SCVMA Legacy: Dr. Josie Zabala Gave Second Chance to Unwanted Animals
This is one in a series of stories exploring what life and the practice of veterinary medicine was like for Southern California Veterinary Medical Association members in the past.
By Jim Bell
When Josie Zabala – born and raised in Manila – was a young veterinary student at the University of the Philippines in the mid-1960s, she could hardly have envisioned the path her life would take – to a 30-year career as director of Los Angeles County’s Department of Animal Care and Control.
“Working at the county shelter, extending the lives of unwanted animals, giving them a chance to have a second home and working the best way we could on a limited budget” was the best part of her rewarding career, she said. “We were a lot like country doctors. We learned to be very creative. ”
How did the young Filipina veterinary graduate of 1968 wind up leading the largest animal shelter in the United States?
She and other members of her graduating class were offered jobs by the federal Department of Agriculture. She worked for the government for six years, mostly in the San Joaquin Valley, while preparing for the federal and California veterinary board exams.
She passed the boards in 1974 and, with two young daughters at home, went to work part-time in clinics founded in Los Angeles by a partnership that included her husband Fred, who is now deceased. When her daughters were older, she started her own clinic in Anaheim and went to work for Los Angeles County in 1982. “For a few years, I worked at the county in the morning and at my clinic in the afternoon,” said Zabala, who still lives in Cerritos. After 18 years, she turned her clinic over to an associate.
On January 19, she will receive the Cortese-Lippincott Award from the Animal Health Foundation at SCVMA’s Installation of Officers. It will honor her for going “above and beyond in making the world a better place for both humans and animals.”
Zabala retired from the county job last summer. It was “very challenging,” she said. “When I started, there were no specific shelter veterinary positions. We were aided by the county Veterinarians Office. But when Prop. 13 passed in 1978, they phased out the county office and we started Animal Care and Control. And they hired me as the senior veterinarian in charge of all the six shelters.”
Zabala said that a shelter veterinarian’s life is different today than it was when she was named director. “There was a perception by other veterinarians that we were no good because we worked at the shelter,” she said. “They thought that we were there because we couldn’t do the job in private practice. And everything we did in those early days was questioned and ridiculed by the private sector. We found [that attitude] all over. At [professional] meetings, veterinarians would stand up and say it straight to your face.
“That has changed. Shelter medicine has evolved into a prestigious part of veterinary medicine. But we hid in the shadows because of all the condescending words we got – because they didn’t understand shelter medicine. . . . At a shelter, you are not only involved in animal health but you also take part in public safety, public health. You take care of animals that can transfer diseases to people. In fact, the [county] shelters were established because of a rabies epidemic in 1937. So every time an animal comes into a shelter, the veterinarian looks for zoonotic disease symptoms.”
Bioterrorism now is part of the life of a shelter veterinarian, who must recognize the symptoms of agents such as anthrax that might be used by terrorists, she said, and report to public health officials. Finally, she said, animal mistreatment is an important responsibility. “We see animals that have been subject to human maltreatment and we investigate it and help prosecute it. The shelter veterinarian is on the front line in abuse cases.”
Dr. Zabala gives much of the credit for her success as director of the county shelters to the veterinarians who work there. (There are 10 county veterinarians and 21 registered veterinary techs.) “Without them, everything that we tried to do would not have been possible,” she said.
Today, Zabala said, veterinary medicine is “more cutting edge” than it once was. “We have a lot of specialists in the field and we have continuing education that keeps us up to date. There was a time when we did diagnosing according to symptoms and now we have so many more tools. And the specialists are ready to help you if you have a question or a problem.
“Veterinarians today [in a sluggish economy] can be creative in helping their clients. We can make recommendations of what we can do and, if the client can’t afford it, we can go to the next choice or the next plan. The bad economy helps you grow as a veterinarian because you have to be more resourceful.”