Outside of the larger cities, veterinary services are practically nonexistent in Southeast Alaska. That leaves island residents with limited and expensive options when it comes to caring for their animals. Seventeen year ago, however, a veterinarian who’s currently based in Petersburg came up with a novel solution to this problem, and he’s spent nearly every summer since putting it into practice. Ari Snider reports.
It’s a normal day at the Waterways Veterinary Clinic in Petersburg. Dr. Ken Hill is showing assistants Maggie Owens and Linda Buehler how to clean the ear of a black lab.
For most pet owners, visits to the vet are nothing special, maybe even something they take for granted. But what if you don’t have access to medical care for your pet? This is a real problem for many people in Southeast Alaska’s remote communities. A problem Dr. Hill has been trying to address for years.
Hill keeps his 50-foot aluminum trawler, the Hallie, in Petersburg’s South Harbor. The Hallie stands out among all the seine boats — she’s obviously not set up for fishing. That’s because about 17 years ago, Hill turned the Hallie into a floating veterinary clinic, complete with an anaesthesia machine, oxygen tanks, a centrifuge, and other medical equipment.
Before settling in Petersburg, Hill worked as bush veterinarian, serving remote towns in the Kuskokwim Delta and the Aleutian Islands, among other places. He has also worked on government wildlife research projects involving sea otters, wolves, and moose. No stranger to the ocean, he earned his sea legs as a fisherman working the Bristol Bay salmon run. Basically, if anyone was cut out to run a maritime animal clinic servicing remote Alaska communities, it’s Dr. Hill. He says the boat clinic model is well-suited to Southeast.
“Well it’s just the practical matter, cause there’s enough medium sized communities that don’t have veterinarians down here,” Hill said. “And it’s a very large, interesting place to run a boat.”
The Hallie is a decent sized boat, but most of that is living space and bunkrooms for the Hill and his crew, Laura Wong-Rose of Petersburg and Linda Buehler, a third year veterinary student at Texas A&M. The actual clinic is in the aft part of the boat, and it’s remarkably small, especially with the operating table folded down .
“We’ve had a Great Dane on there before, and the front paws were at the bulkhead and the back feet were coming through the door, you know you had to open the door in order to get him in there,” Hill said with a laugh.
Despite the size restrictions, the operating room supports a wide range of procedures, from dental work to fixing broken bones to even some kinds of surgery. One of Waterways’ clients is Katie Rooks, who lives outside of Klawock, on the eastern side of Prince of Wales Island. Rooks owns a cat named Cora. She says there is intermittent vet service down the road in Craig, but that usually her only option is to get herself and the cat to Ketchikan.
“We either have to jump on a ferry, me and the cat, you know in a kennel and in a vehicle,” Rooks said. “So you know roundtrip ferry cost in the $120 range, plus probably in all likelihood a night in Ketchikan depending on when the vet can fit me in. Or I have to get on an airplane.”
Rooks has made the trip to Ketchikan before, but it’s expensive and means taking time off from work. For a lot of people, that’s not always feasible.
“So they have to put everything down, you know set everything in their life aside, take off of work, and get on a plane or a ferry depending on how critical their pet is,” Rooks said.
Dr. Hill can’t be everywhere at once, but he can be reached by phone from just about anywhere. In addition to the floating clinic, he offers remote consultations year-round.
Between the regular caseload at the onshore clinic and the frequent phone consultations, it’s been a bit of a challenge finding time to prepare the Hallie for another summer on the water. But the Waterways crew plans to spend another few weeks motoring around Southeast this summer, tending to the medical needs of cats, dogs, parrots, and even the occasional hedgehog.