On a sunny weekend morning, a lobster boat pulled up to Peaks Island and a woman wearing scrubs and a stethoscope hopped onto the dock, securing her boat to its cleats. She pulled out a scale and a tackle box of syringes and other medical equipment, and started readying her team to meet the day’s patients, for whom travel to the mainland is too hard.
Some find the ferry frightening or exhausting or both. So Dr. Kate Domenico comes to them, meeting and treating them right on the dock.
Domenico is with the Island Veterinary Service, which for 18 years has been visiting the Casco Bay Islands off Portland, to provide care to their animals. The service sees small, domestic animals – primarily dogs and cats.
The animals’ owners lead them down the ramp to the dock as if it’s just part of their morning stroll – and their appointments are open-air, lapping waves as waiting room ambiance.
Dr. John Flood started the service when he saw the need in 2004. Domenico joined him as co-owner three years ago. The veterinarians alternate weeks, each making the voyage to the islands every other Thursday. They share ownership of the boat, the Rita Joan.
They visit Peaks, Great Diamond, Chebeague, Cushing, Long, Cousins and Cliffs islands, as well as other islands by request.
When not island-hopping, both also have their own patients and make house calls in Portland.
Sharoan Cohen had to hoist her 13-year-old sheltie into her arms and carry her down the steep ramp to the dock. And getting Millie to sit on the scale took coaxing and bribery. But after that, her docile, relaxed demeanor makes Domenico’s job easy as she gives her a checkup. Millie is an older dog, 13, and with her age comes more frequent medical issues. But as she gets older, she is ever more reluctant to get on the ferry and walk from the port to the vet’s office she goes to in the city.
“Getting Millie to a vet in town is an act of Congress,” said Cohen. “She doesn’t want to go on the boat and I can’t walk her all the way over to Brackett Street where the vet in Portland is. … This service is really important because it makes it possible to keep your pet on the island. She otherwise would not get any preventative care.”
Deb Rosenberg showed up with two rescue dogs, Miso, who is only a couple of years old, and Muri, a member of the family for years, since her adoption in Rwanda. The two dogs are best friends, and entertained each other, entangling their leashes, while Domenico and Rosenberg went over the vaccines they needed. Muri took hers with a whimper and puppy dog eyes. Miso was feisty, struggled to escape and needed a temporary muzzle.
The two are almost impossible to transport to Portland for an appointment, Rosenberg said, because of the ferry, and that the Island Veterinary Service has made the – admittedly still traumatic – ordeal easier.
“Even though some dogs do it all the time and are totally used to it, there are many who freak out about it because the engine is so loud and it has uneven, slippery surfaces,” Rosenberg said.
Providing the care requires a crew, and Domenico brings her technician, Liberty Chestnut, and an occasional additional assistant, and often gets the added help of Abbott, who is 10, loves animals, lives on Peaks and joins the crew when it floats into town .
Abbott energetically greets the animals, knowing each by name. His affection sometimes impedes Domenico’s treatments, so she combats this by sending him below to organize files or retrieve equipment, responsibilities he accepts eagerly.
To be a vet who travels by boat requires a special set of skills. Flood and Domenico take turns captaining the Rita Joan, and Domenico does maintenance and equipment stocking along with scheduling appointments and marketing the service.
Mishaps happen on the visits, she said. Keys have been lost to the sea, the scale has been left on docks and Domenico has more than once fallen into the water.
Still, she said, “none of my girls have fallen in yet, so I’d say I am doing a pretty good job as a teacher.”
She and Flood stick to their weekly schedule year-round – though in the winter months, in the snow and cold, they travel by ferry and see animals at the Peaks Island Community Center.
Though Peaks Island is small, in winter storms and freezing winds, the trek from the ferry to the community center, arms piled high with medical equipment, can be laborious and treacherous. Noticing this, a resident of the island now leaves a minivan called Goldie at the dock for the vets’ use on days when the service is coming.
Over the years, the vets have become such a fixture that people and animals pay them visits even without appointments.
“I felt like when we went to other offices we were just a number – they didn’t really know who we were and there were so many other patients there,” said Rosenberg, who brought Miso and Muri. “But here, it’s much more of a family feel.”
Abbot’s mother, Gail Trefethern-Kelley, brought her dog, Penny, to the dock just to say hello to Domenico. The tide was low during the visit, so the ramp to the dock was frighteningly steep. But Trefethern-Kelley scooped up her reluctant pooch and started down to the water.
Once Penny saw Domenico, her excitement was unbridled. She wriggled from Trefethern-Kelley’s hold and ran to her friend, wagging her tail with delight.
Domenico paused his examination of Millie to give Penny a treat and a scratch between the ears.
“You get to know everybody on the islands like a cousin,” said Chestnut, Domenico’s technician. “You get to know their pets like you’re their best friend.”
Harley, a 160-pound greater Swiss mountain dog, bound down Great Diamond Island’s State Pier, a 2-year-old full of energy. He was easily Domenico’s largest client of the day and also a first-timer. But he didn’t show any nerves as he rolled onto his back, eager for Domenico’s attention. His tongue hanging out the side of his mouth and his thick legs pointing to the sky, Domenico was smitten.
As she patted him down and ran tests, he rolled back and forth on the dock, blissfully enjoying his new best friend. His owner, Mark Fazio of Great Diamond Island, looked on with pride as his new companion of only two months connected with the vet so naturally.
“This is going to make our lives a lot easier,” Fazio said. “I have never seen a dog enjoy the vet this much.”
That’s the aim, said Domenico, to provide a happy, much less stressful experience all around.
“We don’t do this because it’s lucrative – because it isn’t,” Domenico said. “We do it because we care about the communities we serve.”
On a farm in Cape Elizabeth, two families have cultivated a joint history