“This was her day?” asked veterinarian Paul Howell, raising his eyebrows and squinting across the examination table through hip glasses with thick, slate gray frames. He had his stethoscope pressed firmly against the downy white chest of a wide-eyed cat.
His client, a habitual cat rescuer, looked down at her most recent charity case and nodded in affirmation. She had brought the 11-year-old shorthair mix to Howell’s veterinary clinic from a shelter on the very day it was scheduled for euthanasia. “Hi,” Howell purred to his patient, stroking its jaw. “You’re a winner. You just won the lottery.”
Howell has probably seen thousands of rescue cats during his 30-year career. His clinic has fostered them continuously since 1984, when Howell founded Animal General on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Howell didn’t settle into veterinary medicine straight away. He tried engineering first, then photojournalism, but he wasn’t comfortable in either job. When he was 24, his girlfriend gave him a dog for his birthday. He thought he might like being a vet. “It’d be nice to be in a secure, respected profession,” he recalls thinking at the time. “They call you doctor. That’s pretty good.”
After finishing veterinary school at Colorado State University, Howell decided he wanted to work for himself and control the principles guiding his practice. He opened Animal General and carefully selected staff members who shared his belief that a vet clinic should nurture a meaningful relationship between people and pets.
From his clinic’s inception, Howell used it as a base for community-service programs. He first began employing developmentally disabled youngsters to help with pet care. Barbara, his “TLC Coordinator,” is his most recent hire. Barbara stays with pets while they revive from anesthesia and looks after their general comfort. “She’s a real wiz with animals,” says Howell.
More recently, Howell and his clinic manager, Karen Heidgerd, started a non-profit called Tenth Life, which provides free care to cats that are on death row because of easily fixable but expensive medical problems. Animal General hears about the cats through a Facebook group called NYC Urgent Cats, which posts news of cats scheduled for euthanasia so that various rescue groups and clinics can pool their resources to treat them and adopt them out. Karen says the staff at Animal General sometimes all “chip in” to fund a rescue treatment.
Karen has worked for Howell 16 years and says she won’t be leaving him any time soon. “I’ve worked for a lot of veterinarians, and I would never work for another,” says Karen. She’s known many greedy vets, she says, but Howell “has never lined his pockets with gold.”
Howell, whose glitziest accessory is a silver earring studded in his left ear, thinks being a “bean counter” ¬¬— worrying about saving a little money on syringes here, vaccinations there — is boring. “I don’t really safeguard money that much, frankly, and it shows,” Howell says with a self-effacing smile. “Given where I am in my career, you can tell there was precious little financial planning going on.”
Indeed, it’s hard to believe there is space for the various offshoots of Howell’s philanthropic tendencies in his modestly sized clinic, which is hardly larger than two subway cars squished side to side. Only three or four rescue animals can be housed at the clinic at one time.
Yet Howell’s high-minded ideals aren’t thwarted by the lack of space. The clinic shelters not only rescue cats but also the pets of abused women. Oftentimes, both women and pets face abuse together in violent households, Howell says. “The woman identifies with the pet.” Many women’s shelters won’t take pets, however, and some women refuse to leave home without their animals. So when an abused woman is seeking shelter, Animal General provides a refuge for her pet. “It’s such a good idea,” Howell says, “and no one I know does it.”
Those walls also provide room for the Wild Bird Fund, which Karen and a friend founded in 2006. “The two of them really ran with it,” Howell remembers, visibly awed by Karen’s skills as he describes the red-tailed hawks, egrets and owls she’s treated in his clinic. Karen mainly uses volunteers to run the Wild Bird Fund. One of them recently donated money to fund a wildlife rehabilitation clinic that’s set to open across the street from Animal General in early spring of 2012. “She came up with a quarter of a million dollars,” Howell says incredulously.
Howell says his goodwill efforts are shaped by a combination of choosing his values and combatting stagnation. He’s always trying to keep his career exciting. “The thought, ‘this is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life, I’m not going to change anything,’ that just bores the shit out of me.”
On a recent Monday evening, there was no hint of boredom in Howell’s demeanor as he examined one furry patient after the other.
Among the pet owners were Maria and Mary Beth, who have brought their 10-year-old shepherd to Howell since it was a puppy. The pair, like many of his clients, travel an hour or more to reach Animal General. As Howell looked the dog over he bantered with them about pet loyalty and politics.
He didn’t wear a lab coat or an affected expression. He was methodical and calm, displaying a self possession that elucidates his success.
When asked why they entrust their pets to Howell, several of Howell’s clients cite the way he helped them through the end of a pet’s life. He doesn’t rush. “There can be 15 people lined up outside at 9:30 at night,” Maria said. But when Howell closes the examination room door, “time stops.”
Despite his clients’ fervent loyalty, the current economic recession has Howell’s veterinary practice struggling to stay afloat for the first time in its history. Manhattan is a competitive place to run a veterinary office, especially one that allows a neighborhood dog owner to pay her bill with piles of authentic Southern fried chicken. But Howell finds the exchange quite favorable. “She makes the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten,” he says.
Though Howell’s community service at times conflicts with what’s best for business, Karen says Howell won’t make tough calls about cutting staff or charging more for treatment. “We have to take care of our own,” Karen recites. “That’s how he says it.”