As the lead veterinarian at the PAWS Humane clinic and shelter in Columbus, life can be very fast-paced for Dr. Robby Wrighten, with as many as 30 spay and neuter procedures performed each day.
But the daughter from a U.S. Air Force family wouldn’t have it any other way. The Alabama and Auburn graduate knows she’s making a major difference in the lives of dogs and cats at the no-kill animal shelter at 4900 Milgen Road. But she’s also having an impact on the community by helping improve animal wellness while reducing the overpopulation.
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The latter means she literally saves the lives of furry creatures who might be born in a litter, then be neglected or abandoned or simply become feral and roam the city waiting to die of disease or perhaps be killed by people, cars and other predator animals.
Wrighten, 32, who lives in Opelika, Ala., is among nearly 80,000 veterinarians in the United States, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s an occupation that is growing “faster than average” at 9 percent, the agency estimates, with roughly 7,000 more vets needed nationwide by the year 2024. The median annual pay in the field is just under $89,000, the BLS says.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Wrighten recently at PAWS Humane, after a long day of surgeries, to discuss her job, the challenges she faces and what she hopes to accomplish. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. How long have you been here at PAWS?
A. Since August 2015, so almost two years now.
Q. How did you find your way into this job?
A. When I got out (of college) I was in general practice in Newnan, and I came here to help volunteer and help spay and neuter to increase my surgery skills and that sort of thing. So I knew about PAWS ... And then I was looking to do something different than I was doing in general practice and wanting to feel like I was making a difference in the world. It happened to be at the same time they were hiring for veterinary here. So it all aligned.
Q. Compare this to a private practice. This has a nobler mission in a sense?
A. It does. Here we’re able to offer prices that are lower because we are nonprofit. So we’re able to reach out to the community and the people to provide basic services to try to keep their animals healthy and prevent diseases. We’re also able to spay and neuter more quickly because it’s fine focused. We’re not going through whether or not they’re sick or anything like that. We don’t provide those services. We’re not having to bargain and find the time to do all the things that come with a general practice.
Being involved with the shelter is taking care of all the animals here and making sure they are getting their medical needs, their physical needs and their mental needs. It’s a different lifestyle that the animals here have than a pet at home. They’ve got free rein of house usually and a nice comfy bed, but here we’ve got confined spaces and confined environmental (areas) … like getting outside and going for runs and things like that.
Q. So you’re spaying and neutering pretty much all the time? Is it an assembly line?
A. Yeah, sort of. We practice high-quality, high-volume spay and neuter. As a veterinarian, when I’m on the spay-neuter side, the other veterinarian and I kind of rotate between wellness and shelter and spay-neuter … We do PAWS animals. We do local rescue animals. They bring them all in. It has to be very streamlined. They come in and we do a pre-anesthetic exam. They get their pre-medications to decrease their anxiety and we start the pain-control onboard. They get induced for surgery, prepped for surgery, then go into surgery.
Techniques that are used here in spay-neuter is a little bit different than a lot of practitioners are using because it’s actually shorter, because we’re doing so many. High quality, high volume usually has the goal of about 30 spay-neuters a day. In general practice, you’re maybe getting one to two a day. It’s a huge difference.
Q. You pump them out quickly?
A. I can do it really quickly. When I first came here I wasn’t used to doing that many, and then you do so much (and get faster). Our partner is Humane Alliance in Asheville, N.C. They’re kind of the gold standard, so we use their techniques. When spay-neuter clinics started 10 years or so ago, there were techniques that (were developed) and they (Humane Alliance) were the one able to provide that high quality. We’re not cutting corners. Animals are monitored under anesthesia. And then they go to recovery, which is called ‘the beach’ because it’s nice and warm. It’s got Bair Huggers that flow warm air on them. They’ve got their own little blanket and kind of curled up there, so we call it the beach. And they’re monitored when they’re in recovery.
Q. This is for dogs and cats?
A. Yep, dogs and cats, so we’re able to streamline that and they go home that evening.
Q. Can it be a dizzying pace for you?
A. It’s definitely one of those ‘this has to happen, certain things have to happen at a certain time’ so that we can meet the demand and have the community come in to us and provide that service. Because the more that we’re able to do that, the more lives we can save. We’re preventing unwanted litters, so we can get rid of overpopulation. So I’m used to it. But when anyone else goes into the clinic, they’re like: What is happening? I think we kind of call it controlled chaos, because we know what’s happening and we know where things are. There’s a lot of communication. We call it the yell method, because you’re communicating back and forth, but you have to stay with the patient that’s under anesthesia and that sort of thing.
Q. How’s your schedule?
A. Surgery drop-offs are between 7:30 and 8:30 in the morning. We’re in surgery by 9. We have lunch at 12ish and we come back at 1ish, and then we do surgery from 1 to 4. Usually we do dogs in the morning, so they’re discharged at 4, and cats are in the afternoon, so we discharge them at 5.
