Missoula vet Jani Zirbel rescues animals a stitch at a time 

Inside Animal Blessings Pet Hospital on a recent snowy spring morning, veterinarian Jani Zirbel, sometimes known as "Dr. Z," uses a silver scalpel to make a small incision in the belly of Bianca, a white cat.

Bianca lies supine and unconscious on Zirbel's operating table in the pet hospital off Highway 93. A small monitor attached to the cat's tongue beeps regularly, indicating that her heartbeat is steady. Moments ago, Zirbel shaved Bianca's stomach, leaving the feline's pink skin exposed. Because of the full ovarian hysterectomy Zirbel is donating to the Humane Society of Western Montana, which is caring for Bianca, this cat won't have kittens.

Zirbel, 54, worked for decades in emergency veterinary medicine in Virginia before purchasing Animal Blessings in 2005. She's not one to brag, but she knows the implications of her work. Nonprofit and taxpayer-funded shelters are overrun with cats and dogs. Nationally, approximately 6 million companion animals enter such facilities every year. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, 60 percent of those dogs and 70 percent of the cats are euthanized.

Great Falls, for instance, is grappling with ways to handle its homeless pets. The community's lone shelter euthanizes 41 percent of the animals that end up there. "Our rates are stinking," says Nora Norum, a member of the Humane Society of Cascade County's board of directors. "It's just awful."

Volunteer efforts make Missoula different. In the case of healthy animals, says Humane Society of Western Montana Director Lora O' Connor, euthanasia is "not an option."

HSWM works with veterinarians like Zirbel to provide care to more than 1,000 animals a year. The nonprofit finds homes for roughly 100 animals a month, a 98 percent adoption rate. Even Missoula County Animal Control, which serves as a shelter of last resort, euthanizes fewer than 4 percent of the animals it receives. "It's an amazing community," O'Connor says.

Jani Zirbel operates on a cat last week. The veterinarian is one reason that so few animals are killed at area shelters. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • Jani Zirbel operates on a cat last week. The veterinarian is one reason that so few animals are killed at area shelters.

Bianca's surgery is one of hundreds Zirbel plans to donate or perform at a discount this year. The veterinarian, who has three dogs, three cats and two children, says she has no idea of the value of the time she's donated. "You don't really tally up the dollars."

Zirbel seems compelled to help, O'Connor says. "We always call her. It could be 4:30 on a Friday [afternoon]. And it can be Sunday afternoon."

It's also common for Zirbel to contact O'Connor during off hours to tell her about an animal that she would like to care for and then have placed for adoption. O'Connor has a hard time counting the animals Zirbel has saved that way. There was Abbey, a four-month old Border collie with a broken leg. Abbey's owners couldn't afford surgery. They surrendered her to Zirbel, who made sure Abbey got the surgery she needed. The cattle dog now lives in the Nine Mile Valley with a family that's involved in 4-H. Halley is a golden retriever whose shoulder and pelvis were crushed by a car. Zirbel had a cart built that let Halley scoot around. The dog went through months of physical therapy under Zirbel's watch before being adopted.

Zirbel's work has earned her this year's Ken Shughart Humanitarian Award from the Humane Society of Western Montana, which is given to those who help homeless animals. She'll be honored at a society dinner April 14.

O' Connor says the hardest part of selecting Zirbel for this year's award was working around the vet's schedule. The society had to surreptitiously enlist another veterinarian to cover for Zirbel's April 14 emergency shift.

While odds are a homeless animal in another part of the country will be put down for want of care, O'Connor says, that's not true in Missoula. "Animals come here and we make them better. And then we get them adopted. And a lot of that has to do with Dr. Z."

The Humane Society of Western Montana holds its 15th annual Ken Shughart Humanitarian Award and Auction Saturday, April 14. It includes a raffle in which winners will have their pets painted by Missoula Artist Kendahl Jan Jubb and featured in the nonprofit's 2013 calendar. Winners also get to keep the original watercolor. For more information, go to www.myhswm.org.

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