From The Straits Times    |
dr rina maguire, exotic pets vet, beecroft animal specialist & emergency hospital

This may come as a surprise to some, but one of the biggest challenges of being a veterinarian isn’t always the complex surgeries or the long working hours. It is, in fact, communication

“Effective communication is crucial, because sometimes it’s really difficult to align perspectives. You have to be able to talk to the client and understand where they’re coming from, what their expectations are in terms of finances, prognosis, and make sure they fully grasp the situation. 

“I always try to encourage my junior vets and even the nurses to take the time to explain things properly to people,” says Dr Rina Maguire, director of Beecroft Animal Specialist & Emergency Hospital, and the only avian and exotic pet veterinary specialist in Singapore.

But first, one needs to establish trust and rapport with their clients, and it’s not a skill that one might learn in a classroom. “Some people want a lot of information, while others might not want to know too much. They might need something else from you. They might want someone to say, ‘Okay, can you fix it or not? What’s the percentage and what’s the chance of it getting better?’”

That trust is hard-won for Dr Maguire, who has over 10 years of experience in the field. She initially faced a lack of awareness about the importance of veterinary care for exotics – which refers to birds and pocket pets such as hamsters and guinea pigs, terrapins, and fish – when she graduated from Sydney University with a Bachelor in Veterinary Science in 2006. It was unusual for people to think about bringing their bird or hamster to the vet then.

“When I first started, I felt that we had to go out and meet with various interest groups. We had to talk to different people about why veterinary care and medical wellness are important.” she says.

To achieve her specialisation, Dr Maguire did an internship and residency training at exotics and referral clinics in Long Island and Manhattan New York – where it took about seven to eight years before she became board certified – before returning to Singapore in 2015. She took up a position as zoo and avian veterinarian at Singapore Zoo and Jurong Bird Park for about two and a half years.

“It was very interesting, but I realised it wasn’t really what I was trained to do, as I had spent a lot of time specialising in treating exotic pets. Unfortunately, the market for exotic pet care was very immature at that point. There weren’t many opportunities for me to work exclusively with exotics in any clinic, because every clinic primarily focused on dogs and cats, with some exotics on the side. So it was very challenging for me to find a place where I would feel comfortable doing what I loved,” she explains.

dr rina maguire, exotic pets vet, beecroft animal specialist & emergency hospital
Dr Rina Maguire, together with her nine-year-old daughter, Amelia Maguire, and their pet birds.

From treating animals to becoming a business owner

Dr Maguire decided to look for an opportunity that was closer to home. Together with her husband, Dr Patrick Maguire, who’s a specialist in small animal surgery, the couple decided to start their own mobile vet business, Beecroft Animal Specialist Services, which offered surgical services at different vet clinics in Singapore. 

“As we established ourselves, we also opened a rehabilitation centre for dogs and cats, which complemented my husband’s surgical practice. It provided a place for his patients to receive post-surgery rehabilitation and allowed us the groundwork we needed to get bank loans to build our bigger projects,” says Dr Maguire.

In 2020, she decided to open Crawford and Exotics, a clinic dedicated to exotic animals. Dr Maguire and her husband were running three businesses simultaneously and in 2021, they decided to combine their practices into one facility – Beecroft Animal Specialist & Emergency Hospital, located at Alexandra Road. 

It’s a feather in the cap for the mother of three young children, who came from a modest background. Dr Maguire, who is of Malay heritage, grew up in a Tampines HDB flat surrounded with pets like birds, turtles and fish. 

“We didn’t have a lot of exposure to different things, but I always loved animals. I knew from a young age that I wanted to work with them. While I started thinking about career possibilities as I grew older, I didn’t consider becoming a veterinarian. Back then, it was rare to consider this pathway, especially because there is no veterinary school in Singapore,” she says. 

Then one day, she attended a talk about studying at Glasgow University in junior college, which inspired her to pursue a career in the veterinary field. “It was a lightbulb moment. I had always loved biology and science, and suddenly someone opened up the idea that I could become a doctor for animals,” she shares.

