Apex of Animal Care : For Cataracts or Cobalt, Center Is the Place for Pets

Times Staff Writer

Animal care seems to have reached an apex in sophistication and comfort, and it may seem only natural that it has occurred in this exclusive community.

Are you leaving on vacation for a week --or a month--and need somewhere to leave your prized mongrel or purebred?Bring the dog here for the royal treatment--including oversized and partly carpeted dog pens and specially prepared meals in a kitchen that Betty Crocker might envy.

Is your cat--or horse--developing skin cancer? Bring it here for cobalt treatment.

Does your dog have cataracts? Bring the animal here for precision eye surgery.

Has your otherwise unblemished animal developed unsightly tartar on its teeth? Bring it here for ultrasonic treatments.


Is your quarter horse experiencing back difficulties? Bring it here for a full spinal X-ray.

Did your racehorse suffer an injury along the backstretch at nearby Del Mar Race Track? Put it in the horse ambulance and speed it here for emergency treatment.

Does Lloyds of London want to know the exact reason why your heavily insured thoroughbred horse died, before it pays millions of dollars in benefits? The necropsy--an animal autopsy--can be performed here.

All of these activities--and more--will occur at the new Helen Woodward Animal Center, a $5-million state-of-the-art facility for veterinary care and pet boarding. Said to be unique in the United States, it will be dedicated Tuesday--the first anniversary of the death of Woodward, who donated the money to build it.

Unlike veterinary schools and animal hospitals where veterinarians and specialists are on staff to handle extraordinary problems and procedures, this center will not have its own staff of animal doctors.

Rather, the 45,000-square-foot, ultramodern facility itself is the prize: a well-designed collection of X-ray diagnostic and cobalt treatment rooms, surgical suites with closed-circuit video equipment so new or unusual operations can be reviewed later at veterinary conferences, padded surgery recovery rooms with technicians on duty 24 hours a day, a pharmacy, landscaped--and carpeted--exercise facilities and pens for as many as 150 dogs and cats, and--for humans--four upstairs apartments for on-call technicians and visiting veterinarians and interns who don’t want to stray far from their patients.


Most veterinarians cannot afford such medical equipment and facilities on their own, but now they will be able to bring their clients’ animals here for treatment or surgery, said Mel Morse, the center’s executive director and the former president of the United States Humane Society.

“There’s a woman on the ranch (Rancho Santa Fe) who has complained because she has had to take her dog to Los Angeles for radiation treatment. Now her veterinarian will be able to treat the dog right here,” he said.

The animal center is part of the larger San Dieguito Animal Care and Education Center, founded by philanthropist Helen Whittier Woodward in 1972 to provide a variety of educational and humane/animal services and programs. The complex is at 6461 El Apajo in Rancho Santa Fe.

The center was dedicated 13 years ago “to the principle of a better world through the teaching of a humane philosophy toward all living creatures.”

To that end, the center offers therapeutic horseback riding for the handicapped, a “pet encounter therapy” program for the physically and mentally disabled, a wildlife rescue program, a “Sharing the Earth” curriculum for use by fifth-graders throughout California on the humane treatment of animals, an animal adoption service and a meals-on-wheels program, not only for senior citizens but for their pets as well.

Morse said he and Woodward, who also donated $4 million to Scripps Memorial Hospital and nearly $1 million for the San Diego Zoo’s Heart of the Zoo project, realized after establishing the animal care and education center that something was missing--veterinary care services, not only for the sake of the animals at the center but for privately owned animals in the region.


Ten years in the planning, the new center accomplishes just that, veterinarians say.

Who will use the facility?

According to Tim Donovan, spokesman for the American Veterinary Medical Assn. based in Chicago, the local center will be attractive to veterinary surgeons, dermatologists, ophthalmologists, cardiologists, radiologists and others who, because they are so specialized, do not maintain their own facilities but travel to where they are needed and rely on other facilities in which to practice their profession.

“Consider, for example, a certified (animal) surgeon at UC Davis (the state’s only veterinary school) who travels around the state once or twice a month to help his colleagues with unusual procedures,” Donovan explained.

“This is the kind of veterinarian who will go line up work in advance at the Helen Woodward Animal Center, then go down there for a day or two. In the old days, he would have had to tie up someone else’s surgical facilities, and that may have been difficult to do.”

Doctors who want to use the center’s facilities and equipment will simply reserve what room or equipment they need ahead of time, then pay the center for the use of it.

The small-animal surgery room, for instance, will cost $60 for the first half hour; the equine surgery room--equipped with an overhead hoist-and-sling contraption to move an injured or unconscious horse--will rent for $75 for the first half hour. An examination room will cost $20 for 30 minutes; the autopsy room--with a refrigerator large enough to hold several horse carcasses--will rent for $25 per necropsy.

“We can do autopsies in San Diego, but if the horse died in North County, it would be much easier for us to do it at the new center,” said Dr. Kerry Mahoney, on the staff of the county veterinarian’s office.


Dr. William Zontine, one of the leading veterinary radiologists in Southern California, said the local facility will be the only one in the region that can offer cobalt treatment for horses. Now, horses must be transported to the University of California, Davis.

And the X-ray machine installed at the center for the diagnosis of horse maladies is one of the finest in Southern California, Zontine said.

Among those in the horse business who has anxiously awaited the opening of the center is Joe Harper, manager of the nearby Del Mar Thoroughbred Club.

“It’s going to give us the ability to do surgeries virtually in-house,” he said. “With the horse ambulance, we can take a horse from the track to the operating table in a matter of minutes. Right now, we’re having to take the horse up to the animal hospitals at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park (in the Los Angeles area). When you ship an animal that far, you lose precious time and the horse can further injure itself.”

It is important that thoroughbreds be gotten into surgery quickly because even if the horse will not be able to race again, it will still remain valuable as a stud or mare. “When you’re talking about a horse that is syndicated for several million dollars because it is valuable breeding stock, you see the importance of having an equine hospital in the area,” Harper said.

While many people may scoff at the idea of spending hundreds or thousands of dollars treating an animal that may be worth only a fraction of that--such as a family horse or the family mutt--there are other people who treasure those animals.


“The pet-owning public, in which I include backyard horses, is a continuum. On the one end of the spectrum are people so indifferent toward their pets that they’ll abandon them on the freeway,” said Dr. Donald Vow, an associate dean at UC Davis. “At the other extreme are those animals which are considered members of the family.” That extends to the quality of medical care.

Pets brought here for boarding won’t suffer, either.

The pens were custom designed to avoid “the typical jail cell, dark and chain-link fence dog runs you usually see,” said Tom Awbrey, project architect.

Instead, these pens feature walls with laminated surfaces and are designed with “living rooms”--the carpeted sections--and “backyards” where the dogs presumably will toilet. Because of the modular design, doors can be opened and closed in such a way that the pens can be cleaned without disturbing the dogs. Cats have smaller cages but will be given the freedom of a large exercise room with climbing equipment for their daily frolics.

Because county zoning regulations prohibited outside exercise areas, an indoor arena with artificial turf was constructed so that dogs can be exercised daily. Skylights overhead and landscaping within the arena give the impression of being outdoors.

The cost for boarding a pet is $8 per night.

Morse said the total operating cost of the center will be about $400,000 a year, and that it should be breaking even within five years.