Johannesburg’s historic vet hospital stays healthy

Over a long period of time, Louis Botha Avenue has undergone a drastic turn in many aspects from what it used to look like a century ago. Commerce there has had its highs and lows, with several businesses coming and going. Places such as the iconic Victory Theatre recently changed into a church venue, and the Doll House roadhouse, which was a notable pub in the 1930s, has closed down – but like a few other places, the Orange Grove Veterinary Hospital has managed to maintain its authentic nature while improving its services to fit into the modern world.

I was standing in front of this yellow building. From afar could be heard the hooting of cars rushing up and down the avenue. As I walked in, I could not help but notice the mesmerizing sound of three beautiful birds of varying hues – white, light blue and yellow – chirping as they flew from side to side of a cage hanging in the reception room.

RIGHT: A painted wall at the hospital entrance  informig us on the services offered by the vet. Photo: Rose Clemence Shayo

Inside the waiting area there was pets’ food, chains, tags and toys of different colours all around the room, and clients sitting with their backs to each other on benches placed in the middle.

Despite there being an increase of pet services in Johannesburg, the Orange Grove Veterinary Hospital remains the oldest and biggest vets’ hospital in the north-eastern part of Johannesburg, with  customers coming from the inner parts of Johannesburg and others travelling all the way from Pretoria.

How Orange Grove suburb came to existance

Along Louis Botha Avenue in the Orange Grove suburb, two buildings away from the old Victory Theatre at Number 119, is the seemingly forever standing pet hospital where there was once a small house surrounded by restaurants and other residences. The place is now surrounded by shebeens, churches and offices.

“Orange Grove was established in 1902. It was then called Lemoen Plaas [orange farm],” according to the Your Neighbourhood website. The place was known for its orange plantation, hence the name.

The OGVH was established as a veterinary practice in 1947. The practice was part of the Sundown Veterinary Hospital owned by Jack Boswell, one of the first private practitioners in South Africa.

Louis Botha Avenue was considered the main road connecting Johannesburg and Pretoria and all the areas in between. The area was also considered a hub for people from different areas going to work or just coming there to have fun, and this made it a suitable place for this business.

LEFT: Dr David Moore, the co-owner of the Orange Grove Veterinary Hospital and the oldest veterinary doctor at the hospital. Photo: Rose Clemence Shayo.

“When the practice first started, the main population groups here were Italians and Portuguese who settled here in the early 1950s. In those days [Louis Botha Avenue] was the busiest arterial route in the whole of Africa,” said Dr David Moore, the co-owner of OGVH.

Renovation of the Orange Grove Veterinary Hospital

The area is still a hub for migrants, although the races have changed as the area is now occupied by many Africans.

The marketing manager, Candice Segal, arrived for the hospital tour and together we headed downstairs, where most workers spend their time during the first half of the day.

The renovation that took place in 1970, the 1980s and 2006 gave this historical veterinary hospital a modern look. The workplace downstairs is divided into six clean rooms.

These consist of the x-ray room; the theatre and the isolation room for pets with illnesses that have not yet been identified; a parlour with a grooming area, bathing area and pet cages for some of the pets that must sleep in or are left for a period of time; the storage room; and lastly an open area at the middle for ultrasonography (these are images produced during an ultrasound), dental care and preparation for the theatre.

ABOVE: Dr Keith MacWilliams (right) and Vet assistant, Simon Motshabi attend to one of their patients.       Photo: Rose Clemence shayo
BELOW: A sedated dog is covered with tinted foil and a cloth during the sterilization surgery. Photo: Rose Clemence Shayo

Different services offered at the vet

Usually the hospital is packed on Monday mornings and the waiting area becomes tightly occupied as clients begin bringing in their sick pets after the weekend, or coming to consult.

I went into the theatre room with Segal, where Dr Keith MacWilliams was conducting a spaying operation (surgery to sterilise a female dog) with nurse Vanessa Anderson assisting during the process. One rule in the theatre is ‘DO NOT TOUCH ANYTHING’, Segal reminded me.

A warm pad was placed under the dog, which was laying on the surgery table with its stomach facing the roof. A pipe connected to a breathing machine monitored its state during the surgery. Half of its body was covered by gold-tinted foil to keep the dog warm, as I am told temperatures tend to drop during surgery.

In the open area, Dr Lara Frampton was conducting a dental cleaning for a dog that had two lumps on its front-right limb and was to go in for surgery soon after the spay was done.

Upstairs in the waiting room a big cage holds a beautiful green, yellow and lime parrot quietly looking at every person entering the room.

The parrot belongs to a client who is currently on vacation. Whenever the room gets a bit too quiet, the parrot says repeatedly, ‘eema (EE-muh), eema’ – a Hebrew word for “mother”, referring to its owner.

“Is this your parrot?” An old lady asked. “No,” I said as she joined in admiring its beauty.

A client’s parrot is kept at the hospital while its owners are on holiday. 
                      Photo: Rose Clemence Shayo

The transformation

In 1963 Dr Gordon Beverley bought the practice and was later joined by Dr Moore in 1968. Moore and Dr Romberg took over the practice in 1970 after Beverley left. In 1970 the practice was turned into a hospital, which has been growing ever since. The hospital is currently owned by three doctors: Moore, Williams and Romberg.

