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In an effort to better align with its charitable mission, the Humane Society of Sonoma County will close its Santa Rosa veterinary hospital Friday, transitioning the space to serve low-income Sonoma County residents who otherwise could not afford medical care for their pets.

The pivot has been in the works since wildfires broke out across Sonoma County in October, highlighting a significant need within the community for affordable veterinary care, said Cindy Roach, the Humane Society’s executive director.

“One of the things that we found there was a need for at that time was to provide some general charity wellness services for people who had been displaced from their homes, and it really opened our eyes to the level of need for that kind of service in our community,” she said.

Currently, only Roseland-based Compassion Without Borders offers similarly subsidized services to Sonoma County residents. In that model, low-income residents pay a flat fee of $30 for a range of wellness services, but the need for another low-income service provider is overwhelming, said Christi Camblor, Compassion Without Borders’ executive director.

“It’s a pretty contentious issue — whether people, if they can’t afford animals, should they even have them?” Camblor said. “There’s so many reasons why animals are beneficial to people. I don’t think (animal ownership) should be limited to upper-class or higher-income earners. And whether people should or shouldn’t, they are going to have those animals, and animals need the care.”

Annually, Compassion Without Borders’ volunteer veterinary crew provides about $175,000 in services from its “Esperanza Truck,” a mobile veterinary wellness clinic workers park around the Roseland area a few times a month, providing basic preventative care for animals.

Clients are asked to pay a $30 flat fee “just to keep the program going,” but no one is turned away for a lack of funds, Camblor said.

“Our focus is primarily low-income Latinos and the homeless, but there are pockets of need everywhere,” she said.

Pet owners generally start lining up at 6 a.m. for Compassion Without Borders’ monthly 8 a.m. wellness clinics. But veterinarians can only see about 125 animals a day, meaning dozens are usually turned away from the first-come, first-served clinic.

“It’s kind of the cutting edge of animal sheltering,” Camblor said of the Humane Society’s plan. “We’re trying to figure out how we can prevent those animals from being sheltered in the first place. ... It’s very preventative in terms of animal homelessness and overpopulation.”

One of the problems the Humane Society is trying to eliminate is the unfortunate reality that when pet owners can’t afford veterinary care for their pets, they are forced to give them up to shelters or choose “economic euthanasia,” Roach said.

“As a shelter, if we go ahead and take that surrendered animal, we’re going to end up providing the medical care anyway,” she said.

“And then we’ve separated that animal from its home. ... We would have been much better off if we could have just provided some low-cost medical care for the family, rather than separating them.”

There is no set plan yet for how the Humane Society’s clinic will operate, but shutting down the public vet hospital and connecting those clients with new pet care was the first step, Roach said.

Over the past few weeks, the hospital had been transitioning clients to other veterinarians in the area.

Anyone still in need of a veterinary referral, or information on obtaining pets’ medical records can call the hospital at 707-284-1198.

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com.

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