For the last 40 years, 71-year-old veterinarian Dr. Evan Morse, who runs the Warrensville Animal Center in Cleveland, Ohio, has operated the Free Animal Clinic Team (FACT) on street corners and in community centers and churches on a monthly basis. But volunteering to assist ailing animals isn’t just about the pets; it also helps pet owners.
“The overwhelming fact is that the health of both pets and humans are intertwined,” Morse says. “Many ailments in pets that aren’t treated end up affecting humans.” He cites ringworm, fleas, rabies, and a bacterial condition called leptospirosis as examples of ailments that can be transferred from animals to humans.
He and his former boss, Dr. David Rickards, launched FACT in 1976 to treat the pets of low-income people who offer proof of their financial situation; the focus is on providing free veterinary services such as vaccinations and consultations. Though Morse has been managing his own practice since 1972, the two vets have continued to operate FACT together.
Because there are so many people of limited means, FACT veterinarians limit appointments to 100 per day. Most participants start lining up at noon, before the 2 p.m. start time, to obtain one of the 100 coveted slots. According to Morse, about 70 percent of the animals treated are dogs and nearly 30 percent are cats, blended in with a handful of reptiles, guinea pigs, parrots, and canaries.
At noon, Morse sets up his equipment, including a stethoscope, vaccinations, syringes, and monitors. He says that many of the dogs and cats he treats are suffering from parasites, ear mites, hepatitis, and rabies and many require antibiotics. If a pet needs surgery, Morse and his team advise the owner to visit an animal hospital.
Despite working an exhausting five to six days a week in his regular practice, Morse still finds time to volunteer and help those in need. “There are so many people who can’t afford to help their pets,” he says. “Otherwise, these pets would be untreated and unvaccinated.”
Up until about 10 years ago, Morse also volunteered regularly to assist a variety of police K-9 corps in Cleveland and the surrounding suburbs. “I did anything that needed to be done for those K-9 corps, including surgery,” he says.
Volunteering also sharpens his skills. “I see things that I might never see otherwise, including tumors and abscesses,” says Morse. “It broadens my scope and expands my eye.”
Morse finds running his Warrensville Animal Clinic to be gratifying as well. Often, the waiting room is filled with the multicultural populace that resides in Cleveland and its suburbs. “We have African Americans, whites, Latinos, Asians, and Arabs who might never talk to each other in the general society, but they sit in my waiting room and discuss poodles,” Morse says.
It’s only fitting that his clientele is so varied, since his career began in what he says was a multicultural veterinarian practice. He came to Cleveland in 1968 from Richmond, Va. — where he was raised — after graduating from the Tuskegee Institute. In Cleveland, Morse began his veterinary career working for his current business partner, Rickards, at an animal clinic. An Englishman who spoke with a Cockney accent and wore a bow tie, Rickards contrasted greatly with the younger Morse, with his large Afro hairstyle and his experience marching in the civil rights protests in Montgomery, Ala.
Growing up, Morse seemed destined to become a veterinarian. When his friends went off to play baseball and football, he headed to the woods to find and collect salamanders and birds. “They called me ‘Nature Boy,’” Morse says of the nickname given to him by his friends.
When Morse opened his own practice, he says he was the first practicing African American veterinarian in Cleveland. He laments the fact that currently about 90 percent of veterinarians are white, and the number of African American veterinarians is well below their representation in the overall U.S. population.
“I didn’t see or meet an African American veterinarian until I got to the Tuskegee Institute,” he says, alluding to the absence of black veterinarian role models.
“People want to see a racially appropriate number of veterinarians,” says Morse. “People like to see doctors who look like them.”
As a member of the American Veterinary Association’s Task Force on Diversity, he has recommended solutions to this disparity, but he admits that the issue is complex.
At age 71, Morse says he is not even considering retirement. “When you love what you do, it’s not really work,” he says.
His dad, a barber, used to say, “Start where you are, use what you can, do what you can.” That motto inspired Morse to start the Free Animal Clinic Team and always strive to give back.
“Service is a basic tenet of all humanity; we have to serve our fellow humans,” he says. “It is in my core; it’s in my DNA.”●
Gary M. Stern is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity.