Amid growling and whining, the veterinarian shortage is still a business story


There’s been a lot of growling and some whining around one of the few remaining animal health care providers on the Island, which could be losing its space at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. 

Owners at Animal Health Care say they are threatened with closure, as the clinic will have to win a public bidding process to stay at their current location. If they are the winning bidders, they will inevitably have to pay a lot more to continue in their current location. 

Island pet owners are right to be voicing discontent that it is seemingly more and more difficult for veterinarians to keep their doors open on the Island. As reported by The Times, pet owners and existing veterinarians say that they are already stretched thin, and that losing yet another would be a step too far. That’s a fair concern.

But channeling that fear into anger at the landlords at the airport is misguided and ultimately a distraction from the real issues. All sides would do well to ponder this tale as more of a business story than a morality play. After all, the veterinarian services are presumably a lucrative business, given the rates they charge pet owners for care, and isn’t it possible that they can presumably find a suitable location elsewhere at a rent that works within their business model?

Here are the facts at hand: Animal Health Care has been leasing a property at the airport for the past four decades. It’s one of nearly 50 businesses in the airport’s Business Park. According to airport officials, their lease — based on a 40-year contract — is a little under $900 a month currently, which is actually not bad for a commercial space on the Island with considerable parking and an ideal location. 

With the lease set to end this spring, Massachusetts law requires the airport to put the property out to the public bidding process. The airport is also required to lease the property at fair market value, and based on an independent assessment through the Martha’s Vineyard Airport Commission, the lowest bid for the lease would be $12,000 per month, a massive jump in cost for the tenant, who is understandably frustrated and worried.

Airport commissioners say that they don’t necessarily pick the highest bidder; they also take into consideration community needs. Animal Health Care checks that box, considering the shortage of veterinarians on the Island. And residents have stepped up to support the operation with testimony and comments in the press. Airport commissioners seem to understand the community needs to care for pets as well.

But on social media and in some letters to the editors of local newspapers, there’s also been frustration pointed at the airport commissioners. But commissioners are, rightfully, following orders of government agencies. They can’t just pick a leaseholder out of the goodness of their heart. If they do, they’d likely be subject to lawsuits from other potential bidders.

Voicing frustrations over public bidding processes is understandable, but making any changes at that level is unlikely to happen, at least anytime soon.

The more difficult question, that some towns are trying to grapple with already, is how to make more space available to businesses. Oak Bluffs, for example, is zoned almost entirely residential, but town meeting will consider making a change to that next month. The town’s planning board is trying to create overlay districts that would allow light industrial businesses and professionals to expand. That could help veterinarians who are trying to compete with an inflated real estate market. 

The Oak Bluffs issue has been incredibly contentious, with many in the community calling for a more Island-wide discussion to set up better zoning, rather than saddling residents of Oak Bluffs with the responsibility.

But even if more space were to open for businesses, Island veterinarians also point to a lack of housing on the Island for their struggles to remain open. 

My Pet’s Vet in Vineyard Haven closed about a year ago, and local providers told The Times that a national veterinarian staff shortage was not helping the issue. But they said that even if there were a younger veterinarian willing to work on the Island, the ongoing affordable housing crisis limits who is able to do the work.

To make matters worse on the Vineyard, Dr. Constance Breese, veterinarian for 40 years at Sea Breeze Veterinary Service in Vineyard Haven, announced that she would be retiring this spring. Unable to find a replacement, she’ll be closing the clinic when she retires in May.

It isn’t just veterinarians who are struggling. As reported this week, local fire departments are having a harder and harder time retaining volunteers they rely on to provide their services. While efforts are underway to continue providing life-saving services — that could eventually mean more full-time departments — it’s hard not feeling that the Vineyard way of life as it has been for generations is changing. 

There are solutions. It might mean higher costs for veterinarian services being passed on to pet owners. As has been endorsed on these pages many times, housing that is affordable for year-round Islanders would help the veterinarian practices as well. 

To blame a commission that is doing its job is counterproductive and shortsighted.