A look back at the career of shelter medicine pioneer Dr. Sarah Kirk

Dr. Sarah KirkAfter a long career in veterinary medicine, Dr. Sarah Kirk is embarking on retirement the way she does everything else: passionately.

As the youngest student in her graduating class — still only 21 years old on the day of graduation — Dr. Kirk rode the wave of change in veterinary medicine, from women becoming the majority of practitioners in the field to the rise of shelter animal health as a distinct discipline in the 1990s, becoming a specialty in 2014. It ultimately took her to the Maddie’s Shelter Medicine Program at UF, at the crest of a long and varied career.

When Dr. Kirk was in veterinary school at Michigan State University 44 years ago, she had no concept of shelter medicine as part of her future career. After graduation, she went immediately into small-animal private practice in Michigan. Her youth and her small size, as well as her sex, often stood in her way.

“I was female when most clients were used to male veterinarians,” she said. Clients would look at her in astonishment, with expressions that seemed to say “Okay, joke’s over. Where is the doctor?”

Although she didn’t know it yet, that first practice experience was a step toward her eventual career in shelter medicine. It was an early lesson in what she did and didn’t enjoy in veterinary practice.

A move to Chicago, where she had family, brought about her first exposure to animal sheltering. There, she went to work for the Anti-Cruelty Society in 1978, including in their clinic for pets living with people in financially struggling households.

“I was one of three veterinarians,” she said. “We actually had an x-ray machine, which was very cool. I learned how to do orthopedics there, and I probably pinned a broken leg a week and plated one a week. Because we were in downtown Chicago, there were plenty of trauma cases.”

At the same time, she was volunteering at the Lincoln Park Zoo, an experience that gave her a taste of the wild side. The zoo veterinarian was recovering from a stroke, which had affected his manual dexterity. She was called in to help on surgical cases, like when two young chimpanzees got into an altercation.

“One bit the fingertip off the other one,” she says. “I didn’t reattach the fingertip. I’m not that good. But I was able to close the wound.”

Marriage took her to Ohio in 1981 and another stint in private practice, part-time in both staff and relief positions. It reinforced what she had learned the first time around: It wasn’t a great fit for her. She maintained her license after having children, but as any woman who was a mother in the 1980s knows, childcare, while difficult now, was practically nonexistent back then. She bided her time until her children were school-age.

An advertisement for a research assistant at Case Western Reserve University’s Department of Orthopedics brought Dr. Kirk back into the workforce. She spent four years doing orthopedic research there, but an encounter with an Australian colleague made her realize it was perhaps time to move on.

“In his wonderful accent,” she said, “he asked me, ‘So, Sarah, are you a researcher who happens to be a veterinarian or a veterinarian who happens to be doing research?’ It didn’t take me but a second to say, ‘Well, I am a veterinarian who happens to be doing research.’ I thought, ‘I think it’s time for me to do something else.’”

After another stint in private practice, where she handled the small animal side and the owner handled the equine side, shelter medicine called her name again. By this time, it was 2002, and shelter medicine was just emerging as a new discipline the veterinary field.

Dr. Kirk pieced together work for the Cleveland Animal Protective League, some private practice, and finally Rescue Village on the east side of Cleveland. It was Rescue Village that introduced her to working with community cats.

A talk by a woman named Timy Sullivan inspired Dr. Kirk to reach out to Sullivan and ask what was needed to put into motion Sullivan’s idea for a mobile spay-neuter clinic. Sullivan needed a veterinarian to be on the board of the organization and Kirk stepped up, bringing another veterinarian with her as well. In 2004 she became a founding board member of Petfix Northeast Ohio. It has since evolved from a mobile clinic to a high-quality, high-volume brick-and-mortar spay-neuter clinic.

“I’m really proud of that,” Dr. Kirk said.

Not long afterward, she became interested in behavior, beginning with horses, a love of hers since childhood. A week-long seminar on equine behavior at Cornell with Dr. Katherine Houpt led to a visiting fellowship in Behavior at Cornell. Dr. Kirk took what she learned and began doing behavior consulting on a house-call basis. But again, she was drawn back to Cleveland Animal Protective League, until 2008, when she moved to Ocala, Florida, ostensibly with retirement in mind. A not unreasonable goal, after 31 years in practice.

Then she learned about a local veterinarian and his wife, who were starting a program called Feeding Pets of the Homeless. Dr. Kirk was in.

