EASTHAM — If you own a pet on the Outer Cape, you may have noticed local veterinary clinics changing locations, displaying “for sale” signs, and closing.
Provincetown’s Herring Cove Animal Hospital has been shuttered frequently. A sign taped to the window blames a staffing shortage. A “for sale” sign sits on the Eastham Veterinary Hospital’s lawn.
In Wellfleet, meanwhile, at a small strip mall at 2700 Route 6 where for years the Duck Creek Animal Clinic maintained minimal office hours, the opposite is now occurring. The new Wellfleet Veterinary Hospital is open all day five days a week with two office assistants and at least two veterinarians.
The explanation for the shifting veterinary landscape on the Outer Cape can be found in a lawsuit filed last year in Barnstable Superior Court titled “PetVet Care Centers v. Dr. John Kelley.”
PetVet Care Centers LLC is headquartered in Connecticut. It owns 425 veterinary clinics nationwide, 11 of them in Massachusetts, and has been operating in the Commonwealth since 2015, according to corporate filings. The company was acquired in 2017 for an undisclosed sum by the private-equity behemoth Kohlberg Kravis Roberts, which has hundreds of billions of dollars in assets. It quickly went on a veterinary clinic buying spree as part of a strategy of “organic and acquisitive expansion,” according to Private Equity News.
Kelley bought the Eastham Veterinary Hospital on Route 6 in 1990, according to town assessor’s records. In 1998, he purchased 137 Stony Hill Road in Chatham to operate Lower Cape Veterinary Services there. In 2008, he bought the space for the Herring Cove Animal Hospital on Shank Painter Road in Provincetown. He also operated the Duck Creek Animal Clinic with limited hours out of rented space on Route 6 in Wellfleet for years.
At some point, Kelley sold his clinics, and the business was purchased by PetVet, which signed a lease on the Eastham hospital in 2014, according to court records.
Kelley continued to work in Eastham as an employee of PetVet until June 25, 2020, when he resigned, according to the complaint.
One year later, he opened the Wellfleet Veterinary Hospital in what had been his former Duck Creek Animal Clinic space. He also evicted PetVet from the 725 Route 6 property in Eastham, which he still owns; that property is now for sale. PetVet must vacate the premises by Aug. 1, according to court documents.
PetVet, meanwhile, filed suit against Kelley last August for violating “post-employment restrictive covenants.” The company accuses him of actively soliciting and hiring PetVet employees and poaching PetVet’s clients before the one-year noncompete agreement he signed had expired. The suit also charges Kelley with making disparaging comments about PetVet and violating confidentiality agreements.
Kelley and his lawyer, Seth Roman of La Tanzi, Spaulding & Landreth in Orleans, declined to speak to the Independent, citing the ongoing lawsuit.
Kelley, the suit states, “made false and disparaging comments about PetVet’s Eastham facility to its current and former staff and clientele, as well as members of the local community, claiming (among other things) that the facility was unsafe, had substandard quality of care, that staff were mistreated, and that the facility would be evicted and more.”
The complaint continues: “Dr. Kelley actively solicited other PetVet clients during the one-year restricted period, which is evidenced by the fact that Dr. Kelley opened the Wellfleet Veterinary Hospital within days of the expiration of his noncompete restrictions, with multiple PetVet clients immediately providing business to his new clinic.”
Kelley is counterclaiming that, although it is true many employees and longtime clients have followed him to Wellfleet, that was their choice and had nothing to do with his soliciting them.
Kelley admitted to requesting computer charts from PetVet, but the requests came from the clients themselves. “PetVet duly provided the charts — which were in fact the property of the clients…,” Kelley stated in court documents.
The suit listed 17 customers whose records Kelley sought from his former hospital in June 2021.
Erin Ellis, one of those customers, told the Independent, “We left Eastham Veterinary Hospital to follow Dr. Kelly Preston [another vet who went to Wellfleet with Kelley]. She is an amazing doctor, and I would follow her anywhere. Having Dr. John Kelley is an added bonus.”
Barbara Knapp, a dog owner from Eastham, said, “It was not like Dr. Kelley called me up and said, ‘Hey, I am in business!’ I went back to Dr. Kelley and am so glad I could. In terms of customer service, he is just the best. I like that he is not into extreme measures. And his office assistants could not be more kind and accommodating.”
On a bustling Monday morning at Kelley’s clinic in Wellfleet, Sam Schlosberg of Orleans stood outside with his 150-pound Irish wolfhound, Haden.
Schlosberg said he formerly took his dogs to the Eastham Veterinary Hospital but left to follow Dr. Eric Stone. Stone had moved out of PetVet’s employ to take a job at the Veterinary Associates of Cape Cod in Yarmouth. When Dr. Kelley reopened a practice in Wellfleet, Schlosberg rejoined Kelley’s clientele. He recalled that, when one of his dogs needed to be euthanized, “They came to our house and they wouldn’t charge us,” Schlosberg said. “Dr. Kelley and the whole crew — they are the best.”
Customers’ comments about PetVet have been less positive. Noreen Bahring of Provincetown said she had never given a negative review on Yelp until recently, when she had had enough with the office assistant at the Herring Cove clinic. “I was treated so rudely,” she said.
She began to take her dog to the Animal Hospital of Orleans. Other longtime veterinarians have left the Eastham clinic recently, she added. “They did not want to work there,” said Bahring. “It is not their fault. The doctors are great. It is the corporation — they just want to make money.”
Staff members who have followed Kelley from Eastham to Wellfleet include Preston, Caitlin Mills, Chris Teason, Emily Sears, Michael Kent, “and others,” the PetVet suit states.
Former employees of the Eastham clinic either did not return calls or declined to comment. But Dr. Sadie Hutchings, who worked for PetVet at the Herring Cove Animal Clinic (and who writes a column for the Independent), filed her own lawsuit against PetVet in June 2021. Hutchings did not respond to a request for comment. But in court documents, she complains that PetVet violated its contract with her when it closed the Herring Cove clinic from March to December 2020. She claims that PetVet failed to pay her $15,769 in wages and more than $10,000 owed to her for “revenue target production goals.”
Hutchings’s attorney, Karen Tosh, argued that there was no way for her to meet revenue targets when the company closed the clinic. Tosh asked for $75,000 in damages. The case was voluntarily dismissed, with undisclosed terms.
Hutchings told the Independent in April that she plans to open her own clinic in Provincetown this summer.