Picture Animal Kingdom in a strip mall and you’ll get a good idea of what goes on at the Laurel Road Veterinary Clinic.
On a recent day, the patients included a ferret with a high fever, a baby scarlet macaw with bowel trouble, 17 dogs, two chinchillas and a five-and-a-half pound thrashing gator with a bleeding stump where her hind paw used to be.
“It’s been a long day,” says veterinarian Don Swerida, known as “Dr. Don” to his clients. He cleans and stitches the sedated but conscious gator, who was bitten by another gator and is now named “Peg” by his staff. A duct-taped snout is the only thing keeping Peg from having Swerida’s arm for dinner.
“It’s an unpredictable, challenging, fun job,” says Swerida, 55, who works with another vet, Dr. Mike Herrington, and a handful of technicians, including his adult son, Ben.
Swerida has been caring for Southwest Florida’s wild and domestic animals for about 26 years, mostly making house calls in his Dr. Don’s Mobile Vet. But last year, like an aging rock star, Swerida decided to cut back on the road trips and put down roots. His first brick-and-mortar clinic opened in the new Plaza Venezia last year.
Every day is an adventure. Swerida saves pelicans with hooks in their gullets, bobcats hit by cars and whatever animal the Venice Wildlife Center “ambulance” brings to his door. He also volunteers for the Animal Rescue Coalition feral cat spay-and-neuter program. “I haven’t figured out how to charge Mother Nature,” says Swerida.
A bear of a man with a gray ponytail and a handlebar moustache, Swerida wears a uniform of khaki pants and a bright floral or animal-print shirt. A marginal student in high school, he joined the Navy and became a medical tech. He quickly realized he preferred critters to people. He eventually graduated from Ohio University Veterinary School and in 1995, started the mobile clinic in Venice. Many clients recall Dr. Don meeting them on the side of the road late at night for an emergency visit. “My branch office is a RaceTrac [gas station],” he jokes.
One of those clients, Lynn Collette, once drove to the Jetties, where Swerida was fishing with his son, with her diabetic Schnauzer. “He didn’t want her to sit in pain over the weekend. He’s just an awesome vet,” says Collette.
Even though it doesn’t make much business sense now that he has his own clinic, Swerida still maintains his on-the-road practice, for which he charges a flat extra $10 over office visits, whether the client is in Nokomis or North Port.
Some pets, such as Nestle, Swerida’s beloved Boston terrier “Rastafarian,” so named for his wild lion mane, and the office bird, Buddy, came to Dr. Don with their owners and never left. “I got my animal fix taken care of,” Swerida says.
This osprey Swerida treated now resides in the Wildlife Center of Venice’s aviary while it heals.