Q. Do you have to work in any emergencies?
A. Generally not. We don’t see public emergencies or sick animals. We usually will have the wellness (service) in the shelter going at the same time. Any emergencies we’re dealing with is usually shelter animals. So, yes, we have to work those in between surgeries, work them in between our wellness appointments, when we’re doing vaccines and other things. That’s why we have the need of a support staff so that we can delegate certain things and not have to step away from an animal that’s in surgery … There is a lot of multitasking.
Q. Are dogs and cats different in terms of temperament when you’re working with them?
A. Cats are really scared and they tend to let you know that. They will hiss and bite and alligator roll, like barrel rolling. At the same time you’re trying not to get bit or scratched. They’re predator and prey, so they have that flight or fight response. So there are times when you’re trying to handle this 5-pound cat that’s trying to kill you. (laughs)
Q. It’s a real cat fight?
A. Exactly. (laughs) Dogs, it really depends on their history. We have some with very little socialization, so they’re scared when they come in here. But we give them that pre-medication right after their initial exam so that they can relax and be less anxious … And some dogs take more people to carry from one place to the other. We’ll get 100-pound dogs and it will take three people and you’re rolling tables from one area to the next.
Q. What types of big dogs?
A. Great Danes, sometimes Mastiffs.
Q. So there is a physical aspect to your job and the need for muscle power?
A. There is. There’s definitely some strength involved in lifting and crouching. We’re not lifting 80 pound dogs onto the exam table. We go down to dog, so there’s crouching. In fact, the appointment I’m going to after this (interview) is a chiropractor appointment … It’s just a lot of back and forth. And we’ve got heated tables to help keep temperatures up and we’ve got surgical light so there’s a lot of heat in that room as well.
Q. What is the most difficult aspect of your job?
A. Trying to convince people of the importance of spaying and neuter, and caring for their animals. People don’t always grow up in a culture where that’s what they did, or they don’t understand or have never seen the sickness (animals suffer). So that’s actually the most difficult … It’s getting people to comprehend the value that their animals have, and the benefit for their specific animal, their baby, but also the benefit for the community. So I would say that’s the challenging part of most veterinarians’ jobs … The part that I most worry about when I’m going home is: Are they going to have this litter for this cute pit bull that they have when there’s so many pit bull puppies out there and so many unwanted animals here and in all the different rescues (needing a good home).
Q. So as a veterinarian, you are trained to treat dogs, cats and other animals?
A. We’re trained on the main species, which is dog, cat, horse, cow, pig. We learn some chicken, some exotic. There are tons of opportunities in the veterinary field for almost anything that has to do with animals, but then public health as well. There are inspections of slaughter houses. There’s working with the CDC and work with vaccines. There’s all sorts of avenues.
Q. Do you ever get emotional and tear up at times with the animals?
A. I do. One of the things I have gained is I am able to put up an emotional wall, which is good and bad. But (the wall goes up) when I can’t fix something or if I can’t cure or treat a condition. That’s usually when I can’t figure out a problem or the problem is too bad before I’m aware of it. We get animals in and we don’t know their history and they come in with a problem that’s too bad and there’s nothing I can do. Those types of things get me more than anything. Or when you tried and tried and tried … I’ve taken animals from here home over the weekend to watch them because they were sick, and I’m trying different techniques and still end up not being able to make a difference. So that makes me sad.
Q. Finally, what do you enjoy most about your job?
A. The most fun is really making a difference. It’s knowing that I can do something for the majority of animals that are there, and this allows me to be able to reach into the community and do those things, too, because that’s part of our overall mission is to have an impact on the community. It’s also reaching into all of the animals’ lives that don’t normally often have veterinary care until they come to us. So this may be their first time (under a doctor’s care) and I want to make it a good experience for the animals, too, so they’re not as scared.
Q. You feel that inside your heart?
A. I do. It feels good. It really is. That’s the best part about it, that, hey, I’ve made a difference.
Dr. Roberta Wrighten
Hometown: Air Force “brat” who has lived in Texas, Nebraska, Colorado, England, Virginia and Alabama
Current residence: Opelika, Ala.
Education: Graduated from Woodbridge Senior High School in Virginia in 2002; earned her bachelor of science degree from the University of Alabama in 2005, followed by her doctorate of veterinary medicine from Auburn University in 2010
Previous jobs: Started as a veterinary/kennel assistant in 2001 all through undergraduate school; after veterinary school, she worked in general practice for five years in Newnan, Ga.
Family: Chris, her husband going on 12 years, and their three dogs, two indoor cats, one outdoor cat and a snake
Leisure time: She enjoys watching movies, scrapbooking, being an active volunteer adult leader with a youth group at church, hanging out with friends to include taking fitness classes with them