The tears are streaming down his face as he gracefully accepts a tissue. He is not embarrassed to cry, but rather he seems relieved, as he looks down at the dog by his feet. “I love him to bits. I really just love him to bits”, he says, his voice quivering at the thought of the dog being ‘put down’. The white labrador gazes back at him with a look in his eyes that seems to share his distress.
It is an ordinary day for Blue Cross’s veterinary clinic van, parked on Bethnal Green High Street. Since 2004 the pet charity operates a mobile clinic four days a week at four different locations in East London. The aim is to provide care for pets with owners who are struggling to afford veterinary costs, or who are unable to travel to a veterinary clinic.
The man in front of us is one of those people. When his friend died the previous week he left behind a dog that no one was able to take care of. He is clearly worried; the dog almost amounts to his own size, he lives on the ninth floor without a lift, and his landlord forbids pets.
Today the staff are veterinary Kathy Taylor, nurse Katy O’Hara and admin assistant Jodie Bambridge. Together with the man, they discuss different solutions, and decide to explore re-housing options, which is another area of the charity’s work. As he leaves, the man seems considerably calmer, re-assured that he will always be able to visit the dog at his new home.
“Some people just need some guidance and advice”, says O’Hara. She explains that for some people the thought of travelling to an actual vet can be quite daunting. O’Hara explains that part of their work is about bridging the gap between clients and bureaucratic institutions. If something cannot be treated in the van, staff will help to organise for a visit to the Victoria Animal Hospital, from which the van operates.
The next patient is Mollie, a 7-year-old bulldog. She gladly greets the crew and seems familiar with the routine and staff. “It’s funny”, says Bambridge, who is responsible for ‘checking-in’ the patients, “I remember dog’s faces better than out client’s.”
Her owner Cindy, a 48-year old Bethnal Green resident, is no stranger to the staff as her other dog, Regie, has been here many times due to kidney failure. Since Cindy was diagnosed with epilepsy, her dogs have become a vital part of her life.
“Because of my disease I spent almost seven years indoors without coming out”, says Cindy. Her dogs have helped her lead a more regular life. “Regie now knows when I am having an epileptic attack and he stays with me. I need him as much as he needs me, but without this van, I wouldn’t be able to afford having pets.” Filled with emotion, she gestures towards the staff. “Without this place he would be gone, and I would be heartbroken.”
According to Blue Cross, there has been a rise in the number of owners contacting them over not being able to afford ordinary veterinary services. The current economic climate has brought people who have lost, or are at risk of losing their jobs, to enquire about their eligibility to use the van’s services.
Taylor has been working with the van for seven years. She says the clientele has changed lately. “I remember about three or four years ago when we got out first unemployed banker. We all laughed about that, but it wasn’t really funny. He had an elderly dog who needed treatment and he just couldn’t afford it.”
The initiative for the van came eight years ago when founders saw a need for its services in East London. Bambridge has worked with the project since the start and says it is still desperately needed: “I see a growth in families where both parents have lost their jobs. They often come down – mum, dad and their kids – and want to explain why they suddenly need our help. These are broken families. There is no extra cash for a pet, yet the pet remains an important member of their family.”
For Mollie, the check-up goes well, but Cindy is instructed to reduce the dog’s intake of cod liver oil. There is no obligation to pay, but to show her appreciation Cindy leaves a well-needed donation. To be eligible for treatment at the clinic, you need to show proof of means-tested benefit, or pension credit. However, as the charity relies purely on donations, clients are asked, where possible, to contribute towards the costs.
As the sun starts setting over a chilly East London, Bambridge speaks to some local residents with a bulldog, who are enquiring over what papers to bring. There is a small gathering as two dogs have a quarrel, while inside the van a black cat receives medication for scabies. The staff remark that so far it has been a quiet day. On average, the Bethnal Green stop will have between 35 to 50 consultations per month.
The last patient of the day is Esmeralda, a heavily pregnant guinea pig. Her owner is concerned over a wound on her nose. Taylor thinks the animal seems stressed and it turns out she has been pregnant three times over the last year. Worried over Esmeralda’s future health, the vet says gently: “I think she has had a bit too much of ‘the good’ and will need some rest”. Although the staff generally encourage people to neuter their pets, they stress it is up to each and every person to decide.
Taylor is glad that over the 20 years of her career, she has never seen an animal ‘put down’ due to an owner being financially unable to support their pet. Providing care for animals, she says, contributes to the welfare of those that struggle the most. As she speaks, the image of the crying man and his white Labrador still lingers within our minds:
“None of the clients we’ve seen today will ever work. Mental illness is fairly routine in people we see. Their animals are probably the only reason they are still alive. They actually contribute to them having a quality of life. And everyone deserves a quality of life.”
Blue Cross’ mobile clinics are open 10am-12pm and 1.30pm-3.30pm on the following days:
Bethnal Green Road Market on Mondays, Hackney Town Hall car park on Wednesdays, Islington Green on Thursdays and Walthamstow Town Square on Fridays. For more information go here.