Two weeks ago, the Moab Veterinary Clinic was called about a young horse with significant damage to her front leg. It appeared that the horse had been hit by a car, and when doctors from the clinic arrived, they couldn’t find the horse’s mother or owner.
When Dr. Alexis Johnson met the injured mystery horse, she was undaunted. Despite the damage to the horse’s leg, she said her first thought was: “Yay! A horse!”
Johnson took the horse in as her own, naming the week-old foal Adaline, and got to work assessing how bad the injuries were. Adaline’s treatment is funded partially from Johnson’s own money and partially by donations made to the clinic’s “sad animal fund,” Johnson said.
“I have a really hard time saying ‘no’ to anything,” she said. In addition to treating Grand County’s pets, the clinic is also treating a few tiny kittens suspected to have been born prematurely—their heads are the size of half Johnson’s index finger—and a Great Pyrenees found on the side of the road with a displaced hip on the border of Nevada and Utah.
“These are the animals that come in and just need help, and don’t have anybody able to help them,” Johnson said.
Johnson is the daughter of Dr. Len Sorensen, who started the Moab Vet Clinic in the 80s. She grew up in the clinic before attending Oregon State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine to earn her degree, and returned to the clinic to continue her career.
The vet clinic is small, but takes in as many animals as it can. The staff jokingly refers to different rooms with hotel names—the dog kennels are the Hilton. But as much as the passion is there, the clinic is struggling with funding and staffing, especially post-COVID.
“One of the big challenges right now is finding another vet,” Johnson said. Nationwide, a decline in people becoming veterinarians has led to a shortage of skilled vets and the clinic can’t offer the high pay that urban clinics can. Mars Veterinary Health, a veterinary organization, recently calculated that with the number of pet owners increasing and the number of veterinarians expected to retire, by 2030 there will be a nationwide shortage of 15,000 veterinarians.
Johnson tries to balance the clinic’s costs with what she knows people in Moab can afford, but that ranges drastically. She said visiting tourists usually think the clinic’s costs are cheap, but the same prices sometimes drive locals away. The clinic also sees animals from Blanding, Monticello and Green River, she said.
“The money is a huge thing,” she said. “Even when you try really hard, there’s only so much you can do—we have to be able to pay our employees right to live in this expensive area.”
Plus, being a veterinarian can be tiring and hard, Johnson said. There’s the difficulty of the job itself—knowing how to treat sick and dying animals—and the added difficulty of being a vet in a rural area. Clinic staff travels to Green River at least once a month, and Johnson spends some days driving two hours one way to check on pregnant cattle.
Despite the challenges, Johnson is excited about the potential growth of the clinic. It recently acquired new technical equipment, including a dental x-ray and endoscope, a machine that allows vets to perform minimally invasive procedures to look within an organ or body cavity. Johnson recently used it to help her remove a toy from a bearded dragon, she said.
“It’s fun,” she said. “I love it. There’s so much you can do with it, and someday I want to be able to do minimally invasive surgeries with it.”
Someday, she said, she’d love another building. The clinic is a renovated house that uses every room available, including the garage. She wants to be able to provide more employee housing—the clinic currently owns one house for employees—and of course, she wants to hire more vets, she said.
“But I still want to keep this small-town feel for as long as I can,” she said.
As for Adaline, she can bend her knee now and has a splint on the leg. Johnson said she expects Adaline to make a full recovery eventually, which is good, because Johnson’s always wanted a horse.
“It’s looking good right now,” Johnson said. “She’s made great developments.”