Planet Money Indicator: NPR




This is THE PLANET MONEY INDICATOR. I am Darian Woods. And I have a very special guest here, Nate Hegyi, the host of the “Outside/In” environmental podcast. Welcome to the show.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: Hey, thanks for having me.

WOODS: So you’ve been spending a lot of time lately in Alaska’s capital, Juneau.

HEGYI: Yes. My wife actually just moved there for a nine-month internship. And it’s an epic place. For example, think old Victorian houses and cool breweries, but surrounded by giant waterfalls, towering green cliffs and tens of thousands of acres of wilderness.

WOOD: Alright. So it looks like heaven, but there must be a downside. Like, what’s the downside?

HEGYI: Two words – dangerous animals.

WOOD: Alright.

HEGYI: Specifically bears and porcupines.

WOODS: That’s right. Porcupines are actually more dangerous than you think.

HEGYI: They are. And a cute little dog named Kipper, he learned that the hard way. This is her best friend, Barbara Berg.

BARBARA BERG: Normally he’s pretty good off leash. So they were at Fish Creek, and he found a porcupine. And it’s a terrier – it’s a Cairn Terrier. So he was–loaded right there and come back with a mouthful of quills.

HEGYI: Not well.

BERG: And…

HEGYI: And a fairly common pet injury there. Also quite common these days, Barbara couldn’t find a vet to remove these quills.

WOODS: That’s right. Because Juneau has lost half of its veterans in the past two years. It can take weeks to get an appointment. Surgery is rare and there is no 24/7 emergency care.

HEGYI: And it’s not just an Alaskan problem. I mean, across the country, we’re seeing a growing shortage of veterinary care. And it’s not just pandemic puppies or kittens, as some think. It is something that is fashionable in the United States, a search for a balance between professional and private life.

WOODS: So today on the show, we’re going to see who wins and who loses when vets step back. It’s after the break.


JOCELYN ANDREA: Hi, how are you?

HEGYI: Juneau Animal Rescue has become a last stop for desperate pet owners. It’s an animal shelter with a part-time vet and a very small staff.

WOODS: And they don’t have a lot of tools here. They can’t do blood tests or x-rays or most surgeries. And that’s where our friend Kipper finally ended up after a very uncomfortable night on blankets.

ANDREA: So we have a 7-year-old Cairn Terrier, who got a little tangled up with a porcupine.

HEGYI: This is Jocelyn Andrea, the veterinary technician. She’s kind of like a nurse. She has an arm full of tattoos, a dry sense of humor.

WOODS: And she pulls about a dozen quills out of poor Kipper’s nose.

ANDREA: As you can see, they are quite involved.

HEGYI: She and the shelter’s part-time vet, Dr. Tracy Ward, thought they had gotten them all out. But then Jocelyn, she ran her finger over Kipper’s nose, and she felt something sharp.

Is there one at the bottom?

ANDRE: Yeah. Yes there is.

TRACY WARD: I see it. Let’s go very slowly. It happens. Oh, good job. Yes, you are the best technician ever.

WOODS: The Kipper situation worked out well. But in Juneau, there are no guarantees.

ANDREA: I’m the only pony in town. So if I’m wrong, no one’s gonna save me, you know? Kind of like Dr. Ward slipping and falling and breaking his head walking into the operating room, isn’t it?

HEGYI: We’re all screwed.

ANDREA: We’re all screwed, yeah.

WOODS: Juneau wasn’t always like this. A few years ago, the town had a dozen working veterinarians and a large clinic that offered comprehensive emergency care on call.

HEGYI: But then the pandemic hit; some veterans have retired, others have moved on. And this big clinic with the emergency departments closed. And Tracy says it’s really hard to recruit veterans like her.

WARD: You know, it’s distant. It is a difficult place to access. Housing is expensive.

HEGYI: Not to mention that winters in Alaska are dark, wet and freezing. It can be a really tough place to live. But it’s not just remote areas like Juneau. I mean, rural areas and to some extent urban areas are also going through a tough time.

WOODS: And that puts a lot of pressure on the vets who stay in cities like Juneau. Even though animal rescue can only afford to pay a vet like Tracy three days a week, she often works more hours for free.

