Laurie McKinney has taken care of animals her entire life. Whether tending to sheep and steers on her family’s farm in rural New Jersey, working with celebrity pets in Studio City or running her own practice in Half Moon Bay, the longtime veterinarian has had a career as diverse as the creatures she’s treated.
But on Nov. 26, McKinney will hang up her stethoscope after 32 years of service.
“Bittersweet is the best description for it,” she said. “There’s a part of me that’s absolutely delighted; there’s a part of me that’s terrified; and there’s a part of me that’s profoundly sad.”
McKinney has taken care of Coastsiders and their critters at her veterinary practice — Half Moon Bay Animal Hospital, recently redubbed the VCA Half Moon Bay Animal Hospital — for the past 22 years. In that time, she’s seen the practice expand from a one- to a three-room clinic.
“Half Moon Bay has been a wonderful place to practice, because we’ve got wonderful people,” she said. “There’s an inherent small-town approach to life that makes it tricky sometimes, but you’re also going to be running into these people in the grocery store.
“You want to be sure that you’ve done the best in that situation,” she added.
McKinney is a native of New Jersey, where she grew up surrounded by animals on her parents’ 60-acre farm. Her passion for animals and science, as well as a robust work ethic, took hold early on.
“My parents, who both survived the Great Depression, made it quite clear that one should have a career and not just find jobs,” she said. “I loved biology. And animal medicine was kind of the nexus of biology, animals and a steady job.”
McKinney attended Stephens College in Missouri, where she contemplated other areas of interest, including human medicine. She then went on to California State University, Long Beach, to study marine biology.
“But I kept coming back to not just the pleasure of, but also the practicality, of veterinary medicine as a career,” said McKinney.
After graduating from the University of California, Davis, School of Veterinary Medicine in 1986, McKinney began her career at a small animal practice in Lancaster, Calif. Over time, she learned the value of pattern recognition in her work.
“You just get better at looking at a situation, hearing the history and having an idea of what’s going on with the animal.”
But McKinney was also struck by the frequently fraught nature of delivering bad news to her clients.
“The emotional toll of having men with families breaking down in tears, in my office, nothing prepared me for that,” she said.
After working in Canyon Country, a community outside of Los Angeles, McKinney went on to a much larger veterinary hospital in Studio City — just over the hill from the bustle of Hollywood.
“I was a dog doctor to the stars,” she laughed. “I had the dubious honor of spaying some Playboy bunnies; they actually keep rabbits on the Playboy (Mansion) and we would spay them.
“I also got to work with the current incarnation of Lassie,” McKinney continued. “We had a few celebrities that would come in. It was kind of cool to be working on William Shatner’s dog or Bonnie Wright’s cat. It was just an extra little thrill.”
McKinney then moved north to a veterinary hospital in Pacifica. She worked in general practice while her employer, a specialist, worked in radiation oncology to treat cancer in animals.
In 1996, McKinney was able to open her own practice in Half Moon Bay. She said that the small-town atmosphere made it an ideal place to set up her shop.
“I was coming into a situation where my predecessor was much beloved, and I was going to have to prove myself,” she said. “Fortunately, the town was very welcoming and I was able to get an associate working for me right from the get-go.”
Over the course of two decades in Half Moon Bay, McKinney has developed her own reputation for providing compassionate, community-oriented care.
“She’s been the veterinarian of the whole Coastside, as far as I’m concerned,” said Becky Clark, a veterinary technician at VCA Half Moon Bay Animal Hospital. “Everybody wants to see her. She’s a fantastic diagnostician and her skills are remarkable.
“She has a very down-to-earth manner, both with the pets and with the owners,” she added. “It’s comforting to be able to bring your animal to see her.”
Stella Johnson, who has been taking her dog to see McKinney since she was a puppy, echoed Clark’s remarks.
“No dogs like going to the vet,” she said. “My dog shakes going into the front door. But I know that Laurie loves animals — that’s why she’s a great veterinarian. It’s a big loss to the community that she’s (retiring).”