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Are vet charities taking the mick?

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01 March 2017, at 12:00am

GARETH CROSS asks why it is that veterinary practices can be held to ransom by some charities when they too are struggling to make ends meet

YOU KNOW SPRING IS AROUND THE CORNER when the call comes in from a charity asking you to partake in a neutering drive. I have worked for welfare charities abroad and in neutering clinics in the UK and am all in favour of doing everything possible to reduce unwanted litters. There is, however, a side of animal charity work in the UK that I struggle to come to terms with.

I was reminded of this after just listening to Evan Davis’ excellent programme on Radio 4 – The Bottom Line – which looks at a different business sector each week. This week it was charities. And as I typed that sentence I noticed something that may have been a Freudian slip, that accidental revealing of a deep-seated emotion or preoccupation – charities as businesses. 

It was a business programme, and this week it was about charities. After a series of scandals last year involving fundraising practices for charities, I am using this brief window of time where it is OK for the likes of me and Evan Davis to have a little moan about charities. 

If you are going to read any further, we need to get something straight right now: I am not going to be writing or complaining about the end process or activity of animal charities, as in what they actually do, but their business practices and their place in the veterinary sector in the UK; specifically how they relate to private practice. 

The first year I dealt with the neutering campaign, I was drawn in to a lengthy poker-like exchange of telephone calls. It started as just a query from the charity about whether we would be interested in joining the neutering campaign. It is very widely publicised and calls concerning potential neutering operations are made to the charity, and the client is then directed to phone a practice in that area that is partaking in the campaign. If their own veterinary practice is not taking part, they will be directed elsewhere. 

As a practice owner with bills and wages to pay, that immediately grabs your attention. Never mind any money made (or lost) on the neutering – losing a client is a much more serious financial issue. And with that they have, to use an appropriate term for the subject, got you by the balls (we have yet to have a gender-neutral vernacular phrase for that – sorry majority female readers). 

So with my attention fully grabbed, the next phase was a protracted negotiation period where they would not tell me exactly what other practices were charging and made it clear that if we were much more expensive than the competition then they would be sending operations there – even our own clients. 

A series of prices was eventually agreed. I can honestly say that at the current castrate price it would not even cover the nurses’ and vets’ wages if you timed the amount of time spent with that animal. Never mind the overheads of heating, anaesthetic drugs, sutures, autoclaving, insurance, etc. 

Now the public and maybe the charity will say “Well, you get paid enough, so why can’t you do a bit for free?” And to that I would refer them on to ask the question directly to our electricity supplier, insurance company, mortgage and business loan providers, etc. 

Could they just knock off a proportionate amount of their fees so we can pass the savings on to the charity? Of course not, so we are stuck in the middle. And as money does not grow on trees, it has to come from somewhere, and voila – a whole mess of cross-subsidy from the paying public and insurance companies ensues to run the practice while we are doing goodwill neuterings. 

Another example of this in action was the free microchipping campaign run by the Dogs’ Trust. The Trust paid (just about) for the microchip and you, dear reader, did the rest. We funded the consult rooms, the staff to put the chips in, the sharps disposal, the heated and dry waiting room, the receptionist to book them in and the vets and nurses to deal with all the “while he’s here” things that clients would just mention in the free consult, the insurance in case of any mishap, the staff to input the registration data and so on. 

Did we, the money-grabbing private sector, get any credit for this? No, we just got to look bad when we started charging properly again for them. 

Other examples of this kind of practice include charities providing their own microchips for insertion, their own vaccinations to be given once the vet has provided a free consult, their own wormers and so on. Guide Dogs for the Blind is notable for this practice. 

These aren’t small charities generally either, and you bet that their staff don’t work for free like they expect us to. In fact a quick search online shows that the PDSA chief executive earns about £150,000, the CPL just over £100,000, Guide Dogs’ chief exec about £130,000 and the chief exec of the Dogs’ Trust earns about £120,000 and their executive team of eight people between them earns £855,405 (from their own 2014 accounts). 

Their executive team of eight earns more than my four-vet practice’s entire year’s turnover and I’m the one working for free for them. And within the profession we know that vets and nurses are paid the going rate and don’t put in free working time for charity work. They know we will put up with it because the bad PR from complaining about charities is not something any practice wants. 

As a little journalistic experiment, I thought of a jolly wheeze: how about I ask them if they would do the same for me? Would they offer their buildings and staff up for me to use if I offered to cover the bare consumables? So I am just about to e-mail them all with that very request, and the responses will be in over the next few weeks as this article goes to print.

I don’t know what they will say; if they all are willing to help then I will take it all back. Well, some of it. Replies and fallout in next month’s column and feel free to send me your thoughts on the subject at garethcross@hotmail. com, but if you do it would be helpful to know if you are a practice owner or not, i.e. the one paying the bills and wages. 

As I don’t like lying, I will base my request on a truth – we have some spare land with our practice and I would quite like to take on some rescue giant breed tortoises. My business partner is not so convinced that it’s a wise way to spend his retirement fund… 

So I’ll base my e-mail on that, as it is true, and send it to all the major charities that rely on the goodwill of us practising vets, and who at times downright coerce vets into helping them out, to see if they will offer us what they expect us to offer them [pedants please note a few judicious grammatical errors have been inserted so it’s not too obviously a wind-up]… 

Dear [charity name] 

I am planning on starting a group to help rescue and relocate pet tortoises in the UK. I have managed to get a landowner to offer some land for use, but need some help in getting publicity and starting up. I appreciate that you cannot give me money as it has been given to you for you’re charity, but I was hoping you could offer help to me and my tortoises in other ways. I need an office for use during the day whilst I get it up and running and notice that you have a large HQ building. I will also need use of a phone, internet (for facebook etc) and printing facilities. As I won’t be there in person all the time I would appreciate if your staff in the office could answer the phone for me – especially early morning! – and take details etc. of people and tortoises in need of help and be sure to mention the groups name (yet to be thought of!) when they call in. It would be great if you could help out a smaller animal rescue group like this. I will happily pay for any paper used in printing. Look forward to hearing from you. 

Gareth Cross