“It was at the local soup kitchen every other week,” she said. “We would set up our popup tent in the parking lot and we would provide food and vaccines and very, very, very basic wellness care to folks who were in need. That was really interesting and fun. In order to obtain services, you had to have your pets spayed or neutered, and we could arrange that for them.”

A year later, she also became involved with Operation Catnip, a free spay-neuter program for community cats. “I loved the concept the first time I heard about it,” said Dr. Kirk, who volunteered with the organization for four years.

During that period she also helped to launch No More Homeless Pets, as well as working with St. Francis Pet Care, both in Gainesville. The latter nonprofit, founded in 2007, provides exams, consultations, vaccinations, and treatment for animals belonging to more than 500 local homeless and low income residents.

For someone who had been thinking about retirement, Dr. Kirk stayed awfully busy. She learned how to respond in the event of disasters such as hurricanes. Through her volunteer work and the disaster training, she got to know Drs. Julie Levy and Cynda Crawford of the MSMP. When they were faced with some major cat cruelty cases, Drs. Levy and Crawford asked Dr. Kirk if she would consult.

Dr. Sarah Kirk and Dr. Cynda Crawford

One was Caboodle Ranch, a large-scale hoarding situation in the Jacksonville area. On the surface, it sounded like “kitty heaven” for the approximately 700 cats housed there. It took cats who were sick, whose owners could no longer keep them, or whose time was up at shelters.

“Everybody thought, ‘Oh, this is a great place,’” Dr. Kirk said. Sadly, on investigation, it was discovered to be filled with sick and injured cats who weren’t being cared for. The ASPCA was called in and the cats were removed, cared for, and transferred to other organizations or adopted to homes.

“Hoarding cases are difficult but rewarding, because I feel that so often we are able to rehome these animals and to see them progress from a state of such despair to being adopted and know that they’re going to a good home,” she said. “It’s the best.”

Following her work on the Caboodle Ranch case, the ASPCA hired Dr. Kirk as medical director for its field investigation response team, a position she held from 2012 to 2014. Among her responsibilities was setting protocols to provide consistent responses for emergency sheltering.

In addition to sheltering animals from large-scale cruelty and neglect cases, Dr. Kirk was involved with the temporary shelter set up in New York City following Hurricane Sandy. “These poor people had lost everything, their homes, their cars, their workplaces,” she said. “They turned to the ASPCA to provide shelter for their pets while they got back on their feet. What we thought would be a one-month situation ran to about three months, but in the end, we were able to reunite most of the pets with their people, who were so grateful for our help.”

Along the way, Dr. Kirk earned a certificate in shelter medicine. Then she was offered the opportunity to earn a master’s degree in the field, which she accomplished in May 2017. Another challenge met. At a reception they hosted for the graduates, Drs. Levy and Crawford asked what she planned to do next. “I’m not sure,” she said. “Keep me busy.”

They did, hiring her as an adjunct clinical assistant professor in shelter medicine and sending her to Puerto Rico to set up a three-year program for five shelters to develop preventive healthcare, pediatric spay-neuter, and adoption programs. It was a cross-pollination effort, with Dr. Kirk and others traveling to the island territory every three months and Puerto Rican shelter staff coming stateside in 2019 to see other shelters in action. They visited Tampa’s Hillsborough County Pet Resource Center (where Dr. Kirk’s daughter, Dr. Jill Kirk, is now medical director), Citrus County Animal Services (where former UF MSMP Intern Dr. Meaghan Mielo is medical director), and Humane Society of Tampa Bay, which has a well-regarded community cat program.

Team photo

That visit was a turning point in the way that it encouraged collaboration. “Even though Puerto Rico is a very small island and these individuals knew of each other, this was the first time that they really spent three days together,” Dr. Kirk said. The opportunity to get to know one another brought home the realization that they all had talents that could be useful to one another. COVID put an end to the island trips but were replaced by weekly Zoom meetings that included not only conversations with each other, sharing successes and challenges, but also guest speakers from other organizations.

“We had a couple of speakers with Puerto Rican roots, so that was really great for them because they knew of the challenges their Puerto Rican colleagues were facing,” Dr. Kirk said.

The program was so successful that it was extended for six months. Scheduled to end last June, it ran through December. “That was a really fun project, and eye-opening, but I think the thing I appreciate the most was seeing these folks work together.”

