Food and health care costs too often force low-income Pueblo residents to surrender their pets to a shelter, says veterinarian Patricia Canchola.
"They've tried everything to afford the food. They've tried everything to afford the veterinary care, and they can't," Canchola said.
So in April 2011, she opened the low-cost St. Martin's Well Pet Clinic, and that December, she opened the nonprofit Amazin' Amos Pet Food Pantry. She doesn't take a salary from either.
For her work, Canchola was chosen from nearly 200 nominees to be this year's American Hero Veterinarian.
"There's very high poverty levels in Pueblo," Canchola says in a video created for the contest. "It's still a little bit shocking, and I'm still a little bit surprised when I see the number of animals who were lost, wandering, displaced. When I started to see all the reasons people were surrendering their pets - 'I couldn't afford the vet care, I couldn't afford the vaccines and now my puppy has (parvovirus) and I can't treat it' - I thought, 'OK, we can help them.'"
She said her full-time job as the only staff veterinarian at Pueblo Animal Services - a division of the Humane Society of the Pikes Peak Region - has opened her eyes to the need in her community.
"When I made the transition from private practice to shelter medicine, I was literally shocked at what I never even thought happened on the streets of Pueblo," said the Pueblo native. "I had no idea (about) the number of stray animals."
She performs 3,500 to 4,500 spay and neuter surgeries a year, plus 200 other surgeries for anything from trauma-related injuries to masses to broken bones, a Humane Society news release says.
Janet Keeney has adopted four dogs from Pueblo Animal Services that demanded extensive surgery or treatment from Canchola.
The first, a 14-year-old dog named Holly, had a tumor on her face, was covered in cuts and scratches and had come down with pneumonia. After Canchola removed the tumor, treated the cuts and made sure the dog was otherwise healthy, Keeney adopted her on Dec. 26, 2009.
"We called her our Christmas miracle that year," said Keeney, who lives in Pueblo.
Another dog, Susie, had been a victim of cruelty and "had been starved within a day or two of her life," Keeney said. Canchola nursed the dog back to health, allowing Keeney to adopt her in 2013.
Susie typically didn't show much emotion, Keeney said, but when the dog saw Canchola again, "it was incredible."
"She just started twirling in circles and howling," Keeney said. "She was so happy."
Canchola is caring, strong and unselfish in her work, Keeney said.
"There's just story after story," Keeney said. "She's just helped countless animals - and people, too."
Canchola, known as "Dr. Patti," began working for the Humane Society in 2009 after the 2008 recession forced her to close the clinic she had helped open less than a year earlier.
"When the economy tanked, the clinic just couldn't survive," she said. "The bank that processed my loan and closed on my loan was also the same bank that was shut for fraudulent loans. I was a victim like everybody else."
But, she said, she soon recognized the impact she could have in her new position.
"The most rewarding thing is to just see the number of animals that we are helping. But the most heartbreaking is to see those that, again, are the unintentional victims of animal abuse, cruelty cases, neglect - some of those are to the point where they don't survive," Canchola said. She recently has taken veterinary forensics courses and regularly testifies in animal cruelty cases.
"There's a lot that you see that just breaks your heart, but there's a lot at the end of the day that just outnumbers the bad cases. That makes you go home and say, 'You know what? That was a hard day but a good day, and I can't wait to get back up and do it again.'"
She said she's wanted to be a veterinarian since she was a child, bringing home stray dogs and cats.
"It seemed like if there was a stray in the neighborhood, I was going to find it and bring it home - and I did," Canchola said. "I'm sure little girls were probably having tea parties while I was convincing my dad to take all of my stuffed animals from my bedroom and pretend that I'm the doctor, fixing them one at a time."
In 1990, she received her doctorate in veterinary medicine from Colorado State University in Fort Collins. At first, she didn't want to head home.
"I was one of those, 'Pueblo? Who wants to stay in Pueblo? It's little; there's not a lot going on; it's kind of boring. I want to go to the big city.'"
She began working in Denver but soon missed her hometown. "I thought, 'No, this is way too big. What was I thinking? I want to go home.'"
She moved back to Pueblo in 1996. Nowadays, she doesn't have much free time.
She works at the shelter during the week, attending to the clinic and food pantry on Saturdays. "We used to be open just two Saturdays a month," Canchola said. "And then over the years, we've just become so busy that now I force myself to close one Saturday a month just for mental health and to have a little bit of a life."
When Canchola was named a finalist for the American Hero Veterinarian award, she received tens of thousands of votes from the public, the Humane Society release says. She received the award at the Hero Dog Awards Gala in Los Angeles in September.
"I remember the day that I got the phone call that I had won," she said. "I just really could not believe it, because there were four other veterinarians doing incredible work for their communities and for the veterinary profession."
Although Canchola said the accolades and spotlight make her uncomfortable, the recognition has motivated her to keep working.
"Shortly before I found out that I was nominated, I was getting really tired of working that six-day week for long hours. It's mentally hard and physically demanding. And I thought, 'I think I'm just going to liquidate the pantry, close the clinic and just start to take some time,'" she said.
But the nomination "kind of gave me a second wind, so to speak, to say, 'OK, so all of this hard work, all of these long hours, all this heartache, all these tears, all this midnight oil that I was burning is really the right thing to do."
For more information about the award, visit herovetawards.org.
Contact Ellie Mulder: 636-0198