HEGYI: And to make matters worse, she and her vet tech, Jocelyn, are on call most nights and weekends.

ANDREA: It’s another tax for us, that after this nine-hour day without a break, we’re on call again.

HEGYI: As you can probably imagine, all of this can lead to burnout.

WOODS: And we’ve talked a lot about burnout on this show and this continuous turnover that we see in the American job market.

HEGYI: But there is an interesting wrinkle here. The number of practicing veterinarians in the United States has actually increased throughout the pandemic. Schools are graduating more vets than ever before, but vets also have a very high turnover rate because this work can be very intense.

WOODS: I mean, think about it. For example, veterinarians do everything from dentistry and surgery to medical care and putting your pets to sleep. You know, they do a lot. And if there’s no emergency hospital nearby, which is often the case in remote areas like Juneau, it’s especially stressful.

HEGYI: And that can wear out vets and even lead people down very dark alleys. According to federal data, veterinarians are in the top five when it comes to suicide rates — right up there with dentists, cops and doctors. And all of this has contributed to a big push within the profession for better work-life balance.

WOODS: There was this recent survey that found that about a third of all vets are willing to change jobs or even take a pay cut to work less strenuous hours. And Tracy told us that Juneau lost two of her younger vets because they were tired of being on call all the time. They’ve moved to bigger cities where there are emergency hospitals to take care of serious after-hours business, more vets to share regular customer demand.

HEGYI: But in rural or remote towns, they don’t often have that kind of stuff, which leaves guys like Sam Smith trying to pick up the slack. And he’s not happy with this whole work-life balance movement.

SAM SMITH: To me, that seems like a real high-class problem.

HEGYI: So Sam is one of the few vets left in Juneau. And we met him one Friday morning working in a cold, damp barn on a farm called Swampy Acres.

SMITH: You know, you should be – you’re privileged. You should feel grateful to have so much work to do and to have the opportunity to ply your trade and earn some money.

WOODS: Vets earn on average about $100,000 a year. And in a private practice, the more clients you take on, the more money you make. So Sam comes from the school of thought that, you know, it’s part of the job to work long hours.

SMITH: There’s no free lunch – there never was, there never will be, you know? Yeah. Did I miss a few parent-teacher conferences, football practices and so forth and football games for the kids? Sure. It’s normal. It’s normal. I have to work.

HEGYI: Of course, not all veterinarians can rely on a spouse to take care of their children.

WOODS: That’s absolutely true.

HEGYI: But you can also see why Sam is frustrated. He’s in Alaska. He can’t find enough help. He can’t even take a vacation without spending a ton of money to bring in a relief vet from the lower 48s to cover him. When we interviewed Sam, he had just spent the last few hours on his knees pulling the teeth of geriatric miniature horses.

SMITH: The mouth of this one is an absolute wreck.

WOODS: The horse he was working on was so thin his nickname was Skeletor (ph).

SMITH: Really, I want to get the last molar out of there. I just don’t know how to access it.

HEGYI: And that sound we hear while Sam is talking is the sound of a pair of wet forceps sliding over a molar as he tries to pull it out.

WOODS: So visceral.

HEGYI: And it took so long to get that tooth. I felt really bad for the horse.

WOODS: And Sam says he regularly works 60 hours a week, and even he will admit he’s overworked.

SMITH: I can’t do everything. There is a limit to what I can do. I cannot be reached 24/7. For every disaster, I have to, you know, handle what I can. And I’m at my limit, but that’s okay.

HEGYI: I think what’s happening with vets and really a lot of Americans right now is they’re rethinking how much they want to push themselves, right? What are they willing to sacrifice? What can they sacrifice at work?

WOODS: Over the past decade, the labor market has operated with a little slack. But now unemployment is super low, at 3 1/2%. You know, vets and really everyone have a choice, and they’re rethinking how they do the work that they do and where they do it and how much they want to work.

HEGYI: And when it comes to small towns with lots of dogs and cats like Juneau, there will be losers.


WOODS: This show was produced by Noah Glick, with engineering by Gilly Moon. Dylan Sloan checked the facts. Viet Le is our main producer. Kate Concannon is editing the show. And THE INDICATOR is an NPR production.

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