Fighting the cyberbully

How harassment can affect your practice
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The 19th of June started out like any other typical Thursday for Dr. Jennifer Eachus as she got ready for work, that is, until she received the email that sent her life—and practice—spiraling into a waking nightmare.

In June, when Bella the cat was adopted from Dr. Eachus’ Cat Clinic of Cary, North Carolina, the veterinarian had been happy that Bella had found a loving home. The adopter had been referred by a former Cat Clinic employee who had previously worked at another clinic where the adopter was a client.

But two days later, the adopter brought Bella back, claiming the cat had a severe ear infection that had been diagnosed by a veterinarian at another clinic. She asked for a refund of the adoption fee but said she intended to keep the cat.

On the basis of an examination she had performed before adopting the cat out to its new owner and a re-examination after the ear infection claim, Dr. Eachus determined that there was no infection and that there were no traces of bacteria in Bella’s ear. When Dr. Eachus’ offer to refund the adoption fee and take Bella back was refused, the veterinarian was faced with a hard choice. She felt it was imprudent to return Bella to the owner, worrying that the owner had been untruthful about the diagnosis of an ear infection and was trying to obtain the cat at no charge.

“She wanted the cat and the money, and she was going to go out the door angry. I opted to make sure Bella was safe,” Dr. Eachus said. “The only way I could do that is make sure she stayed with us.”

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It was then that the adopter took to social media. With dozens of phone calls, harassing emails, and social media pages springing up against her, Dr. Eachus knew she had stumbled into something a lot worse than anything she had dealt with before—she was now a victim of cyberbullying.

Living in fear

Cyberbullying, also known as cyberharassment, is the use of email, instant messaging, and derogatory websites to bully or otherwise harass an individual or group through personal attacks, according to U.S. Legal Definitions. Cyberbullying can also be used to threaten, embarrass, or frighten, and can even result in physical harm to its victims.

Department of Justice statistics reveal that some 850,000 adults, most of them female, are targets of the practice each year. Cyberbullying has been shown to make victims feel sad, hopeless, or depressed, according to an article published in May 2007 in Developmental Psychology.

Cyberbullies can also harm a business’s reputation. In Dr. Eachus’ case, the threats posted online continued to escalate, eventually resulting in a person posting her home address online.

“I was getting threats on Facebook. People were recommending that (the bully) hold an AK-47 to my head,” Dr. Eachus said. “We were on a hiring freeze. We were afraid to advertise for jobs that were open. We were afraid to bring in anybody that we didn’t know. I couldn’t trust anybody at the Cat Clinic. We were short-staffed for a very long time before we were comfortable hiring anybody. Even though no one showed up to our house, I was terrified to leave my (12) cats ... out in the general living area of my house.”

Dr. Kimberly May, director of professional and public affairs in the AVMA Communications Division, is largely responsible for AVMA’s social media presence. She said cyberbullying is a trend on the rise, given what she’s seen and heard from veterinarians who have reached out to her or whose experiences she’s read about. Over the past year, she’s talked to about 10 clinics that have experienced incidents and, through the grapevine, has heard of another five to 10 with similar stories.

She attributes the perceived rise in cyberbullying to the increasing popularity of social media, which, because of the anonymity they afford, give individuals “the ability to lash out from behind a keyboard instead of facing the person against whom they’re making the allegations or accusations.”

In many cases, Dr. May says, cyberbullying of a veterinarian starts with a client who posts his or her side of a real or perceived grievance against the veterinarian online and makes a plea for justice. From there, things tend to take on a life all their own.

“(Readers) get upset and don’t stop to think there’s another side to this story, and they just jump on the veterinarian. It’s an Internet lynch mob mentality,” Dr. May said. “They’re getting stories and events that have really no impact on their lives, and it’s like you insulted their grandma. And when you throw in a pet, any threat or perceived threat to them, people get their ire up quickly. That’s why I think veterinarians are at a higher risk (for cyberbullying) than other professions.”

Extreme cases

A more extreme case of cyberbullying of a veterinarian happened earlier this year and involved Dr. Shirley Koshi, the late owner of Gentle Hands Veterinary Clinic in New York City.

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She committed suicide this past February at age 55 following a cyberbullying campaign led by a group called The Veterinary Abuse Network.

According to news reports, Dr. Koshi’s Bronx clinic, which opened in July 2013, took in a stray cat named Karl a month later. But Gwen Jurmark had fed Karl and other cats that lived in a nearby park, and she sued the veterinarian that October to get Karl back. That was followed by a demonstration outside Gentle Hands led by Jurmark and online attacks against Dr. Koshi, according to reports. A clinic worker said the lawsuit, online attacks against the veterinarian, and financial problems “drove (Dr. Koshi) over the edge.”

Dr. Colleen Currigan of the Cat Hospital of Chicago was another victim of cyberbullying, this time caused by a documentary called “The Paw Project,” which focuses on declawing and casts a negative light on the veterinary profession and allied organizations for not supporting declaw bans. According to Dr. Currigan, who says her practice strongly opposes declawing as a means of addressing normal feline behavior, an unsettling aspect was that the threatening phone calls, hurtful emails, and rude Facebook posts weren’t aimed just at her—they affected all the employees at her practice. Even worse, they were criticizing her practice for mistaken reasons.

