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Dr. Candace Ashley: The Dog and Cat Whisperer of Anacostia

On any given day, for several hours at a time, one can find a meandering line of dog and cat owners that starts on the front steps of the Animal Clinic of Anacostia and stretches along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue for at least half a block.

For these pet owners, the long, but reasonable, wait is often well worth it, as it culminates in a one-on-one with Dr. Candace Ashley, the only Black veterinarian located east of the Anacostia River and one of the few who has continued to accept walk-in appointments during the coronavirus pandemic.

“People don’t want to wait, but they want to get their animals help,” said Ashley, a Southeast resident of nearly 50 years whose animal clinic at 2210 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave SE has been a consistent presence in the Anacostia community for most of her career.

Unlike her colleagues throughout the D.C. metropolitan region who are booked up to several months, Ashley doesn’t schedule appointments, nor does she leave owners outside during check-ins. Since March, she and three nursing assistants have accepted up to 30 clients per day.

“We see the typical things, mostly pets getting vaccinations updated, ear cleanings, checking out swellings on the body, limping dogs, and elderly dogs that have to be euthanized,” Ashley told The Informer.

“We knew the protocol out there and had to conform to that. Between the veterinary nurse and myself, we know we have to do all the things to sanitize and limit how many people can come in.”

Ashley, a native Philadelphian and Howard alumna, said she pursued veterinary medicine after encountering a Black veterinarian as an adult adolescent. Her passion for animals — and working independently as a business owner — would take her to what was then called Tuskegee Institute where she immersed herself in the discipline.

Upon the completion of her studies, Ashley enjoyed a stint at Norbeck Animal Clinic in Silver Spring before launching a practice of her own on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue in 1979.

For the next 40 years, she would conduct numerous medical checkups on dogs and cats and advise her customers on the best methods of pet care. Ashley also learned to work hard and take extra precautions during a crack-cocaine epidemic that spurred crime across the District.

Despite the obstacles over the years, neither leaving the profession or the Anacostia community ever crossed her mind.

“It was something I was able to do to make a living. This location is convenient [because] you can get to Virginia and Maryland,” said Ashley. “I live here. I’m working most of the time and so much of my energy has gone into this office. People have this notion that it’s easy to work yourself, but it’s more difficult than working for others.”

Since local and state-level officials announced quarantines earlier this year, a significant number of veterinary offices in the D.C. metropolitan area have experienced bookings for up to several months. Throughout the pandemic, not only have a small number of cats and dogs tested positive for COVID-19, but disruptions to daily schedules during the mandatory quarantine period posed the risk of inducing stress and other behavioral changes in pets that are used to spending time outdoors.

Given those circumstances, some pet lovers like Kayla Campbell said they relish the opportunity to see a veterinarian like Ashley who builds long-term relationships with her clients and their dogs and cats.

Campbell, a D.C. resident and owner of two Rottweilers, said she started visiting the Anacostia Animal Clinic last month after another veterinarian prioritized profit over customer service.

“You just come, get what you need, and you’re out,” Campbell told The Informer. “They’ve been great to our dogs, and they’re so excited to see them. I like the way they handle them. Yes, it’s a business but they care about the dogs they’re dealing with. When I first met Dr. Ashley, it was a very personable experience.”

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