Love sometimes finds us in the most unexpected places. In the case of Dr. Nipuni Ratnayaka and Dr. Kevin Horecka, it was volunteering at the Parvo Puppy ICU at Austin Pets Alive!. I had a chance to ask these two about their mutual dedication to lifesaving, which brought them together and continues to be a thread in their evergreen love story.
The APA! Parvo Puppy ICU offers an alternative to shelter death, saving over 600 puppies from around Texas in 2019, and over 5,000 puppies since the program was started by Dr. Ellen Jefferson in 2008. The first of its kind in the nation, Austin Pets Alive!’s Parvo Puppy ICU provides care and rehabilitation to puppies that contract parvovirus. Although parvo is completely preventable through proper vaccinations, when puppies do contract the virus many of these vulnerable animals face euthanasia at shelters across the country.
Austin Pets Alive! has solved the two large problems many shelters face when making life and death decisions about dogs who test positive for parvo: the lack of resources to provide necessary medical care and the worry of spreading the disease across the shelter. A volunteer-based parvo program, modeled by APA!, is able to treat parvo at a much lower cost than in a traditional veterinary hospital setting with a similar survival rate. While in the Parvo ICU, APA! veterinarians examine puppies daily to determine treatments, which are then carried out by a dedicated group of highly-trained volunteers, who together fill two shifts a day, every day of the year.
Kevin: We met in the Parvo ICU in 2011 when it was in the old Manchaca location. I pretended her apartment was on the way and drove her in when we volunteered together despite it nearly doubling the trip time.
Kevin, who has a background in Computer Science, Embedded and Vision Systems Engineering, Data Science, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and Software Engineering earned his PhD from the University of Illinois in Neuroscience. He has been a volunteer Researcher and Technologist for American Pets Alive! and a Parvo Medical Volunteer at Austin Pets Alive! since 2011, where he works on innovative technology and research ideas to help advance the state of the art in animal sheltering.
Kevin: Our first date was Master Pancake's comedy version of The Notebook at Alamo Drafthouse downtown. I don't believe either of us had seen the movie before and still haven't seen the real one.
Dr. Nipuni Ratnayaka is the Maddie's Lifesaving Academy veterinarian at Austin Pets Alive! She attended the University of Texas at Austin for undergrad and got her Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her involvement with APA! began in 2010 as a volunteer at the start of the Parvo ICU Program, and she soon became the program’s manager. While in this role, her passion for shelter medicine grew and inspired her to pursue a career in shelter medicine as a veterinarian. She returned to APA! in 2018 as a veterinarian, working in the medical clinic as well as advising veterinarians from around the world on efficient and cost-effective methods in practicing shelter medicine successfully.
Kevin: I proposed in Parvo [Puppy ICU] while we were visiting Austin over the holidays during grad school. Despite the difficulty of sneaking it into the quarantine area, I managed to get the ring in, and at the end of the shift, I placed it in a kennel with a puppy and pretended a dog had pooped it out. She took a few seconds to realize that was a lie, and I carried on from there.
Kevin: She's one of the only people I've ever met where I've never felt the need to question her intentions. She's a good person, through and through. I'd follow her anywhere.
Nipuni: I couldn't have asked for a better partner to support me through anything and everything. He is excited with me for my achievements and supportive through my hard times (and there have been a lot of big life transitions!) He also has great hair.
Kevin: It really forces you both to confront serious moral and ethical issues together. Nothing is as simple as it seems, but having someone whom you assume the best of at every step to discuss how to best help the most animals is a rare gift. You didn't ask for the worst, but the worst part is trying to keep her from bringing home a million animals so we can make sure our animals get the love they need!
Nipuni: It's really valuable to have someone on the outside of medicine to bounce ideas to get input from. He is so smart and always has good input. He helps me a lot with my AmPA! work in regards to being a more effective teacher and has a more analytical viewpoint to provide.
Today, Kevin continues to volunteer with Austin Pets Alive!, and Dr. Naya is the Maddie's Lifesaving Academy Veterinarian at American Pets Alive! Their family includes their cat Sashimi, parvo-survivors Timber and Luna, and their paralyzed cat Sunny.
If you are interested in saving the lives of parvo puppies in your community, apply today for the Maddie’s Lifesaving Academy Parvo ICU Apprenticeship.