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For Maine's Island-Dwelling Pets, a Floating Vet Clinic

Nick Woodward


For most people, a trip to the vet is as simple as snapping on a leash or popping a cat into a crate, and driving to the clinic. But if you live on an island? Things aren't quite that simple. A basic exam can eat up a whole day - or more - depending on the ferry schedule and the weather. But one vet is trying to ease that burden by taking to the seas with her floating clinic.

It's early Saturday morning on Great Cranberry Island. And pet owners are already waiting on the dock as Dr. Margaret Shively arrives on the F/V Seakeeper. Her husband is the skipper, and as he works to tie up at the pier, Dr. Shively hurries to get ready for her first patient of the day.

Man: "Pirate, come on!"

Dr. Shively: "This is Pirate. Pirate's here!"

Jennifer Mitchell: "Is this your patient?"

Dr. Shively: "This is my patient. This is Pirate Bracey, Scott Bracey's dog, who is well known to us, and will probably jump on the boat."

Pirate is an island dog, used to jumping on and off boats, so he thinks nothing of being treated in this environment. In fact, Shively says the dock, which serves as her "waiting room," is a much happier environment for most of her canine patients who might otherwise dread a trip to a traditional clinic.

Credit Nick Woodward / MPBN
Dogs gather on the dock, waiting for their appointments aboard the floating veterinary clinic.

Pirate, a black lab, has an itchy skin condition that Dr. Shively has been treating all summer, and his owner, Scott Bracey - one of only about 40 year-round residents - has made special arrangements to have him seen first thing.

"Yeah, I go lobstering with my father, so we're going to head for lobstering after this."

Dr. Shively, who also has a land-based practice in Kennebunk, started Dockside Veterinary service to Maine's Midcoast and Downeast islands six summers ago to help provide care for island pets who might face a long, stressful trip just to get a vaccination.

"And it was very slow in the beginning, as most small businesses are to get going," she says. "But it's gotten, gradually - every summer we see a few more people and established ourselves up here, and now it's actually quite busy."

Some days she'll see whole herds of sheep, ferrets, guinea pigs, and a dozen or more cats. And lots and lots of dogs.

Credit Nick Woodward / MPBN
Laurie Wadsworth with her dog Lilliput leaving the floating clinic.

"Good morning, come right in. Margaret Shively, nice to meet you," she says, introducing herself to another pet owner. "And this is Lilliput?"

While black labs like Pirate prefer to be seen on the dock, Shively likes to treats cats and small dogs in the confines of the boat's cabin, where it's quiet. The inside has been fitted with a portable exam table and Dr. Shively totes all of her medicines, vaccinations, and surgical supplies in plastic tubs.

Laurie Wadsworth, and her tiny dog Lilliput, spends her summers on the island. "I mean, I was thrilled when I saw that we had a vet that came in by boat, because, otherwise, you have to take a whole day off the island and drive up to Ellsworth or Bangor, and it's a lot of time commitment," Wadsworth says. "So this is great."

Credit Nick Woodward / MPBN
Veterinarian Margaret Shively and a client aboard the floating clinic.

When surgery isn't scheduled and pets aren't being treated on board, the boat is used by Shively's husband, John Williamson, for commercial fishing. Williamson says they've worked out a system that suits them both.

Williamson: "We trade - she's my crewman."

Shively: "When we're not doing..."

Williamson: "And I'm in charge...sort of. And then when we hit the dock we switch places and she's in charge, and I have to handle the animals."

Shively: "And the paperwork."

Williamson: "And the paperwork."

Williamson, a lifelong fisherman and longtime skipper, says he's learned from his wife that being a vet's assistant requires patience and calm - neither of which come naturally to him.

Williamson: "She says I have to get the Zen of it."

Shively: "You have to calm your energy fields, dear."

Williamson: "When you're holding a cat especially, you have to absorb the energy."

Shively: "He's learned how to work with animals and I've learned how to work on boats."

After a morning on Great Cranberry, where a parade of dogs have come through for their yearly exams, the Seakeeper moves on to Little Cranberry's crowded dock at Islesford, where the boat has to make several passes before finding a place to tie up.  Here, some cats come aboard, and more dogs are prancing about on the dock, waiting to be seen.

Dockside Veterinary service makes the rounds a couple of times during July and August to Isle au Haut, Swan's Island, Frenchboro, Great Cranberry and Little Cranberry. At this point, says Shively, they're only able to offer the service in summer; Maine's winter weather would make a year-round service too difficult, she says. But Shively says she hopes she's making a positive difference for the residents of the islands.

"It's really exciting to be part of it and to, you know, play even a very small part in an island life," she says. "We're pretty peripheral to the general running of the island certainly, but anything we can do to come out and be a part of island life and hopefully make things a little easier for people is why we're here."

But the short summer season is winding down, the Seakeeper will soon be returning to its home port in Kennebunk, and Pirate, the Great Cranberry black lab, will be spending some time on the mainland, until the Seakeeper returns next summer.