Heartland SPCA must give up its name, judge decides

When two beloved animal welfare agencies merged in June they spent $200,000 to brand their new name — Heartland SPCA — in the minds of Kansas Citians.

Only problem?

The Heartland Animal Clinic in downtown Overland Park, which had claimed the name for its veterinary clinic 16 years ago and didn’t want to relinquish it. On Monday a judge’s order took effect forbidding Heartland SPCA, a nonprofit that includes the former Animal Haven shelter and No More Homeless Pets KC vet clinic, from using the word Heartland to market its low-cost veterinary services.

The nonprofit promises to fight the decision to recoup costs associated with changing the name and a TV and radio blitz last year.

Although Heartland Animal Clinic has emerged as the legal winner thus far, the backlash from Kansas City’s animal rescue community and nonprofit customers was swift and severe.

Heartland Animal Clinic office manager Lori Ochoa said they were blindsided by the negative response.

“We are a small business with nine employees that struggles to offer quality veterinary care at a reasonable price and stay in business who wins a lawsuit against a large (nonprofit) that took a name without asking,” said Ochoa, who spoke as a representative of the private clinic’s owner and veterinarian Jill Sandler.

Heartland SPCA CEO Courtney Thomas said she offered to buy the name from Sandler but was turned down.

“I find it unfortunate that we weren’t able to compromise on this matter and that any time, period, is being taken away from focusing on our mission to save, protect and improve the lives of animals,” Thomas said.

Ochoa said the business, which operates on a $6,000 marketing budget, has been vilified.

“In all respect, nobody, especially a small animal hospital like ourselves with nine employees, wants to sue an animal shelter,” Ochoa said. “(Heartland SPCA) is making it look like we’re taking away money from kittens and puppies and that is not the case.”

But Heartland Animal Clinic showed its might Monday.

That’s when Thomas said the private clinic slapped her agency with a motion of contempt because the sign for Heartland SPCA was not properly covered.

“Dr. Sandler is asking for $5,000 per day that we are in contempt,” Thomas said.Each side said lawyers advised them differently about the timing of when the sign should have been covered. Now a judge must decide the exact hour it should have happened.

“They’re taking it to the extreme,” Thomas said.

Ochoa said that the facts are clear.

“Dr. Sandler, and this is most important, did her homework and looked around to make sure there was no other Heartland Animal Clinic,” Ochoa said. “Courtney Thomas who is the CEO did not do her homework.”

Thomas said her agency did not know about the other clinic. But even if agency officials had known, she said, they wouldn’t have immediately flagged it as a problem because the nonprofit is identified as part of SPCA, which stands for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

The two organizations, she believes, are also different because the Heartland Animal Clinic is solely a veterinary clinic while Heartland SPCA operates a lost pet and stray shelter, veterinary clinic and more.

“We have 11 other community programs that we provide so to us the delineator in our name, SPCA, is the most important part of our name,” she said.

Thomas points out the name Heartland is generically applied to many businesses.

“There are hundreds of businesses in the Kansas City community with the name Heartland,” she said.

Ochoa said the comparison isn’t fair.

“I do not receive phone calls for Heartland Plumbing,” she said.

Ochoa said it’s disappointing that the matter escalated to this level.

“In the veterinary community we just don’t do that to each other,” Ochoa said. “It’s ugly.”

Thomas said Heartland SPCA has little choice but to change the organization’s name as soon as possible. Operating with a temporary name would only confuse customers and donors. However, it will pursue the matter in hopes of recouping the rebranding costs. Donations will not be compromised, she said, because a family has agreed to pay the legal fees.

Thomas said the agency spent more than $200,000 to conduct a TV and radio advertising blitz, buy uniforms and align all of its products and materials with the new name. The veterinary clinic last year served about 18,000 animals. Thomas said the clinic is not intended to compete with private veterinarians because owners must qualify for services based on income guidelines.

She said the clinic is scrambling to come up with a suitable name. It has appealed to the agency’s Facebook friends to vote on a new name. It will narrow the list by the end of the week.