The veterinary practice not only transformed its ownership, but also its services and technology. In 1970 the practice became a hospital. Although there were no computers then, everything was clearly recorded in books.

“They used to have those old x-ray machines – the ones where you put the plate in water – and now they have computers,” said Johannes Mdzimba.

Mdzimba (56) has been working at the hospital for 38 years, making him the oldest doctor’s assistant after the sudden passing of Michael Mpofu in October from a head tumour. Mpofu had spent 39 years working at the hospital.

Steadily the vets have been able to grow and increase their services. In 2006 the Pampered Pet Parlour started at the hospital as there was a high demand from customers who wanted to groom their pets but had to take them to other places. Gift Nare has been grooming at the parlour since it was started, 13 years ago.

“When you groom a dog for the first time it is difficult: A biting dog cannot look you straight in the eyes. I have been bitten by dogs several times,” Nare said, pointing out a few recent scratches.

Not only do customers enjoy the services, workers also enjoy working there, as Nare explained: “Here they trust us. Where I used to work, they used to follow us everywhere, but here they trust we can do our job properly.”

The hospital has also become an academic hospital for veterinary students.

Niven Pillay, a final-year diploma in veterinary nursing student from the University of Pretoria who was at the hospital for his field work, said he enjoyed the hospital’s ways of operating. He said some of the methods differed from other hospitals he had been to, “from how they endorse animals to the general practice management”.

Orange Grove Veterinary Hospital’s oldest customers tell stories of the hospital located on Louis Botha Avenue. The practice was established in 1947 and changed into a hospital in 1970. Sally Gallagher a customer since 1963 and Greg Bortz whose family has been using the hospital before he was born to tell us of their experiences.

Stories and histories

Sally Gallagher is 80 years old and a full-time employee at Paramount Group (a company dealing with armoured weapons). She told old stories about different experiences she and other people had with the hospital, leaving both of us cracking into laughter.

“My dog had diabetes… We went down to the vet… she ran to the entrance [and] went up straight to the back room where they administer injections. Her tail was wagging and she was perfectly happy. This was in 1985,” Gallagher said, laughing.

One way to keep customers is by providing them with quality service. Gallagher has been a loyal customer of OGVH for the past 56 years. On the other hand, Daniel Forsthofer’s family is the third generation using the same vet his grandparents used.

The hospital has a few memorable cases that still stand today. Apart from the cats, dogs and birds, the famous stripper and snake dancer Glenda Kemp used to take her snakes to the vet in the1970s before going up onto the stage.

“We used to see some snakes belonging to Glenda Kemp, who was a stripper. She used to have pythons, one of them an opus,” said Dr Moore. Segal laughed in the background as she heard the story for the first time.

“We used to have to certify the pythons as healthy because she used to travel to – in those days – Rhodesia, Mozambique and South West Africa.” Dr Moore told the story with a smile on his face while looking at his wristwatch as the clock was ticking.

A patient belonging to one of the hospital’s generational clients Mr. Greg Bortz who has been coming to the vet with his parents since childhood in the 1970s. Photo: Rose Clemence Shayo

The distractions

The avenue is said to have changed a lot compared to how it was between the 1960s and the 1980s. The crime rates are rising day in day out. Moore said there had been two armed robberies at the hospital over the past decade.

“Security was better during apartheid,” he said.

A range of fan animal bones displayed at the hospital revealing health and unhealth knees. Photo: Rose Clemence Shayo

Moore is not the only one who agrees about the rise of crime in the area. There are others who also share the sentiment.

In 2010 “Louis Botha Avenue had begun to deteriorate in that there were people moving out. A lot of people moved out from the houses around it because they did not feel safe or secure,” Gallagher said.

Robyn Cullis is another client who has been with the vet for 10 years now. Cullis got herself a cute and healthy white-haired rescue dog from the vet. Her other dog has skin allergies, which requires her to visit the vet regularly for injections, special food and grooming.

OGVH nurse Vanessa Anderson, who previously worked with the Johannesburg Zoo dealing with wild animals, finds her work here less stressful.

“Here you can get bitten, but you are not dealing with animals that can eat you,” she said.

Anderson said apart from the cats and dogs, the vet sometimes gets budgies, guinea pigs, rabbits and chickens.

Surely Louis Botha Avenue is one of the major historical places in Johannesburg. Seeing most of the places in it having to shut down should be a wake-up call for effort to be put in to ensure that these places are well looked after as a way to preserve the histories associated with the place and to pass the knowledge on to the generations still to come. 

ABOVE: A structure of a dog’s head showing different organs found in the head. Photo: Rose Clemence Shayo
ABOVE: A statue of a dog’s anatomy exposing different parts of the inside of the mammal placed in one of the hospital’s consulting rooms.  Photo: Rose Clemence Shayo

FEATURED IMAGE: An image of a dog playing outside. Photo: Supplied