Veterinarian John Robb steers his Chrysler out of the parking lot, gliding past the Dunkin’ Donuts and the boarded-up furniture store, and leaves behind another Saturday shift at Catzablanca, the clinic where he’s been reduced to working since losing his own hospital. There’s a big cardboard box stuffed with court papers in the back seat, the air conditioning is up against Connecticut’s July heat, and an audiobook of the Bible is playing loud. “When I get into the car,” Robb tells me, “I’m like, ‘Lord I need to hear from you.’ ”
It wasn’t a day harder than most, but he’d had to put a little girl’s cat to sleep while she sobbed in the reception area. Later, exam rooms got backed up while Robb investigated why another feline was vomiting. A cell phone picture of a flowerpot knocked over in the owner’s backyard suggested the cause: poisonous hydrangea blossoms. By the time Robb locked up for the night, the cat was resting in a cage, hooked up to an IV and meowing.
“I’ve probably listened to the Bible 500 times in the last eight years,” he says as we pull onto the highway, leaving the Hartford suburb of Rockville. “That’s when God decided to give me jobs at least an hour away from home.”
“It was like, ‘Yeah, we lost his dog. We took care of his cremation, that’s enough’ ”
Eight years ago is also when he made what he thought of even then as a deal with the devil. Robb is a born-again Christian who believes he’s been called to protect pets, because, he says, they can’t speak for themselves. But concern for animals wasn’t foremost in his mind in 2008, when he decided to buy a franchise of Banfield Pet Hospital, America’s biggest chain of veterinary clinics. He was thinking about money.
Many veterinarians scoffed that Banfield dumbed down its medicine by using a software program, PetWare, to standardize care. The company also put its hospitals inside the big-box retail stores of PetSmart, turning medical care into a product to be purchased along with dog food and chew toys—just another item on a one-stop shopping list. A former chief medical officer at Banfield once compared the business to the no-frills carrier Southwest Airlines. “If you want first class,” he said, “you can buy it from a different airline.” Some animal doctors called Banfield “vet in a box,” but it was a gibe that betrayed anxiety. Veterinarians feared Banfield just as mom and pop grocery stores once feared Walmart.
Robb knew all of this. He also knew that a lot of doctors thought Banfield overvaccinated pets. But he had a wife and two kids to support, and he knew he could make a very good living with a pet hospital inside a shopping center.
Robb at a New Haven clinic.
A 57-year-old with thinning hair, Robb walks with a slight limp, the result of a high school football injury. He’s an excitable man, a freight train of a talker. Near midnight, he’s pacing in his New Fairfield farmhouse, still in the green surgical scrubs he wore to work, having talked nonstop from the minute we left Catzablanca. If his wife, Aldona, hadn’t touched him on the shoulder to remind him of the time, he might have ranted until morning about how Banfield stole his hospital and is turning animal medicine into an exploitative, even dangerous business. “It’s peticide,” Robb says, pausing before offering a definition. “The systematic destruction of pets by corporations for profit.”
Pet care is undergoing the same sort of consolidation that transformed human health care in the 1990s, and Robb has worked for both of the industry’s biggest players. In 1999 he sold his first practice for $1 million to VCA—then called Veterinary Centers of America—a consolidator that’s bought hundreds of animal hospitals and trades on the Nasdaq exchange under the ticker WOOF. He worked six years for VCA. Then, in 2008, he paid $400,000 for his Banfield franchise in prosperous Stamford. Banfield had itself traded hands just a few months before, when the veterinarian who founded the company sold it to Mars, the giant candy and pet-food manufacturer. The change had dire consequences for Robb and, he says, for millions of pets.
In December 2012, Banfield seized Robb’s franchise for violating its vaccine protocols and breaking Connecticut law. Robb doesn’t dispute that he started giving half-doses to little dogs after several almost died of vaccine reactions, but he says Banfield used that as an excuse to take his hospital—just as it came up with pretexts for taking hospitals from other veterinarians. Banfield sued Robb over his medical practices. Robb countersued, claiming breach of contract, and has turned his case, still playing out in court, into a crusade against Banfield, which he says pushes vets to put profit ahead of the health and safety of animals.
Banfield says its medicine is compassionate and sound. In a letter responding to this story and Robb’s accusations, the company writes: “We strive to understand the needs of pets and clients and provide safe, high-quality care to every pet, every time.” It’s Robb’s practices, Banfield says, that demand scrutiny.