Woman asks Wrangell to certify people who can euthanize pets

an office
Veterinarian Judge Conniff’s part-time office at Conniff’s Critters in Wrangell. (Colette Czarnecki/KSTK)

Veterinary care is not always available in remote, rural Alaska. In Wrangell, like some other island towns in Southeast Alaska, a vet is available for about 10 days a month. This can be very challenging when pets are aging or become terminally ill. A particular hardship for pet owners is when their furry loved ones need to be euthanized.

A local dog, Lilly, was 13 years old last fall when she suddenly became paralyzed. Before, the Lab-and-pit ridgeback mix was a loving emotional support pet. She was known as a gentle giant.

When she fell ill, Lilly’s owner didn’t know what to do so her sister, Dorthea Rooney, stepped in. Wrangell’s part-time vet was not in town at the time so Rooney did something she never thought she would.  She put Lilly down herself, at home, without euthanasia medicine. 

“It’s still pretty raw,” she said. “When you have to put a family pet down, there is still a conscience and you’re aware of what you’re doing. It’s really heart-wrenching.”

Comments on social media didn’t help. One in particular really offended her.

“One woman posted, ‘It’s only $2 for a bullet,’” she said. “If you are not trained with a handgun, if you do not know what you’re doing and when it’s your own animal, it’s a totally different experience.”

With Rooney’s own dog, she had to schedule euthanasia because the vet is often gone. Her own dog had mandibular osteosarcoma, a cancer in the jaw. She said her dog died way before her time because she didn’t want to euthanize her herself. 

“It was a year ago and it’s still pretty hard,” she said. “But that’s what people have to do in this community. They have to either commit to when the vet is here, or fork out a ton of money to ship your dog out. Or unfortunately do it yourself and sometimes that does not work out very well.”

Certification will take some time

Rooney wants to improve options for pet owners in Wrangell. Shortly after putting her sister’s dog down, Rooney spoke about it at a Borough Assembly meeting reading a detailed letter about her experience.

She said it was surprising that the Assembly didn’t know that nobody in town was certified to euthanize pets. They assured her they’d look into it.

“Everyone I’ve talked to so far is completely on board,” Rooney said. “The city’s response in the beginning was very positive. They said, ‘we will pay to have this done.’ But their follow up is not happening.”

Mason Villarma, Wrangell’s interim borough manager, said it will take time. He said Rooney hasn’t been the only concerned resident. Someone else came forward recently about putting her pet down as well. He said the city is moving forward with getting someone certified to do this.

“We’re working on trying to find the appropriate credentials for them to get certifications and the licensure,” he said. “In the past it’s been offered online as a course, but we’re unclear on a path forward. So we’re working with the vet to do that. We have a couple folks interested – one that’s in the city and one that’s outside of the city.”

Kim Lane, the borough clerk, wrote in Borough Assembly Meeting agenda packet for Tuesday that the city’s been in touch with its attorney about a draft agreement for two people who are interested in taking on this role. The city is also checking to see if the certification course meets the state’s requirements for licensure. 

“I am very much in favor of that”

Wrangell’s veterinarian is also on board. After hearing about Rooney’s efforts, Wrangell’s local vet office reached out to her. 

Veterinarian Judge Conniff, with Conniff’s Critters in Wrangell, said he’s been in the town for 12 years. He advertises when he’s open with a large yellow banner in front of the office that says, “The Vet is In!” But usually, he’s only open for 10 days a month. 

“People don’t come see me very often if I’m here all the time,” he said. “It’s too long between appointments. So while it’s a little bit of a push, sometimes it’s just better off for everybody if I only open up for a while and then go away for a while. Just works better for me.”

That’s common for other Southeast Alaska communities as well, like Petersburg that’s on a different island. If an emergency happens and the vet isn’t around, Conniff is available by phone. Or, if someone has the means, they can fly their pet out of town.

“People worry about their animals, as they should,” he said. “But most of the time, I can help people out with a phone call and tell them, ‘You know, try this, try that and call me back if it doesn’t work.’ Then we’ll talk about whether or not you need to fly out of town. That’s the way we handle it.”

As for when an animal needs to be euthanized, Conniff said not to wait too long. He said it’s worse to wait and have pets suffer than “jump the gun” and euthanize them early. But, he added that he won’t make the decision. It’s completely up to the pet owner. 

“Trust me, when somebody calls me and says they need their animal euthanized, nobody is more empathetic to that problem than I am,” he said. “So I feel real bad if I can’t jump right on it and get the problem resolved for them. Euthanasia is a tough subject.” 

Conniff said he would love the backup if someone else in Wrangell can get certified to euthanize animals. 

“As I told the folks over at City Hall, I am very much in favor of that and very much support that,” he said. “There are programs out there for getting people trained in appropriate procedures and I’d be very happy if somebody from town was able to get that training.”

Villarma, the interim borough manager, said liability is involved, so the city wants to make sure they move forward in the right direction with finding appropriate credentials for certification. He said the process could take up to several months.

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