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At five years old, Nugs is feeling the effects of middle age. He has arthritis in both hips and doesn't walk like he used to. Rather than suffer, though, he gets physical therapy.
He steps into a tank and waits as water fills up to his chest. The treadmill beneath his feet starts moving, and the husky/shepherd mix takes off. Exercising in water strengthens his hips without stressing them.
The underwater doggie treadmill, which the Alameda East Veterinary Hospital purchased three years ago for $32,000, is the only one in the state. Specializing in the best of modern medicine (CAT scans, ultrasounds, endoscopic surgery and chemotherapy), Alameda East is where people bring their dogs for physical therapy after orthopedic surgery, where police officers bring injured K-9s for rehabilitation, and where show-dog owners bring their animals to ensure that the prize-winners remain in top form. But it doesn't come cheap.
Clients pay only $32 to use the treadmill, but CAT scans run $1,000, and cancer treatment can cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. If there's one thing Alameda East vet Kevin Fitzgerald has learned in his twenty years on the job, however, it's that people will do almost anything to help their animal companions -- even if it means maxing out their credit cards. The reason, he says, is simple: Pets are human to many folks. In a telephone survey conducted by the American Veterinary Medical Association in 1957, participants were asked whether they considered their pets to be part of their family; 57 percent answered yes. When the AVMA repeated the survey in 1999, 97 percent said yes.
Kevin Fitzgerald can't get over what an exciting time it is for veterinary medicine. But it's also an exciting time for him and Alameda East. The vet hospital has been featured on the popular Animal Planet cable-television program Emergency Vets for the past five years. And it's made a celebrity of its tall, lanky, 51-year-old doctor.
Fitzgerald made People Magazine's fifty-most-eligible-bachelors list this past June, and viewers often recognize him in public, even if they don't always believe it's him. "At DIA once, a kid came up to me and said, 'You look like that animal doctor on TV,' and I said, 'I am.' Then he said, 'You wish,'" Fitzgerald remembers. "A lot of people don't know that Emergency Vets is filmed here; most people think all TV comes from L.A."
For the first few seasons, Alameda East wouldn't allow its name or location to be announced on air, because its vets worried that colleagues would look down on them. But since the show recieves so much praise, they no longer mind if the hospital's name is mentioned or listed in the credits.
Even before Emergency Vets, the super-friendly Fitzgerald was a familiar face to locals. Two hundred nights a year, he can be found performing at Comedy Works comedy club. Naturally, a lot of his material comes from what he knows best. He regularly culls the Pets section of the classified ads for inspiration. "I'm amazed by how Americans can't spell or do proper grammar," he says. Some of his favorite one-liners come from the double entendres of unpunctuated ads:
"Free to good home pit bull will eat anything loves children."
"Free to good home Doberman neutered just like one of the family."
Fitzgerald, who's been with Alameda East almost since it opened in 1971, helped bring the hospital into homes across the country. Jim Berger, founder of the Littleton-based film company Rocket Pictures, had featured Fitzgerald on a program about local comedians. When Berger decided to produce an ER for pets, he immediately thought of Fitzgerald and Alameda East. But the producers had a hard time convincing Bob Taylor, the owner of the private animal hospital, to go for it. "They had to come back three times and convince me before I agreed to try it," Taylor says.
Alameda East doesn't get paid for hosting the show, and it hasn't noticed an increase in clientele as a result of the publicity, but Taylor says it's been rewarding. "We've been able to get the word out about what goes on behind the brick walls of an animal hospital," he says.
Fitzgerald says nine out of ten clients give permission to have their pets' travails taped. And the staff at Alameda East has gotten used to the cameras, which show up for seventy days of filming a year. "They said they'd be a fly on the wall, and they have been," Fitzgerald says.
Although there is no one star of the cable show, Fitzgerald has emerged as a spokesman for Alameda East. He's eager to talk about all things animal, and he appears to be the office character. He stands a little too close to people when he talks and has no compunction about disrobing in front of others when changing out of his scrubs and into his street clothes. Maybe that's what happens when you're around animals all day.
Fitzgerald had a longtime companion of his own until last Christmas, when Rudy, his eleven-year-old bullmastiff, died of cancer. He isn't ready yet to get a new dog, but he finds joy in other people's pets. And animals light up when they see him. On a recent day at the hospital, an Airedale terrier named Lucy came in to get stitches out after having been spayed ten days before; Lucy gladly let Fitzgerald lead her back to the treatment room -- with tail wagging.