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Like Weitzman, Martha Smith came to shelter medicine by a circuitous route. After earning an undergraduate degree in international relations, she ended up in Boston. "I was working temp jobs, and when you work temp in Boston, you end up in the health-care field," she says. "I got a job as the second-shift radiology librarian at Massachusetts General Hospital. My job was to make sure that everybody got the X-rays they were supposed to have—they were still on film at the time—and that they were filed away properly so they could be found when people needed them. But I was getting in trouble because I was spending more time looking at the X-rays than I was making sure they were going where they were supposed to go. It made me think that I have this strong interest in medicine and answering the unanswered questions. So I decided to go back to school."
Within weeks of enrolling at Tufts, she had found her passion. "There was never a dull moment," she says. "Every experience opened my curiosity. During my zoo rotation, I wanted to be a zoo vet. During my dairy rotation, I realized I loved dairy cows, so I was going to be a dairy vet. It was such a rich experience."
Smith had what she describes as a "brief stint" in private practice, but the fit wasn't right. "I started volunteering at the MSPCA shelter and really enjoyed it. The shelter manager at the time said, 'You're a shelter veterinarian.' And I laughed. 'As if there really were such a thing,' I said. I wasn't even really aware that shelters employed veterinarians."
But the MSPCA obtained funding for a staff veterinarian, and offered Smith the position. "After about three months I realized I didn't have to look around anymore for what I wanted to do. I was a full-time shelter veterinarian."
Inevitably, an important component of shelter medicine is animal cruelty investigation. "Shelter veterinarians are playing a growing role in the forensic investigation of animal cruelty," says Smith, who works closely with law enforcement in Boston.
Adds Weitzman: "The only downside of taking care of homeless animals is the inherent emotional issues that come with seeing that abuse and neglect and cruelty—but doing something about that is really rewarding. You get to intervene for the animal."
Shelter medicine is advancing on all fronts, Smith says—the medical, the surgical and the behavioral—in response to pressure from society to rescue and rehabilitate, rather than dispose of unwanted animals. A lot of what shelter medicine focuses on is assessing animals' needs and figuring out how to make them adoptable.
Martha Smith, V97, director of veterinary services at the Animal Rescue League of Boston, repairs a cut on a stray dog’s ear. Shelter veterinarians like Smith work to ensure that homeless animals are healthy—and adoptable.
"You have to find out where the deficits are, and if it's something that's broken that we have the resources to fix to make the animal sound before it goes out. Or is this some-thing that will continue to cause the animal suffering, and it's time to make that fair decision on behalf of the animal and euthanize it," Smith says. "But our emphasis is on rehabilitation. The no-kill movement is a beautiful thing—to try to save as many of these animals as we can. It has become societal, and it has created the need for shelter veterinarians to keep science in it. When science leaves animal welfare, and it becomes simply a matter of passion, that's when good intentions go wrong."
Ten years ago Smith moved from the MSPCA to the Animal Rescue League of Boston, which was opening a new shelter. "This organization is very reactive in terms of getting animals off thin ice and off of cliffs and out of trees and all that stuff," she says. "I enjoy the immediacy, and of course I am responsible for seeing that all these animals are healthy and cared for and get into homes."
Smith grew up in a Navy family, and says she never really felt settled. "Maybe it was my itinerant childhood and that fact that I had no place to call home that led me to feel that ensuring that these animals will have a home that lasts matters most to me."
She has adopted a cat and two dogs from the shelter. "People always ask me, 'How do you not come home with a thousand animals?' I promise you that with almost every single animal that I examine, [I think] 'I'm going to take you home.' And I do take a piece of them home with me. But you learn to find the balance where you don't literally take them all home. You learn to love and let go."
Feature written by Catherine Grace, editor, Tufts Veterinary Medicine
Photos by Jared Leeds
This story ran online on Jan. 5, 2008. It originally appeared in the Winter 2008 issue of Tufts Veterinary Medicine.