Doctor Amanda Bruce, our beloved Medical Director!
Emma: Hi Dr. A, how did you get started in spay/neuter?
Dr. Amanda: I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2003. My first job was at a five doctor small animal practice in Northern Wisconsin. I had a supportive boss who gave me time off to participate in animal-related activities.
My first spay-neuter campaign as a veterinarian was with RAVS in 2004. My veterinary assistant, Katie, and I traveled to the Appalachian region, West Virginia. The students knew more than me at that time! Over the next couple of years, Katie and I traveled together to Red Lake Reservation, Mississippi with Best Friends for Hurricane Katrina relief, and then out to Kanab (Utah) together.
I’ve always enjoyed surgery. As an undergraduate volunteering in a vet clinic, I’d spend my mornings watching elective surgeries. When I got to veterinary school I actually chose an equine track in school, partially because the large animal students got to do so much more hands-on than the small animal students.
I took as many opportunities as I could to do spay/neuter through externships while I was in veterinary school. I was most intrigued by the organizations that returned to the same communities year after year and the depth of community engagement that I saw with these programs.
When I sought out Animal Balance, I was looking to volunteer with a group that dug down and into communities. I’ve told you, Emma, that I read through all of the online Animal Balance annual reports before I ever sent in a volunteer application. I was so intrigued by this group, Animal Balance, that had been going back to communities, such as the Dominican Republic and the Galapagos, for years.
Emma: Could you share one of your favorite stories?
Dr. Amanda: Probably my favorite story is when I lived in Duluth, Minnesota, I had a transitioned to working at an Emergency Clinic. During my overnight shifts, I would often do random internet searches. One time I was reading the classified ads in the MVMA – as you do! I saw an ad for a mobile surgery unit. I cold-called the owners who were a Twin Cities-based humane society. I thought, oh my gosh, I want to start a mobile clinic, this will be great! I had no formal training in high-volume surgeries and no background in spay/neuter mobile work at all 😊
I told them what I wanted to do. They came back and said, ‘it’s yours if you work with the community’! I then called a handful of humane societies and in the area, I said I can do surgery, but I don’t know how to manage or build out a program. Well, Animal Allies Humane Society of Duluth stepped up. We built out the mobile unit to make it more efficient and they took on ALL of the expenses. They were in a situation of needing to find a way to do their own in-house surgeries more cost-effectively and the timing ended up being very serendipitous. Remember, they had never met me before and I was 7 months pregnant.
They didn’t know me but, when we met, there was a connection and a ‘we got this’ feeling. Between their amazing executive director and myself, we convinced their board this was a logical next step. I spent my maternity leave writing SOPs and helping to get this program up and running. I was still at the emergency clinic full-time, and doing spays and neuters on the mobile unit between 4 and 8 shifts per month. We were doing local shelter animals and started providing surgeries to shelters within a 90-mile radius of Duluth.
So the ‘Neuter Commuter’ began. Our outlying community shelter partners had to have at least 25 surgery patients for us to show up. As the only vet that entered many of these small regional shelters, I found myself talking through housing options, shelter flow, and disease control plans with shelter staff before and after surgeries when we would visit these communities. It was like mini-consultations when we were in town. That was my first real introduction to shelter medicine. I’ve seen folks do amazing things with very few resources.
Minnesota hadn’t been euthanizing dogs in our region for many years, but still struggled with cats in 2007. We used the Neuter Commuter to transport dogs from resource-strapped outlying shelters to areas they would be adopted faster. I’ll never forget when we were able to get dozens of cats prepped for adoption at our regional partners to participate in a large Duluth based adoption event. We adopted out all of our cats and were able to pull from regional shelters. It was such a triumph!
Animal Allies Humane Society had such effective, forward-thinking leadership. We put so many of the No Kill programmatic ideals into effect a decade or more before they became mainstream. It wasn’t necessarily called No Kill at the time, we just did what was presenting itself as best practices and it worked.
Emma: Basically, you were doing the No Kill strategy in 2007?
Dr. Amanda: Yes. The Neuter Commuter operated from 2007-2009. Due to Minnesota veterinary practice act laws, we were limited to doing surgeries on shelter pets. In order to operate on owned animals in the state, we had to adjust our model.
In 2009 the first brick and mortar HVHQ spay and neuter clinic was opened in the state of Minnesota. It was also the first for-profit/non-profit veterinary partnership in Minnesota. The agreement allowed my vet practice to operate on owned animals while the NGO provided the staff and wrote for grants. This is a time period of my life that makes me incredibly proud - of my community, of my coworkers at the time, and of myself.
Our clinic utilized the Humane Alliance with transport model. We transitioned our mobile surgery clients into transport partners. Now each partner could fill the transport van with a combination of shelter and owned pets. We were able to provide even more impact to our regional partners than ever. I practiced with Animal Allies Humane Society until 2012 when I transitioned the practice to my associate.
At that time I started a wellness clinic. It seemed that the logical next step for our community was to add low-cost wellness services such as vaccines and service for some of the most commonly seen medical conditions, such as skin and ears.
The spay and neuter clinic is 4 blocks down the road from the wellness clinic I started. Both are on the bus route in the lowest income part of town, serving a client base that I remain passionate about. Both have been transitioned to new ownership and operate on a for-profit basis. I built 2 programs that are sustainable without me having to be part of them.
Emma: Just to clarify, the wellness and the spay/neuter program are still in operation today?
Dr. Amanda: Yes, and that is the dream isn’t it!
Emma: Absolutely! Was it then that you made the move to Texas with your family?
