Scarborough Veterinary Hospital Gets Trapped By Viral Puppy Story
A Scarborough veterinary hospital says it has been inundated with thousands of angry messages and threats after a news report went viral about a client who handed his injured pup over to the facility to save him because ‘She couldn’t pay the $10,000 bill.
The story, which ended badly for both the pet owner and the pup’s doctors, offers another example of how quickly social media outrage can grow, especially around controversies involving beloved animals.
The pup, a purebred German Shepherd named Jaxx, was taken to Maine Veterinary Medical Center in May after apparently swallowing a long wooden skewer. He had pierced his internal organs from the rib cage to the colon, according to Sarah Mills, director of marketing and communications for the veterinary hospital.
BBy the time he was taken to the hospital about a day or two later, he was feverish, unwell and septic, Mills said.
He needed emergency surgery, she said, but the pet owner didn’t have the required $10,000. Unable to secure a bank loan, she opted to hand over the puppy to prevent it from being euthanized. He was quickly placed in a new home with a family who paid for the surgery and is recovering, Mills said.
The original owner, whose identity could not be independently confirmed by the Press Herald, later contacted local television news station WGME CBS 13 with his story. Mullen told the station that she called the animal hospital hours later, having collected enough money to pay for her surgery, but was told the surrender was final and Jaxx was gone.
The pet hospital initially chose not to comment, Mills said, in an effort to preserve the privacy of the pet owner, who she knew had been through a traumatic few days.
The story was later picked up by Newsweek and other outlets and shared on social media. Maine Veterinary was unprepared for the backlash that followed.
The veterinary hospital received hundreds of threatening, violent and explosive voicemails and emails that Mills said threatened to kill staff and their families and set the building on fire.
People used the hospital’s “Meet Our Team” tab on the website to find names of staff, search them on social media, and threaten them there. She called the situation “very, very scary”.
The hospital received more than 3,000 calls on Wednesday alone, and eventually staff had to turn off the phones as they kept ringing, Mills said. Every incoming call was a threat.
With the phones turned off, staff had to sift through voicemails all day to see if anyone was calling with genuine urgency.
Negative reviews flooded the hospital’s ratings on Google, and the search engine temporarily listed the hospital as a “casket service” rather than the usual “emergency veterinary service”.
The phones were back on Monday, but Mills said the calls and emails haven’t stopped. Business has slowed considerably. On a typical Monday morning, there might be around 30 patients, she said. This Monday, they were only four.
“We’ve never dealt with anything like this before,” Mills said.
The hospital is discussing with its lawyers whether to press charges against one of the people who made the threats. A police cruiser is on site 24 hours a day, she said.
NIGHTMARE OF PUBLIC RELATIONS
The hospital hired the Knight Canney Group, a local public relations agency, to help it share its side of the story and push back against what agency president Felicia Knight called “a torrent of hatred, malice and threats”.
In a statement over the weekend, Maine Veterinary criticized those who made threats as well as the original WGME story, which it said omitted important details.
“We had no idea that the story would denigrate not only our hospital, our caring doctors and staff, but by extension, our profession,” the statement read.
According to the hospital, Jaxx was brought in on May 26 and left overnight, his condition worsening, while his landlord tried to collect the money. Staff called her every hour or two for an update and didn’t get a definitive answer until after 4 p.m., he said.
The pet owner then told staff she couldn’t get the money together and was “ready to say goodbye,” the statement said. It was then that the doctor suggested that she give the puppy to another owner who would be willing to pay for the operation.
“The understandably distraught owner said to the doctor, ‘If you can give him a life and it’s not with me, then that’s fine,'” Maine Veterinary said in its statement.
Mullen told WGME that she started a GoFundMe page and with the help of friends, family and the dog’s breeder, she was able to find the money within hours. She then called the hospital and said she had the money and wanted her dog back.
“She said (Maine Veterinary) told her Jaxx was gone and she couldn’t get him back,” the station reported.
The hospital disputes this claim.
He said the estimated cost of the surgery was $10,000 and hospital policy requires half that amount up front. It does not offer payment plans, but accepts pet insurance, all major credit cards, or through various credit services offered at the hospital.
The pet owner was only entitled to about $2,000 through an on-site credit service and did not apply for the others, opting instead to try to get a loan banking.
While it’s true the pet owner created a GoFundMe page, the hospital wrote in its statement, the page was shut down after she returned her pup after raising just $100. The Press Herald could not find a record of the GoFundMe page.
The pet’s owner had to pay for Jaxx’s initial medications and tests, about $3,000, but was not responsible for the full amount, according to the hospital.
Knight, the public relations professional, slammed the WGME story for implying the dog had “gone away” rather than being adopted by a new family who could afford his surgery.
“(The pet’s owner) thanked the hospital for saving the dog, then went to Channel 13. The wthe hole story was an insinuation,” she said, adding that people assumed the hospital “stole” or even killed the dog and then claimed the $10,000.
‘OPTION OF LAST RESORT’
Knight and Mills insist the doctors did everything according to the book.
“There was nothing nefarious,” Knight said. “They wanted to save the dog. The dog was entrusted to a very responsible owner who paid for the operation. It’s good for the dog, but it’s very sad that the owner had to surrender.
It is extremely rare for the hospital to resort to allowing a pet owner to return their animal, according to Mills.
“It’s not something we want to do,” she said. “The #1 goal here was just to keep the dog alive, but we never want to separate an animal from its family.”
Not One More Vet, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the high prevalence of suicide in the veterinary industry, defended the hospital’s decision and said the intersection of money and medicine is stressful for everyone involved.
“Every soul that is called to veterinary medicine does so because they want to help. And when finances prevent us from doing so, it is truly heartbreaking,” the organization said in a statement posted on social media. “In our efforts to help as many animals as possible, veterinary teams will try several avenues to help pet owners pay for care. … Surrender is always an option of last resort. Our goal is to keep an animal healthy. healthy company and with loving family, however, if this is not possible, saving the animal’s life takes priority.
Despite callers’ accusations that Jaxx was euthanized, Mills said he was alive and recovering well. For confidentiality reasons, she could not say more about Jaxx’s current situation or identify its new owners.
This privacy protection has proven to be a good thing, the hospital said.
“The owner of the animal has signed a legal document of transfer of ownership,” the statement read. “This document also guarantees the confidentiality of the new owner and based on the social media vitriol that has been unleashed since the report aired, we are grateful for that.”
WGME is behind its story.
“(Maine Veterinary) asserts that there are inaccuracies in our story but does not identify any incorrect facts,” the station said in an update posted Sunday. WGME said its reporter had obtained documents from the dog’s owner corroborating his story.
The Maine Veterinary Medical Association stands behind the pet hospital.
In a letter sent to members of the veterinary industry over the weekend, the association’s former president, Dr Janelle Tirrell, condemned the “hordes of strangers with keyboards” who judge quickly.
“The rapidly rising temperature of social media rhetoric can turn even the routine care decisions we make daily into a dangerous and volatile situation for staff and clients,” the letter reads. “At the best of times, conveying complex medical information to our customers is a difficult task. On social networks and in the news, it is impossible.
When clickbait stories with a cute puppy picture make the rounds, the entire veterinary industry is painted with the same brush, according to Tirrell, putting the safety of all its members at risk.
Tirrell said the association was collecting data and responses for an industry-wide impact analysis of this and similar events.
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