the animals, and it's a win for the students."
For Bushby, too, it was a dream realized.
"Those students never ever thought they would benefit, never expected that there would be a second unit in time for it to benefit them," he said. "Those are the current junior students, and now the whole class could take the program."
Life rope for shelters
Two mobile units allow the students to visit shelters in towns including Columbus, Starkville, West Point, Louisville, Aberdeen, Amory, Tupelo, Corinth, Oxford, Greenwood and Greenville about every three weeks.
The wheeled clinics -- close quarters efficiently outfitted with two compact prep/operating stations and 18 cages -- can also be deployed in crisis situations, such as after a hurricane or tornado, to assist with animal recovery. Out of 28 veterinary schools in the United States, Bushby is aware of only three that have mobile units and a fourth school about to get one.
When he isn't out with the clinics, Bushby is often writing grant proposals and talking to potential donors in order to keep the units on the road. Costs run at least $250,000 per year per unit to operate the program, according to the CVM Office of Development. But the rewards are worth it.
Lisa Henley, director of the West Point/Clay County Animal Shelter said, "We really couldn't manage without Dr. Bushby and the help from the College of Veterinary Medicine. It's an awesome thing they're doing, to help shelters have adoptable pets and cut down the population of unwanted animals ... just an awesome thing."
"It's a little bit like taking an animal off death row and placing it in someone's home," said Bushby, whose commitment to saving animals continues to help fuel the mobile program, immersing students in surgical skills and inspiring new vets to carry on the cause as their careers develop.
Educating the public on the importance of having animals sterilized is one key to winning the battle for animal welfare, Bushby believes, and victories come one dog and cat at a time.
Editor's note: The Dispatch thanks MSU University Relations for some of the information contained in this article.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.