Through her work with them, Dr. Kirk forged tight bonds with her Maddie’s Shelter Medicine colleagues, including program co-founders Dr. Julie Levy and Dr. Cynda Crawford.

“In 2014, when I was Medical Director of the ASPCA’s Field Investigation and Response team, we set up a temporary shelter to house victims of a large-scale cruelty case in the Gainesville area,” Dr. Kirk said. “On the anticipated day of the dogs’ arrival, I was busy with last minute preparations and I’m sure that Cynda and Julie were equally busy with their workday. I don’t recall how I made them aware of the case – these are always held under wraps – but in typical fashion, their response was, ‘How can we help?’

“The first load of dogs arrived around 10 p.m. and we worked through the night, providing care to over 300 dogs. Julie and MSMP intern Dr. Ken Sieranski left after many hours, so that they would be able to participate in the veterinary students’ Summer Lovin’ adoption event at Alachua County Animal Services that day. Cynda and I, barely able to stand, continued to administer vaccines and assign housing until about 9 a.m. I have a mental image of Cynda, finally on her way out the door, bending over to speak to a dog who was now safe.”

That closeness and respect goes both ways. “Sarah has a knack for always moving the needle another step forward,” Dr. Levy said. “More than once she’s seen the need for spay/neuter, indigent pet care, and trap-neuter-return and transformed that need into a tangible program to deliver services. When she was the medical director of a temporary shelter for hundreds of pit bulls seized in one of the country’s largest dogfighting raids, she developed a new approach to treating Babesia gibsoni on a mass scale, leading to several publications that helped transform the care of dogfighting victims.”

“The first word that comes to mind when I think of Dr. Kirk is generosity,” said Dr. Crawford. “She is generous with her time, her experience, and her guidance. She has a positive attitude, and even in extremely difficult situations she can find a silver lining. Because she’s had such a varied career in veterinary medicine and has an outstanding ability to communicate, she imparts a multitude of perspectives to her students and the interns and shelters she works with. She’s made this a better program, and Florida shelters a better place for the animals in their care. I wish her happiness in her retirement, but I’ll miss her deeply.”Another close friend and colleague is running buddy Cameron Moore, who oversees shelter engagement for the Million Cat Challenge, a joint project of the MSMP and the UC Davis Koret Shelter Medicine Program. Moore has been Dr. Kirk’s partner in the shelter consults they carried out in Florida, covering population management and medicine. Both dedicated runners, their four-mile morning runs, beginning at 5 a.m., were an opportunity to talk out their plans for the day.

Dr. Sarah Kirk and Cameron Moore

“Working closely with Dr. Kirk for the past three years has taught me so much,” said Moore. “She is always generous with her time and expertise, and has helped me grow both personally and professionally. Every shelter visit turned into an adventure, and I will miss our travels together. I will especially miss our early morning runs, as she always held me accountable and made the miles more enjoyable.”

Dr. Sarah Kirk and her horse Grayce
Dr. Sarah Kirk and her horse Grayce

Now that Dr. Kirk really is retiring, she plans to indulge her love of horses. She and her daughter, with whom she’s going to be living, have three, all rescues. One, Grayce, they’ve had since she was a week-old orphaned foal. Now she’s 18 and she and Dr. Kirk are dear friends. She and her daughter will also be welcoming a fourth horse, Rio, adopted from Horses Without Humans and scheduled to arrive on her first day of retirement.

Dr. Kirk is looking forward to the opportunity to do more riding and simply to admire the beauty of horses in motion. It’s part and parcel of her other retirement plan: to resume drawing and painting.

“There’s this part of me that’s an artist…so what better subject than our animals? Just having time to really take some deep breaths, enjoy that second cup of coffee, looking out on the pasture, and doing some artwork that includes the farm animals will be so relaxing and so much fun. I might even take some art classes when they resume.”

Will she really leave veterinary medicine behind?

Not entirely.

For one, she’ll be lending an ear to her daughter, shelter veterinarian Dr. Jill Kirk. “I’ll always be practicing in my mind because she tells me what’s going on at work and we discuss cases. I think probably the best testament to my love of this profession and especially my love of shelter medicine is the fact that my daughter followed in my footsteps.”

She also plans to continue hosting Florida Shelter Vet meetings. “If a large-scale cruelty case happens and they need some help doing forensic exams or helping with the cases….”

They’ll know where to find her.