Moving 8,000 miles to save animals in need – the story of a Veterinary Manager
Stepping off the plane onto Auckland soil, accompanied by her two pet Chihuahuas, Kooper and Kapone, Dr Shalsee Vigeant was about to embark on the biggest challenge of her life so far.
Five years has passed since Shalsee’s leap of faith, after moving half-way across the world to take on the role of Veterinary Manager at the SPCA Auckland. But, for Shalsee it was a no-brainer decision: to make a change for animals who had no voice, those who are abused or neglected and have no home.
“Working at a shelter has been the most bittersweet journey of my life, but one that I wouldn’t change for the world” explains Shalsee.
Shalsee, originally from Louisiana, always knew she wanted to work with animals, something she made clear to her father when she was just four years old. “One Christmas I told my Dad I thought Santa was a terrible pet owner since he left his reindeer on the roof every night as he came down chimney’s and ate cookies by the fire,” says Shalsee. From that point on she only left out ‘reindeer food’ on Christmas — it seems her life has been peppered with stories like this.
In a career that has spanned over two decades, Shalsee has worked all over the world specialising in trauma and emergency medicine and before coming to New Zealand, was the director of a large emergency clinic in New Hampshire.
A desire to travel lead to Shalsee to make the move to the land of the long white cloud. Her path took a different direction towards a new challenge working in a shelter hospital, one which she had never experienced before, “The hardest part for me was coming from a private practice environment where people will literally spend thousands of dollars on their animals to an environment where people will happily give their animals over.”
Life in the hospital
As Veterinary Manager she has led the dedicated hospital team — the first point of call for any incoming animals brought to the SPCA. From rodents to sheep, kittens to senior dogs, no two days are the same at the hospital, which means staff and volunteers are faced with new challenges every single day.
“One moment we can see the arrival of a litter of puppies who have been abandoned, the next a stray cat who has been abused and needs urgent surgery. That level of intensity requires a hugely resilient team who work tirelessly to save every animal they can, and we are so lucky to have that,” explains Shalsee.
A typical day for Shalsee could see her carrying out up to 40 surgeries a day, as well as managing four vets, ten nurses and four reception staff. All year round the team are busy tending to the animals in their care and are especially flat out during summer months with high numbers of cats and kittens, “During this time we can see up to 100 kittens a day arrive through the doors in Auckland alone. The SPCA looks after around 30,000 kittens and their mothers every year around the country. That’s an incredible amount of animals who need our help.”
Twelve months ago, Shalsee also rose to the challenge of becoming Head of Veterinary Services. This saw her help spread important animal welfare messages in the media such as responsible pet ownership. “Pets are a lifelong commitment, and sometimes people can get drawn in by the cuteness of animals without seriously thinking about the care they will need long-term,” she says.
She has also applied this drive for making a difference to build relationships with other local animal rescues and veterinary practices, because creating a better life for animals starts with our communities. “We can only do this by all working together, everyone needs to be on the same page and working towards the same goal. We also want to help smaller organisations where we can, that is very important to us.”
Over the course of five years, there are some moments that have stuck with Shalsee.
One spring morning, the hospital was shook when a very tiny kitten arrived with a damaged eye so severe that the vet team was certain it would have to be removed. However, the kitten was too young and too small to perform an operation on. “I knew this kitten was a fighter and I has to do all I could do give her the best shot. I took her home and became her foster mum, intensively treating her eye for six weeks,” recalls Shalsee. Over time the kitten began to recover and grew into a healthy and happy adult cat, and her damaged eye healed. She was named Minnie, and was eventually adopted by one of Shalsee’s best friends, meaning that she still get to make visits for cuddles.
Just last summer, a dog with extensive cancer was brought into the shelter. The dog, Bounce, was extremely sweet and mentally doing well, however due to the extent of the cancer she had to be on large amounts of pain medication and antibiotics to even keep her comfortable. When it was confirmed that her cancer could not be treated and the shelter team could no longer keep her comfortable it was decided that she would be put to sleep. "Sadly, our efforts couldn’t save her and the kindest and most humane thing to do was put her to sleep. That day was a difficult one and will never leave me – I had to take a moment to compose myself and remind myself it was the best thing to do. That sometimes making animals lives better doesn't always mean 'fixing' them.”
A personal journey
Shalsee has become known for not only her positive and infectious energy, but also her beloved dogs, who are always by her side. Her eldest Chihuahua Kapone who is seventeen, and five-year-old Kapone have accompanied her to work every single day since she adopted them.
Shortly after starting at the SPCA, she also fell in love with a beautiful tan-coloured Rhodesian Ridgeback named Tuuka. He had been kicked and beaten by his previous owner and needed someone special to show him the life he deserved. Shalsee didn’t have to think twice about taking him home.
Sadly, after three happy years together, Tuuka suddenly fell very sick with cancer earlier this year and had to be put to sleep. A bitter pill to swallow, Shalsee was thankful his later years were full of love and more toys than he knew what to do with, but it reminds her of the hardest part of working in a shelter.
“It’s a sad but real truth that as hard as we try, we can’t save every animal we see. Sometimes they have been through too much or are in too much pain and euthanising them is the only humane and caring thing left to do. It hurts your heart a lot.”
This emotional turmoil can be hard to take at times, and Shalsee explains that for this reason, her days working in shelter life come with a time limit. “As long as I can make as much positive impact as possible for the animals while working at the SPCA I will be forever happy.”
The most rewarding part of the job? "We get to see animals come in here every day that we know would've died if they didn't come to us. That makes everything worthwhile."