Dr Maguire is immensely grateful for the support of her parents, who were both nurses: “We had to borrow a lot of money for my education. It’s expensive to pursue this career. My parents definitely sacrificed a lot to help me realise my dream. They were part of the journey from beginning, and now can proudly say that their daughter owns one of the largest veterinary emergency and referral hospitals in the country.”

Dr Maguire elaborates on the most rewarding aspects of being a vet, as well as the realities of dealing with animals (and their humans).

Dr Maguire is the only exotic pet veterinarian in Singapore – she treats birds and pocket pets such as hamsters and guinea pigs, terrapins, and fish.

1. Running an animal hospital is no cake walk: “It’s pretty much round the clock.”

You need a vet in the building, and enough staff to care for the animals in the hospital. We also have a lot of people on our team, so there are more HR matters. I think it’s about finding harmony between six different departments, because every single department does things differently. Just like a human hospital, you have surgery, medicine, emergency, exotics, imaging, and so on. They all have their own set of procedures. We have to make sure that everyone gets along and follows a system.

If you’re a clinic owner, it’s even more challenging. You’re dealing with finances and the responsibility of managing employees. It can really take a toll on anyone.

2. Work-life balance is important – and possible – when you have an employer that cares

A standard month at Beecroft sees an average of 44 work hours a week. We try to schedule everyone for that amount of working hours. Those on emergency duties or have been working very odd hours will have fewer hours scheduled in a week. We understand that they need time to recharge, especially after a 12-hour overnight shift. So we make sure they have enough rest days. 

Financially, we ensure they are compensated adequately. It’s important that they feel like it’s worth it, especially for a demanding job like this. If the pay doesn’t match the workload, it’s unlikely anyone would want to do it.

Because mental health is very important to us, we are also currently working on launching a wellness program to provide access to a therapist for our team members. We are considering offering a certain number of sessions per month. In fact, we’ve conducted a survey and received some positive responses.

Various procedures, such as removing tumours from hamsters and conducting abdominal surgeries on rabbits, are just some of the treatments performed on pets at Beecroft.

3. Advancements in veterinary science are giving the local industry a boost

I find surgeries to be the most fascinating. People don’t often think about it, but we perform a lot of surgeries for exotic animals. We remove tumours from hamsters, wings from birds with cancer, and conduct various surgeries on rabbits. This includes abdominal surgeries, like going into the intestines to remove abscesses or tumours.

These are procedures that were not commonly done in the past, and the animals would have been euthanised. Now, we have opened up new possibilities and can do more. We also run CT scans for animals that we couldn’t diagnose in the past. 

This ability to do more for these animals and their owners is something I find really rewarding. We explore all possibilities, from ultrasounds to CT scans, X-rays, and blood work, for all different species of exotic animals. That’s what I really appreciate about my job.

4. It’s ok to fret about your pet – but don’t forget to be human

I think every vet has gone through a period of self-doubt. Unless you work in a very sheltered environment, it’s bound to happen. You feel drained, especially when there’s a poor outcome and client expectations aren’t met. You end up feeling really down on yourself. You start wondering if you did something wrong or if you’re good enough for this job. That’s where the mental health issues can begin.

There are always going to be unhappy or unsatisfied clients. We encourage people to talk face to face to their vet about any disagreements to prevent escalations of any mismanaged expectations. Some pet owners tend to choose to vent on social media, which exacerbates the situation. 

Being a keyboard warrior can sometimes backfire as your actions can push others down and sometimes send vets and even nurses into a state of depression or feeling burnt out.

Veterinary professionals want the best for their patients. They may read a lot into these public shaming and finger pointing, then they start wondering, ‘Am I not good enough to do my job? Am I an imposter?’ It can result in a really difficult mental state and some people find it relentless and cannot push past it, resulting in a mental breakdown. 

5. After all, it’s all for the love of animals

All of us in the veterinary field are doing it because we love animals. Deep down, I guess that’s why you want to do it, rather than go into the human field. Of course, when you have a successful outcome, that’s very, very rewarding.

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as knowing you’ve saved a life. I think that’s the best part of the job, seeing animals go from not doing well to recovering and going home.

PHOTOGRAPHY Athirah Annissa
HAIR & MAKEUP Benedict Choo, using Chanel Beauty