It’s 1 a.m. in the early hours of Friday, Oct. 16.
Maria Scales’ husky, Miri, a part of her family for just seven months, is clearly in distress.
The eight-year-old husky had been sick for a few days, with a distended stomach and laboured breathing.
Scales had made an appointment for her to see a veterinarian from Invermere on the following Wednesday, during the vet’s once-weekly office hours in Golden.
But when the situation turned dire, she called the emergency line.
At 1:01 a.m. she calls and gets no response.
1:02 a.m., no response.
1:06. 1:10. 1:16, no response.
At about 1:19 a.m., Scales decides to try to contact vets in Cranbrook, Canmore and Calgary.
She gets through to an emergency vet in Calgary at 1:23 a.m., but it’s too late; Miri passed away just moments earlier.
Vet services in Golden
It’s been four years since Dr. Peterson retired as Golden’s only veterinarian.
When he announced his retirement, Dr. Mark Zehnder, of Invermere’s Veterinary Hospital, now the only clinic within a 100 kilometre radius of Golden, immediately recognized Peterson’s departure was leaving a void that needed to be filled.
“If Golden did not have a veterinarian there, it would mean a lot of travel for pet owners,” said Zehnder back in 2016.
“If someone got into an accident travelling for an appointment, I would feel just terrible.”
It was then that Zehnder, along with the rest of the team at Invermere Veterinary Hospital, decided he and his staff would try to continue service in Golden, with clinic hours in town twice a week.
Four years later, in early 2020 the Invermere Veterinary Hospital team began exploring the potential of expanding the Golden service to three days a week.
But then the COVID-19 pandemic hit, causing the vet hospital to decrease its clinic hours in Golden.
Then on March 25, the vet services satellite clinic was closed until further notice, caused by the impact of the pandemic.
The service was reopened May 13 but reduced to once-a-week hours.
“When COVID hit, we had all these new recommendations that we had to follow,” said Zehnder.
“And then people were getting all sorts of pets to help them through COVID, so the number of clients and patients actually went up and it took more time to deal with each individual animal.”
Their situation wasn’t helped when the staff veterinarians were reduced from four to two, as one retired and another decided to move back home to be with his family in Grand Forks.
While they’ve had someone join them since part-time to help the clinic get through and assist in resuming office hours in Golden, Zehnder said efforts in the past year to increase the vets on staff have proven fruitless.
“We’ve had a job posting up for a year, we’ve had a number of interviews to bring someone to the area,” said Zehnder.
He explained it’s hard to attract new veterinarians to come to small towns, as the expectations of work hours often deter them from small towns in favour of larger cities.
With limited resources for an expansive area, Invermere Veterinarian Hospital vets have to be on call every third weekend and have to work on emergency calls into the early hours of the morning.
Even on the night of Oct. 16 when Miri died, Zehnder said he was working on calls until 2:30 a.m.
He said it’s emblematic of a larger problem in the province, one that exists across the Canadian west – a vet shortage is wreaking havoc on pets and pet owners.
Vet shortage in B.C.
According to a report that the Society of B.C. Veterinarians commissioned two years ago, there is a growing shortage of now about 100 veterinarians in the province.
Zehnder said he’s seen some change, with B.C. increasing the number of vets who are trained each year from 15 to 20 in the time since he went to school.
However, it’s not enough to close the gap.
“If there’s a shortage of 100 veterinarians needed in British Columbia, 20 isn’t going to be adequate,” said Zehnder.
“That’s a good place to start, starting training more veterinarians and having more seats available in the vet schools.”
Since veterinarians operate private practices, it’s hard to create incentives or subsidize a practice with funding to keep vets in B.C. small towns such as Golden, as there is no public funding available to subsidize their services.
When Zehnder first opened his practice in Invermere, he calculated that a practice would need a population of between 7,000-10,000 to draw from in order to make it economically viable.
Golden’s estimated population sits at just around 4,000, with Area A adding in about 3,000 as well.
Even if a vet clinic were to open in Golden, Zehnder said it would be difficult to encourage a veterinarian to come to the town, as it would mean just one vet servicing the entire area.
“If we had one veterinarian in Golden, it would be expected that they are on-call 24/7, which is just not a reality,” he said.
“People don’t want to live that very difficult lifestyle.”
Miri for change
As for Scales, she wants her tragedy to be a catalyst for change.
Scales said the fact a veterinarian used to operate a practice in Golden shows it can be viable.
“People are interested in getting some fundraising to bring a vet to Golden. If you walk around town, there’s someone walking a dog on every street,” said Scales.
“It’s not just good for dogs, but every animal deserves a chance at survival without having to suffer in a vehicle for 45 minutes to get to the closest vet.”
According to Town of Golden records, so far in 2020 there are about 248 dogs that are licensed, up from 210 in 2019.
This doesn’t include unlicensed dogs or other pets that may also require veterinarian services.
Scales isn’t alone in her experience.
Over the years, a few reports have surfaced of people’s pets dying after being unable to make it to the vet in time.
For Scales, the loss hits even closer to home, as something similar happened to her boyfriend’s dog four years ago.
“These are our family members and I felt so hopeless and alone. I couldn’t get a hold of anybody and I didn’t even know if I was doing CPR right or if that’s what I should be doing.”
Scales said she wants to see the Invermere Veterinary Hospital revamp their emergency line, claiming when she called, it just rang with no voicemail.
When she called other places, she was given information and resources, but wasn’t even able to leave a name and number with Invermere.
Zehdner responded there is usually a message that plays so there must have been technical difficulties that caused the communication shortfall, adding the emergency number has been active and in use the weeks prior to and following Miri’s death.
He estimates receiving about three to four calls on the emergency line a week from Golden and he usually can see them the next day, or even immediately if it’s life-threatening.
He said it’s not very often a pet doesn’t make it to him in time.
The drive to Invermere is over an hour long and with winter on its way, travelling safely can be an issue, which is why the Golden office hours are so important.
Driving home from Calgary with Miri’s cremated remains, Scales still doesn’t have closure.
She still doesn’t know what caused Miri’s sudden death and with a second eight-year-old husky at home, she doesn’t want to go through this again.
While she knew she would one day have to face the loss of her beloved dogs, she didn’t think it would be so soon.
“They play such a huge emotional support role for me and this experience left me feeling so alone and I don’t want this to happen to anybody else,” said Scales.
“I haven’t had a dog since I was young, because I didn’t want to deal with that loss. It’s really taking me down.”
She’s started a Facebook group, Golden Fund-a-Vet, which is looking to bring together people who are willing to help bring a veterinarian to Golden.
Scales is hoping to involve Little Mittens and the Golden Sled Dogs, who she believes would also benefit from this service.
While her efforts won’t change how she feels about what happened to her, she hopes her nightmare can help be the change that Golden needs to keep pets safe. “I’m hoping we can get a vet clinic going and save some animals because they’re totally worth it, they deserve that,” said Scales.
“Miri is going to be the last.”