10,000 sick birds face uncertain future as avian hospital struggles to find qualified staff
'It's not something you can just walk away from,' says veterinarian owner of Night Owl facility
A bellowing "hello" is what gets your attention the minute you step into the reception area of Night Owl Bird Hospital, on Vancouver's West Side.
The greeting isn't from a staff member. It's from a brilliant blue and gold macaw named Amara.
The 10-year-old parrot is one of dozens of resident birds at one of Canada's only animal clinics devoted solely to the treatment of birds.
It houses dozens of birds, ranging from rescues and maimed birds found in the wild, to feathered pets like budgies and cockatoos.
Some of these birds here have been visiting the hospital for "16-plus years," said Dr. Anne McDonald who operates the clinic.
But now the clinic is in jeopardy.
McDonald needs to hire more staff, but she can't find qualified veterinarians to hire in Canada. And the federal government won't give her the approval to bring in a bird specialist from overseas.
Feds thwart overseas search
Night Owl has twice attempted to recruit an Australian avian specialist but the hire wasn't approved by Employment and Social Development Canada. A Canadian company wanting to hire a foreign worker must first prove that efforts have been made to find a qualified Canadian.
The process, called a Labour Market Impact Assessment, must be completed by the employer and approved by federal officials.
Night Owl has twice been denied in its bid to hire a foreign bird specialist. McDonald said the application was rejected because the government said the hospital hadn't looked hard enough to find a Canadian candidate. A spokesperson for Employment and Social Development Canada said the ministry doesn't comment on individual cases.
"What is most frustrating is that we are just another number to whoever is doing our application," said McDonald. "We are not a living, breathing organization. We are a number."
In the meantime, the hospital's client base continues to grow. Two years ago, it inherited hundreds more birds when a Vancouver Island parrot sanctuary closed unexpectedly.
The hospital has been actively looking for additional veterinarians to join the practice for the past five years. But two years ago, a nation-wide ad campaign resulted in just one response.
McDonald said the facility needs another one or two veterinarians.
The demanding workload has taken a toll on McDonald's health. In the past two years, McDonald, 66, has been hospitalized twice for exhaustion.
If McDonald can't continue to work and no replacement vets are found, the hospital will have to close, said hospital manager Niki Montgomery.
McDonald has loved birds since she was a child, and was only 15 years old when she got her first job in a vet's clinic. From there she went on to study at the University of British Columbia, then onto a veterinarian school in Saskatchewan.
For years, she performed surgeries at the Vancouver Animal Emergency Clinic, and in 1990, she bought Night Owl Bird Hospital.
Last year, the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association honoured McDonald with its 2017 Humane Award.
Demand is high
The Night Owl hospital is small but the workload is huge.
"We are crazy busy," said Montgomery amid a cacophony of chirps and tweets from an array of birds. Clinic staff see an average of 45 birds a day, six days a week.
McDonald said birds can suffer from an array of issues with their heart, liver, vascular and respiratory systems.
"Birds get sick," McDonald said. "Nobody realizes it — and, then they collapse."
The hospital provides everything from ultrasounds to laser therapy to surgery.
Watch an exotic bird veterinarian in action:
Need more help
The work is done by McDonald, an associate veterinarian and a rotation of 32 technicians. The hospital consistently needs more staff, and especially needs another avian-trained veterinarian.
"There aren't very many people who really want to work with birds or if they do want to work with birds, they're usually afraid," said McDonald.
Range of clientele
It's estimated the hospital has a roster of more than 10,000 birds who depend on it for their health needs.
In June 2016, McDonald stepped up after more than 560 exotic birds unexpectedly became homeless when the World Parrot Refuge, in Coombs, B.C., on Vancouver Island was forced to close.
The refuge's owner had died without leaving a plan in place to care for the birds. About 160 of those birds are still in care at Night Owl Bird Hospital.
McDonald spent a lot of her own money rescuing and caring for the African greys, lovebirds, cockatoos, budgies and macaws from Vancouver Island.
But the workload has taken a toll. "She is consistently working 12-plus hours a day," said Montgomery.
"It's not something that is sustainable for anyone, let alone someone who should be looking to retire."
If the hospital closes, all 32 employees will be out of work. Montgomery said the hospital won't make another application for a foreign employee. The process costs $1,000 for each attempt plus legal costs.
McDonald doesn't want the hospital to close, but would love to scale back her hours.
"I've done it all these years," she said. "It's not something you can just walk away from."