Dr. Debbie Leach, who opened My Zoo veterinary hospital this year on the north side of Columbia, has been an animal lover since early childhood. She has helped take care of pet dogs and a parakeet, along with livestock on her extended family’s farm.
“I’ve wanted to do this my whole life,” said Leach, who prefers to be called Dr. Debbie. “I was probably about 8 years old when I started telling everyone I wanted to be a veterinarian,” she said.
Dr. Debbie had to clear more than the typical academic and business hurdles to realize her childhood dream, however.
She put off college to get married and raise two children in northwest Arkansas, where she worked in the computer technology department at the Wal-Mart headquarters.
When her husband died in a traffic accident, Leach realized that she needed a college degree to make enough money to provide for her family.
She began her study of poultry science in the fall of 1989, not even thinking that it would lead to bigger endeavors.
“I was just trying to get a degree to support my children; I was thinking it would be lucky if I even graduated,” Leach said.
Her professors noticed her potential, and her excellent grades, and steered her toward a master’s degree program in poultry genetics, a field Leach found very interesting.
Leach’s local veterinarian in Northwest Arkansas learned of her dream of becoming a veterinarian and encouraged her to take the next step in the highly competitive endeavor. After she was accepted at the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Medicine, Leach, her new husband and their children moved to Columbia.
Leach is originally from St. Louis, and the move allowed her not only to be closer to her family but also to realize something she’d fantasized about since her younger years.
“Mizzou was sort of the ‘brass ring’ I always aimed for as a child,” she said. “Old dreams die hard.”
She graduated in 1998 and spent most of the next two years treating large animals until she began working full time at Noah’s Ark vet clinic, treating small animals.
Dr. Debbie decided in the meantime that she needed to start her own business to match her philosophy on veterinary medicine — that it should be as happy and friendly as possible.
She attended a training session run by the Small Business Development Centers, and it was there that she met Nick Arends, a business development counselor with University of Missouri Extension.
“I didn’t even know what step 1 was to start a business, and it was so nice to talk to him,” Leach said.
Leach wanted to be completely prepared when she began opening loan negotiations with a bank
“Nick helped me develop a detailed business plan and get the numbers to flow,” Leach said. “The bank said yes [to the loan request], but the big hang-up was the purchase of the property.”
Leach picked out a two-acre lot in the north central part of Columbia, along Range Line Street, which was becoming more and more developed.
Unfortunately, problems with the sewage connection stalled the purchasing process. After three different government offices worked out a sewer plan for the area, the plot was removed from the market. However, Leach negotiated with the owners and finally purchased the tract in February 2005. Construction started nine months later. Leach hired a veterinary technician and an office manager and opened the clinic on May 22.
The building is bright and airy, and each patient is greeted enthusiastically. My Zoo features a wall with photos of many animal clients, from the everyday to the exotic. There is even a parakeet, Picasso, who entertains human visitors and undoubtedly taunts the cats.
My Zoo has three exam rooms; diagnostic, operating and recovery areas; and room for expansion. She plans to add three full-time partners over the next 12 years of what she believes will be steady growth.
Leach said that what sets My Zoo apart from other clinics is her dedication to creating a high-energy and pleasant environment for pets and humans alike.
“I try to make it as much like Disneyland as I can,” she said.
Leach makes sure that there are plenty of treats around and is willing to bypass some traditional clinic practices.
“If a patient doesn’t like being up on the table for examinations, they are more than welcome to stay on the floor. I want them to be as comfortable as possible,” she said.
Leach says she keeps the prices reasonable so everyone can afford veterinary services and that she maintains a focus on education because she believes that learning about good pet care is paramount.
“Our slogan at My Zoo is ‘Sharing the Love’ because our animals really do love us unconditionally and we should maintain their heath in return,” she said.
Leach has spent a lifetime practicing what she now preaches.
“My love for animals is so completely natural,” she said. “I can’t imagine not having them in my life.”