“It’s hard to be accused of things that are really not true. Veterinarians do so much ... we deeply care about the welfare and the lives of our patients, and we never consider doing something that’s cruel or inhumane, (so) it’s difficult to be accused of that,” Dr. Currigan said.

“It’s kind of hard to take the high road when you’ve been accused of something that’s just the antithesis of your whole being and your focus and efforts regarding declawing throughout your career.”

Ultimately, Dr. Currigan did not respond directly to the critics, but instead provided additional information regarding declawing and the hospital’s position on the procedure in cats on its website.

Standing up to bullying

Nowadays, avoiding cyberbullies is becoming harder and harder, particularly following the creation of websites such as The Veterinary Abuse Network; Ripoff Report, an anonymous review site; and Regret A Vet, an inflammatory site dedicated to targeting veterinarians.

According to Dr. Eachus, cyberbully attacks are often centered on the profession because it is unique and because of the radical nature of some individuals in the pet-owning community.

“It is going to happen to (more veterinarians). It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” Dr. Eachus said. “I think it’s because we’re such a different profession ourselves. We wear our hearts on our sleeves. We are very compassionate. Most of us are truly about the pets and put the pets’ needs first and are their advocate.”

According to Dr. Currigan, veterinarians need to stand their ground.

“Stand tall, stand up for what you believe in. I don’t think it’s appropriate to go on the offensive or to be terribly defensive,” Dr. Currigan advised. “Just be who you are.”

Resources to combat an attack

Enlisting the help of a crisis management company is essential, as Dr. Eachus learned from AVMA staff member Dr. May, who reached out to Dr. Eachus after learning of her plight.

Often when Dr. May hears about a cyberbullying incident, she’ll call the clinic to offer basic advice for handling it. In Dr. Eachus’ case, she recommended Jonathan Bernstein, from Bernstein Crisis Management, who says he is no stranger to cyberbullies in the professional world.

I was getting threats on Facebook. People were recommending that (the bully) hold an AK-47 to my head.

Dr. Jennifer Eachus, owner, Cat Clinic of Cary, North Carolina

“There have always been bullies, and the Internet has simply given bullies a new method of doing what they do. The court of law operates very slowly; the court of opinion operates instantaneously. A full day on the Internet is eons in real life,” Bernstein said. “So much damage can occur in a 24-hour period that the necessity for really rapid response is critical.”

According to Bernstein, shutting down social media pages may only create more problems for the business. Even after the wave of attacks is over, lingering reviews and posts can show up in online searches and continue to damage a clinic’s reputation months down the road.

“The asset of any organization is its reputation. If your reputation is being damaged, then you’re going to lose the ability to operate, and certainly for any business, that’s the worst thing that can happen,” Bernstein says.

For Dr. Eachus, the worst part about dealing with cyberbullying has been the finances sacrificed for damage control and the loss of some clients.

“It’s been financially draining. It’s money that we don’t have,” Dr. Eachus said. “You’re caught between a rock and a hard place. You can almost bankrupt yourself trying to save your reputation.”

Reporting cyberbullying to one’s local or state VMA could help other victims by letting them know they are not alone and by building a veterinary database. Or suggesting that a client file a complaint with the state veterinary medical board—assuming the veterinarian has done due diligence—could head off a civil lawsuit, Dr. May said. A veterinarian who receives a substantial threat would be well-advised to contact the police, she added.

The AVMA is developing a survey to assess the severity and scope of cyberbullying across the profession, and the results may drive further efforts in policymaking related to cyberbullying in the profession. The survey form was anticipated to go out by the end of November.

Creating a climate that averts bullying

The best method to avoid cyberbullying is to communicate with one’s clients and the community, Bernstein says.

“It’s really critical to neither overreact nor underreact. Those two errors ... are the most common mistakes made,” Bernstein says. “Really clear customer communication and customer service (are) at the front lines of crisis prevention, whether (veterinarians) realize it or not. Be proactive. Create a cushion of goodwill.”

Dr. May often tells cyberbullied practitioners that “this, too, shall pass.”

“It’s a double-edged sword with social media. Things explode fast, but people move on to something else to get upset about,” she said, “that is, unless the veterinarian does something to stoke the fire.”

Veterinarians would do well to address just the facts and not get pulled into personal arguments. Any message put out should show compassion and focus on doing what’s best for the animals, she said. “The hard part is not taking it personally and lashing back because that will stoke the fire. Being as transparent as you can be about the situation is good,” Dr. May advised.

To help avoid cyberbullying in the first place, she recommends keeping tabs on what people are saying about the clinic. That could entail contracting with a reputation management company or simply setting up Google alerts for the clinic’s name and doctors’ names. Monitoring any social media accounts as well as what people are saying on business review sites such as Yelp can help, too.

“That way, you can respond to it quickly and can handle it right away before it gets huge,” Dr. May said.

Reedhima Mandlik is a third-year journalism and psychology major at Northwestern University and was a 2014 summer intern with JAVMA News.

Some websites, such as this one, are readily available for those who think they are being cyberbullied or are under the stress of being harassed. Cyberbullying can intensify depression and trigger suicidal thoughts in individuals already suffering from them. One resource to go to is the National Institutes of Health website. This site offers in-depth resources for those experiencing these thoughts.