Dr. Erin Wilson is one of five owners of Torbay Road Animal Hospital (286 Torbay Rd., St. John’s), along with founding owners Dr. Hendrik Dezeeuw and Dr. Sanjay Ralhan, who were joined by Wilson, Dr, Patti Ryan and Dr. Ghulam Dogar earlier this year. The group also owns Sunrise Animal Hospital in Mount Pearl, and Wilson says they’re flat-out looking after pets who are increasingly seen as members of the family and worthier of more medicines and surgeries than in previous generations.
Wilson spoke to The Telegram about the work pace and what happens when a love for animals butts heads with the need for a business to stay in the black.
Who opened Torbay Road Animal Hospital, and when?
Dr. Hendrik DeZeeuw and Dr. Sanjay Ralhan. They started it. This place was opened in 1997, I believe.
And now it’s owned by a group of five?
Yes, three of us (along with Wilson, Dr. Patti Ryan and Dr. Ghulam Dogar) joined in January.
Why the addition?
The growth was huge, so the two practices — one is in Mount Pearl, Sunrise Animal Hospital — and this one, it’s just growing exponentially. They want new people in, new blood. They’re not ready to retire yet, but they’re probably slowly going to phase out a little bit so they don’t have as much responsibilities. We can share it.
What’s the reason for the growth? The population of Newfoundland and Labrador isn’t really increasing that much…
I don’t know if the animal population may be within households.
…or is it an increase in market share for Torbay Road Animal Hospital?
It’s just the overwhelming amount of people — we are booked up now until Tuesday (on a Friday). It’s just busy. Super-duper busy. And I think more people are owning animals, and they’re becoming more like members of the family, whereas probably years ago it was never a thought to spend money on medicine (for pets).
What’s the most common operation or procedure you do here?
Vaccinations, so annual checkups like you would go to your own health professional for an annual checkup. Vaccinations against rabies and parvo virus. De-worming and flea visits are huge. Spays and neuters, for surgery, those are the most common.
This is a business unlike any other I’ve done for this feature — it’s almost like if I were interviewing a hospital about the business…
But it’s more like a business. The combination is very difficult because you have to remember that it’s a business, and still profit from that business, but also, you have a heart. You care about what happens, too.
Is that why you got involved in veterinary medicine?
Yes. I always knew I wanted to work with animals and I was never allowed to have a pet growing up, and as soon as I went to vet school in P.E.I., I knew. I just knew. And I had to have my first pet then when I was out of the house.
When do the business side of it and the animal-lover side of it conflict?
You get lots of people who phone and they don’t have any money but their animal needs attention.
What do you do in that situation?
Every situation is different. It really depends. Sometimes you look for external groups to help them. We contact Heavenly Creatures or the SPCA. If we can do something to find them an avenue, if their animal’s extremely sick, we try to do what we can. We have to be reasonable about it as well. It’s probably one of the hardest parts of the job, knowing every person who comes in the door, you can’t…
I suppose one of the most difficult things for a client is when they have to make that decision between a really, really expensive procedure…
And if it doesn’t have it done, then euthanasia could be a possibility too, but that’s not easy. That’s one of the hardest things. And you get emotionally attached to the animal too. There’s times I’ve cried more, I’ve needed support from the client, because it’s hard. You want to do the best for every single animal, and not feel like you let anybody down.
Do you have an opinion on whether Newfoundland and Labrador is an animal-loving province? Do we do enough to protect animals from cruelty and abuse, and if not, what can we do better?
I think that things could be tougher. I think the laws could be tougher. Some of the things you see — I’ve seen some pretty sad cases.
If you suspect that an animal is being abused, do you have a responsibility to report it?
Absolutely, but you have to be really sure. I would never, unless I was sure. Because that’s a huge accusation to make. My job is to try to protect them as much as we can.
Is this the first time you’ve been a business owner?
Do you have business training?
I did a little bit of business, but we all have our little niches of what we’re good at. Customer services is huge for me, making sure they have the experience that they want here, whereas Dr. Ralhan is more the money side of things, so we all complement each other.
What’s the biggest challenge, when it comes to business, then, for this hospital?
The biggest challenge … honestly, probably at this point, keeping up with demand. You only have so many appointment slots, right? And then you’re only one person. Say, for example, me: I’m here this afternoon. If someone comes in, you need to see them, but you also need to keep seeing other people, who have booked appointments, so it’s keeping up with the demand for people. It’s a lot. And also providing good customer service while you’re trying to keep up with those numbers. Still making it the experience that you want the client to have, and the animal to have, really.
How many people work here?
At this practice? Fifteen. That includes some doctors that come in and out.
Has the animal hospital always been in this location?
They started, I think, in Churchill Square, actually.
Let’s talk about the location itself. What do you like about it, don’t like about it?
Part of me likes the smaller size, but we’ve just outgrown it. And the parking lot’s a bit crazy, for animals. But I do love the idea of having it a little bit smaller, so that you know who’s coming in the door. But we just can’t maintain, so we’re looking at moving out.
What about its location on Torbay Road?
Good location, perfect. It’s sort of central, so we get a lot of people, Torbay, Middle Cove, Outer Cove, but you can also get central city, too.
Do you experience any problems with crime?
No, other than high school kids banging on the door with some rocks. It’s never had an issue, and I can’t believe it, actually, given what we have here.
What’s the biggest mistake that a pet owner makes? Something pet owners need to do that they don’t do?
Probably one of the biggest things they do is go to a regular store and pick up flea products.
Because we’ve seen a lot of them pick up the wrong thing for their animals, and cats can go into seizures with some of the brands that get sold because they put the wrong thing on their pets, and we see that over and over again, instead of coming to us and getting an opinion on what should be applied, they apply that and it sometimes ends not well. We’ve seen it enough times that it’s upsetting.
Is St. John’s a business-friendly city? I mean business regulations, taxes — do you have a sense of that yet?
No, not really a sense of that yet. But it’s all we talk about in meetings — taxes and all that. It doesn’t seem to be unfriendly.
What’s the biggest issue in the animal-health industry in the province?
Probably there’s so many animals that just aren’t taken care of. I think the SPCA, Humane Society, they’re all overrun. Heavenly Creatures, Beagle Paws, they’re all just overrun with animals that have no home and no one to really take care of them, but yet people aren’t getting their animals spayed and neutered, and then there’s more puppies and kittens, and it’s just a big
And you have animals that are being put down because they can’t have a home and a normal chance to survive.