Dr. Amanda: That’s a long, convoluted story. I had Maggie, my youngest daughter, in 2012. I had terrible postpartum depression. For 2 years I did not perform any spay/neuter, I was in therapy, I was on meds, I had a life coach and I thought about suicide on an almost constant basis. In 2014 Sophia Yin killed herself. (https://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/animal-behaviorist-sophia-yin-dies-at-48/)There were so many similarities between Dr. Yin and myself. I looked to her as an inspiration. I wrote a regular newspaper column, I had a weekly television spot that I did, I had a vision of being some nationally known face of veterinary medicine. Then she killed herself. When she did that I questioned everything. Her suicide was a BIG wake up call for me over what it was for me to be successful. When was I going to be enough?
This was part of my process.
By the end 2014, I was coming out of the fog a little. I grabbed onto the thought of doing an international spay/neuter trip. I knew I missed spay/neuter and that I needed to do something just for me. Aaron, my husband, and I had gone to Jamaica with ISNN (International S/N Network) years earlier. I’d never traveled internationally by myself and it was really intimidating. But in November of 2014, I found myself in Cabrera, Dominican Republic, with Animal Balance.
Emma: Oh yes, the DR 2014 campaign was amazing, so many clinic locations!
Dr. Amanda: Yes, I remember 1000 degree heat on the black tarmac tennis court, wild pigs running through the field while doing surgery under a huge tree one day, moving the old hearse out of the Fire Station in Rio San Juan with Marilyn Monroe, the person in charge of the fire dept, giving directions. We had to have fixed over 65 fatty female rottweilers in one day! It was insane in Rio San Juan.
Emma: (Laughing at the memories) What was your first impression of AB? Dare I ask!?
Dr. Amanda: I LOVED IT. It was so much fun. I met Dr. Jen Bolser and Elsa was there and Liz Peach too, oh my goodness, remember the flood?
Emma: Yes I do! Jen and Liz had gone down to Santo Domingo to help Dr. Lourdes and her team with their clinic. The rain was just like a bucket being dropped from the sky. The DR floods easily, but this was when every road was a river. Flash flooding everywhere! What is one of your favorite campaign stories?
Dr. Amanda: Strapping an oxygen tank to a tree in the jungle, then looking up from my surgery table and seeing the pigs running through our ‘clinic field’. The stick ladders, Dominicans are amazing, they can hang a tarp over anything, anywhere. It was so, so fun.
Emma: What happened after that experience with AB?
Dr. Amanda: I met Elsa on that campaign. She reached out to me when Emancipet was hiring for a lead veterinarian position at the clinic she was working at. I’ll never forget that - I did my phone interview in the car on my way home from a Packers game. It came together so quickly! I got my Texas license arranged and we moved. It was Thanksgiving when I returned from that first Animal Balance campaign and I pulled into Austin to start with Emancipet that Easter.
Emma: So in 2015, you started at Emancipet?
Dr. Amanda: Yes, Emancipet was the excuse to move to Austin. I transitioned to doing relief work full-time about a year after arriving in Texas. My true passion is with small, regional shelters and rescues. Doing relief work also allowed me the freedom to do many more AB campaigns; Hawai’i, Galapagos Islands, Dominican Republic, Cuba, Barbuda, American Samoa and Antigua! I also went to China with Dr. Jen Bolser.
Emma: Oh please tell us about that adventure?
Dr. Amanda: It was at a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery at 14,000 feet. I recall using the pulse oximeter on my own finger and my oxygenation was at 83%. That’s hardcore MASH right? When I saw Liz Peach winded and she had just done an Ironman, I knew for sure, I mean Liz - winded!!
Emma: LOL true, Please share one story from that experience in China.
Dr. Amanda: Jen recruited me for the campaign. When she first threw out the details of this campaign I was super excited and then I went radio silent on her. She didn’t mince words and was very transparent about the conditions: it was likely there would be no bathroom, no water, we’d be living in tents in the cold. I didn’t know where the surgeries were being done and I wondered if I really wanted to go. Jen emailed that she needed a decision. Eventually, I said, “okay, I’m in.” I went to my husband and said, “I’m doing this trip”, he said, “Of course you are. I cleared my calendar for it 2 weeks ago” 😊
When we got there, there was one spigot with running water, one light bulb over surgery, and most of the time I had my jacket on during surgery. We slept in the building where we did surgery. There was a stove that we burned dried yak dung in for heat. At night there were mice running all over us. We joked that our sleeping bags were on some Mouse Olympics track course! I felt them running across my hair so I’d burrow down into my sleeping bag and then they’d run all over you – that was extreme for me!!
The most important aspect was that we spayed 100% of the dogs there. Thanks to Shelby Davis, who was our master dog trapper. She has so much patience. Shelby and the nun who fed the dogs. The nun delivered the majority of the dogs for anesthesia. It was an incredible experience.
Emma: Wow! Mice in your hair at night….that’s horrible, but for 100% success, that’s amazing! What advice would you give to new vet students just starting out?
Dr. Amanda: Just do it! Even if you go as a tech and you are a vet, just go. Do it, the networking that you do on a campaign is great, as you do not know who you are going to meet and work with. Work with NGOs who are really good at placing people, skills and creating teams and putting you where you are MOST needed.
Be proactive in finding opportunities to do things you are passionate about or have an interest in.
Emma: What are your plans for the rest of 2020?
Dr. Amanda: For the short term, stay home, stay safe, long term – we are talking about what it looks like as we return. Curbside check-ins/outs seem to be how it’s going to be going forward. I think we’ll be picking up some additional community cat days as part of making up lost ground. With great change come great challenges where we are being institutionally forced to think about the way we think about a problem.
During COVID, I’ve found myself thinking about you and the ‘Shelter Freedom’ model you’ve spoken about. Focusing on the community and their ability to take an active role in animal sheltering and not relying on the shelter to fix every problem. With COVID 19 we are being forced to rethink how we do things. These are interesting times and I hope that we come out of this different and I am hopeful that it is a better different!