For almost nine years, a group of volunteers, a Waterbury veterinarian, and the Waterbury PetSmart store worked together to save and heal thousands of homeless cats and dogs in Western Connecticut.
That successful partnership ended Aug. 25, when the largest pet hospital company in the U.S. told its vet, Dr. Rebecca Saria, that she could no longer give the rescue organizations a 50 percent discount. She was also ordered to stop accepting state vouchers for inexpensive spaying and neutering, and she was told to remove all photos of pets she has helped from her office walls.
Dr. Saria, in confirming what I was told by rescue organizations, said she was told it was time to get with the program and operate her Banfield Animal Hospital franchise just like all the chain’s other 750 hospitals are run.
Since then, the Rose Hope Animal Refuge group said it has had to greatly reduce the number of homeless dogs and cats it accepts.
Banfield officials noted that they provide a standard discount to rescue organizations in all their facilities and are simply asking that Dr. Saria follow its rules.
“We are asking that the hospital owner, Dr. Rebecca Saria, honor her franchise agreement by adhering to the same hospital operating guidelines all Banfield hospitals follow. As part of this agreement, we absolutely encourage and support providing discounts to shelters and rescue organizations; however, we ask that the discount aligns with our practice-wide initiative of 15 percent.”
“At Banfield, The Pet Hospital®, we are deeply committed to the health and well-being of every Pet that comes through our hospital doors—whether that Pet currently belongs to a family or is waiting to be adopted. Our commitment to caring for Pets goes beyond our hospital walls and into the community. Banfield has long-standing relationships with shelters, rescues and adoption agencies throughout the country—we provide various services including veterinary care as well as food and financial support thanks to the efforts of our hospital teams and our charitable arm, the Banfield Charitable Trust,” wrote Karen Johnson, DVM, vice president and client advocate for Banfield, in response to my questions.
Hanna Kenny, director of the rescue operation, and Caroline Abate, a volunteer, said their small group, consisting of about 10 foster families and about a dozen volunteers, was only able to operate successfully because of Dr. Saria’s generosity and devotion to animals. And they have been tremendously successful. According to their figures, they helped about 1,200 cats and about 500 dogs a year, providing them veterinary care, then providing temporary homes and ultimately finding them permanent homes.
The group used the Waterbury PetSmart store to temporarily shelter the homeless cats. The group also brought the cats and dogs to Dr. Saria’s animal hospital there for shots, spaying or neutering and for other veterinary care. Banfield has hospitals in 60 percent of the PetSmart stores, where they lease space.
Dr. Saria waived office fees and gave the group 50 percent off on all services. Her work for the group still brought in about $60,000 for her practice each year, from which she paid royalties to Banfield. She had a similar arrangement with another rescue organization, which generated about $40,000 in annual revenue.
For the past three weeks, Kenny and Abate said, their group has had to turn away many cats and dogs whose owners sought to give them away because could no longer afford to keep them or could not afford needed veterinary care.
But now that Dr. Saria can only give a 15 percent discount, the group has to travel as far as Westport to use other vets who will give 50 percent discounts. That has reduced the number of animals the group can help.
“It’s now a logistical nightmare to have to drive 20 miles to see a vet who will accept a state voucher or give a large discount,” Abate said, adding that her organization depends on donations and adoption fees to pay for their vehicle – which has 200,000 miles on it – and veterinary bills.
Banfield’s decision came at the worst time, Kenny said, as more and more people are facing financial problems.
“People are having a hard time between deciding whether to put food on the table or let the family dog go,” Kenny said. “I know they have to make money, but how about showing compassion and not just greed.”
Dr. Saria, who said she was ordered by the company not to talk to the media, said Banfield had known about her arrangement with rescue groups for almost nine years. It was only last April that her bosses started questioning her more closely about her discount program.
She said she is one of the top financial performers in the Banfield operation and has been given several awards for her business operation.
She insists that both she and Banfield still make money from the rescue groups and says Banfield’s take was only reduced by $1,000 a month as a result the discounts she gave.
“I believe in philanthropy and taking care of pets is part of my mission in life,” Dr. Saria told me, adding that her discounts have not hurt the business. She said her operation is one of the most profitable in the chain.
“Money follows good medicine,” she said. “What I did was profitable for the business and it was beneficial to Banfield and to the community,” and to the animals.
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