|March 28, 2008
Setting a New Standard Among Pet Rescuers
By JENNIFER ERICKSON
Last year veterinarian Matthew Wheaton met
Crystal, a nine-month old black Lab puppy who was brought to his
Laguna Hills clinic after vomiting for three days. She had a
high fever, severe dehydration and septic shock. X-rays also
showed an obstruction in her intestines. To recover, Crystal
would need emergency surgery. The tab would be thousands of
dollars, which the owners could not spare.
courtesy of Matthew Wheaton Veterinarian Matthew Wheaton
and his wife Blythe met at the dog park; both had pets
rescued from shelters. Together, they have started a
rescue center to give other pets a better chance of
finding a home.
Crystal was euthanized, even though her condition was
treatable. Her owners were a typical middle-income family, who
loved their pet, but were financially unprepared for this
While Crystal's owners grieved and shed many tears, Wheaton
felt a different emotion, visited again by a compulsion to help
people like Crystal's owners.
In May, the Laguna Beach resident will begin to realize his
goal to make the world a better place by saving "one dog at a
time, one cat at a time."
He recently founded the nonprofit Pet Rescue Center to reduce
the number of adoptable pets being euthanized in Orange County
shelters and to help responsible pet owners who cannot afford
life-saving treatments for their animals.
Wheaton and his wife, Blythe, who is the center's development
director, had been circling the idea of some sort of pet charity
for a while. It was when Wheaton decided to move his practice,
Alicia Pet Care Center in Laguna Hills, to a newer and larger
facility that their idea came to fruition. "I felt really bad to
walk away from it all," said Wheaton, referring to his old
space, which was still in good condition and well equipped.
Instead, they decided to give rein to their charitable
impulse and renewed the lease on the old facility but with a new
purpose as a Pet Rescue Center.
"If the animals could talk they'd be applauding their little
paws," said Diane Klein, president of New Beginnings for Animals
in Mission Viejo, one of many independent rescue groups in the
county that is looking forward to collaborating with the Pet
Wheaton is "setting a new standard," she said, by taking in
pets other rescue groups can't accommodate and helping to remove
animals off "death row" at over-burdened public shelters. "The
rescue industry is just thrilled with what Matt Wheaton is
doing," said Klein, whose New Beginnings can take in no more
than 20 cats and fiveor six dogs at a time.
Up to 20,000 pets are euthanized in Orange County animal
shelters each year, estimated Wheaton. While some of the animals
might be considered unfitfor adoption because of aggression or
behavioral issues, many are quite adoptable. The problem is a
lack of space for abandoned and impounded animals in the
overburdened larger shelters.
The Orange County Animal Services shelter in Orange impounds
more than 30,000 animals a year. The shelter's kill rate is more
than 40 percent, compared to a kill rate of less than 10 percent
at city shelters such as those run by Irvine, Mission Viejo,
Laguna Beach and San Clemente, according to Jim Gardner, who
leads the South County Animal Shelter (SCAS) Coalition,
established due to the lack of pro-humane animal shelters in
Laguna Hills, Aliso Viejo, Lake Forest and Rancho Santa
Wheaton needs little more than a coat of paint and a new sign
before opening the center, as scheduled, in May, once he moves
his practice to its new location a mile down the road. But
generating $6,000 a month in rent through pet adoption fees
alone may be no easy trick. That's where fundraising comes in.
For starters, Wheaton is putting pressure on drug and
veterinary food suppliers to support the effort. He has already
succeeded in getting them to foot the bill for Providing
Shelter, a fundraiser at Zinc's in Laguna Beach on Saturday,
April 5, from 7 p.m. to 11 p.m. Their goal is to raise $50,000
through ticket sales, an auction, sponsors and donations.
Entertainment will include local gypsy jazz guitarist Tommy Davy
and artist Patrick Moran.
Wheaton's plan is for the Pet Rescue Center to coordinate
with local nonprofit rescue groups such as New Beginnings that
already do much of the leg work to rescue adoptable pets from
imminent death at kill shelters.
There is little networking between the various rescue groups.
The center could serve as a pet-rescue clearing-house. "We're
there to make everything more efficient," said Wheaton.
Rescue groups depend on fees from adoption and they don't
want to lose income crucial to their survival. Often, though,
they can rescue more pets than they can accommodate - usually
through private foster homes. In such a situation, they could
bring the overflow pets to the PRC, which will accommodate up to
40 animals at a time and where the storefront location offers
Rescue groups will be able to place pets at the rescue center
free of charge for 30 days. The center will also spay, neuter
and vaccinate the pets without charge. If a pet isn't adopted in
30 days, PRC will give the rescue group 14 days notice to move
the pet. "We have to have turnover," explains Wheaton, whose
goal is to findhomes for 700 animals a year. "That's the only
way it can be successful. We have to have highly adoptable pets
come in and go out quickly."
The PRC hopes to lure a full complement of volunteers to help
with walking dogs, cleaning kennels, playing with and caring for
cats and dogs, and help with fund raising and publicity. Of
course there will be no vet fees, because Wheaton will donate
his services pro bono.
Even before this venture, Wheaton has been reaching out to
rescue groups, providing 50 to 70 percent off veterinary care
and also giving them cards to hand out to adopters that offers
10 percent off veterinary care, medication and supplies for a
year from the date of adoption. He also offers a free first exam
to adopted pets.
Wheaton is equally passionate about the grant-giving arm of
the PRC that will work with Orange County veterinarians in cases
where a pet has a life-threatening but treatable condition that
the owners are unable to afford.
When an owner can't afford the treatment to save their pet's
life, one of three scenarios usually ensues, Wheaton said.
Either the owner simply takes the pet home where it presumably
dies, the pet is euthanized at the vet's office,or the vet takes
custody of the pet and performs the treatment pro bono, but
typically finds an alternate home.
The hardest cases involve responsible owners who cannot
afford a life-saving treatment for their pet. In such a
situation, Wheaton hopes other vets will contact the PRC to
suggest a candidate for a grant, and, funds permitting, the PRC
would pay for the treatment.
Wheaton is a second generation veterinarian who grew up in
Laguna. He and his wife met at the Laguna Beach Dog Park. After
that fateful first meeting, each told the first person they saw
that they had just met the person they'd marry. They've been
together ever since. Now, with two small children and three
dogs, they are ready for the next adventure.