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When the Humane Society of Sonoma County opened its doors to pet owners during the 2017 wildfires, Dr. Sarah Reidenbach noticed a significant need in the community for affordable veterinary care.

Not all the animals she and staff members were treating for free at the Santa Rosa facility suffered fire-related injuries. A large portion of them needed routine wellness checks, and had never been seen by a veterinarian before because of soaring pet care costs.

As a response to the need, Reidenbach and her team have launched a community veterinary clinic to serve low-income residents who otherwise cannot afford medical care for their animals. The clinic opens Feb. 11.

“After the fires hit we knew we had to step up our game,” said Reidenbach, a UC Davis graduate who has been working as a veterinarian at the Santa Rosa location for more than three years. “Everybody is just really hungry to make a difference.”

The clinic will offer more than just neutering and spaying, said Reidenbach, who will be managing the facility. Doctors will be able to perform specialized surgeries and dental work at low cost.

Priscilla Locke, the director of development, said the organization brought on a lead veterinarian from Oregon. Dr. Ada Norris arrived in January, and already has started seeing patients.

Last week, she was walking around the surgical ward at the Humane Society in jeans and navy scrubs. She was helping calm a dog that was about to be given an anesthetic. Seconds after Norris ran her hands over the dog’s fur, the crying stopped.

“Ada has a way with animals that makes her so special and perfect to lead this community clinic,” Locke said. “She not only cares deeply about animals, but she supports the pet owners as well and spends time talking them down, too, no matter what their background is.”

Norris said she worked for years as a high school history teacher, but spent all her free time volunteering at animal shelters. She decided to pursue her passion and made a career change four years ago.

“This is my dream job,” she said. “Instead of people feeling forced to relinquish an animal, we get to keep them with their loving home.”

One of the most difficult aspects for veterinarians working in the nonprofit world is having animals wind up in their care long term because a family cannot afford to take care of them or pay for surgery, Reidenbach said. The Humane Society is trying to alleviate the problem by providing low-cost animal medical care.

“We get these calls all the time where families have to surrender or euthanize their animals or lose them to the shelter. It has nothing to do with not loving their pet,” Reidenbach said. “What’s been missing is the more intensive medicine because it’s expensive and you need a clinic like the one we have.”

The clinic will only open on Mondays.

It’s not cheap to run, Reidenbach said. It will cost the Humane Society $160,000 a year to operate the clinic, she said.

The organization received a number of private donations for the clinic, as well as two grants totaling $25,000, Locke said.

“But what we are really hoping for is that the community will step up and support us once they see the work we are doing,” Locke said.

Wendy Welling, executive director of the Humane Society of Sonoma County, said she hopes to raise more money so they can open the clinic more than once a week. Although other nonprofits provide spaying and neutering services, they do not offer specialized medical procedures, such as oral surgeries, she said.

“We are heavily dependent right now on donor support, and many have poured their hearts into this effort,” said Welling, who has served as executive director for six months. “But there are no services like this in Sonoma or Marin, and we are talking to many other veterinarians and rescue shelters in town to team up on this endeavor.”

As they prepare for opening day, Reidenbach said she doesn’t want residents to feel intimidated to come seek services for their pets.

“I hope that if people haven’t been able to get veterinary care yet or are worried they will be judged that their animal is in bad shape that they will know there is no judgment,” she said. “We just want everyone to come in.”

You can reach Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @CrossingBordas.

Editor's Note: An earlier version of the story contained an incorrect figure on the cost to run the clinic. The number has been updated.

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