The son of a veterinarian, Alan Abrams has been a provocative figure in the veterinary community for much of his adult life.
“I will tell you this, in all of my life, I have never intentionally hurt anybody,” Alan Abrams said, his voice low and raspy. “Now if some things didn’t go the right way for some people, I’m sorry. I did the best I could.”
Abrams spoke with the VIN News Service in response to its Nov. 2 article detailing a litany of complaints against the Dr. Steve Abrams Memorial Foundation — Petsavers Inc. The foundation is named for Alan Abrams’ late father, who was a veterinarian. The son established the organization in 2015 and serves as its CEO.
The foundation is a charity with a stated mission of eliminating economic euthanasia — the killing of pets because their owners can’t afford treatment. The arrangement is supposed to work this way: Veterinary practices make an annual donation of $1,000 to $2,400 to become foundation sponsors. Sponsoring practices apply for grants to cover emergency treatments for pets whose owners cannot afford the care. Veterinarians with approved applications are paid directly by the foundation.
But often, that’s not the reality. During a three-month investigation, VIN News identified 32 practices in 13 states that allege that treatments and surgeries approved by the foundation for 119 animals were never paid for. Veterinarians, practice managers and pet owners reported problems with the foundation to charity watchdogs, the Better Business Bureau, the IRS, local police departments and state attorneys general. (See sidebar, "More negative reports surface.")
Abrams, 56, initially would not speak on the record with VIN News. That changed after the article was published. During three telephone interviews and in several emails, Abrams maintained that the allegations against him and his foundation are either not his fault or illegitimate. Grievances against him predate the foundation's existence. Abrams reportedly swindled dozens of veterinarians while working as a practice consultant in the 1990s and 2000s. With decades' worth of allegations collected and publicized by VIN News, the charity's elusive frontman agreed to share his side of the story.
He attributes the problems to a series of unfair breaks, contentious relationships and the failings of others, namely: the long shadow of an undeserved conviction in 1993 for practicing veterinary medicine without a license; an unfounded article in the Jewish Journal 2012; a personal vendetta by Dr. Paul Pion, co-founder of the Veterinary Information Network, an online community for the profession to which Abrams once belonged; and the greed of veterinarians.
Where many people see a con artist with a golden tongue, Abrams' self-portrait is of someone fighting poor health and serial misfortune while trying to carry on his father's legacy. His biography is the platform upon which Abrams' charity is built — in particular, the inspiration of his father, who said he would never euthanize a pet because the owner could not afford treatment; and a personal spiritual awakening born of his own repeated medical crises.
From illness to vocation
As Abrams tells it, the seeds of his sense of mission were planted in 2002, when he became sick shortly after moving with his wife and children from Florida to Arizona. He said a series of medical issues ultimately required the removal of part of his colon and large intestine in March 2003. The surgery went poorly and he had a severe reaction to the anesthesia.
“The surgery was on a Friday, and … I woke up on the following Wednesday night,” he recounted. When he regained consciousness, he had developed shortness of breath that was diagnosed a year later as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In 2004, he said, a pulmonologist gave him a 5 percent chance of surviving five years.
Abrams said he was prescribed high doses of prednisone and ballooned up to 340 pounds. By September 2007, he went “into total system failure” and ended up in hospice on a ventilator. After his family arrived, he was taken off life-support. And then, “Somehow, by the grace of God, I woke up,” he said.
“I can tell you. When I got this prognosis back in 2004, I made a very strict decision to do everything in my power … to do nothing but give back,” he said. “I didn’t have to have a big house. I didn’t have to drive a Lexus or whatever I had at the time. I didn’t need any of it. All I wanted to do was give back.”
He said he began rabbinical school in 2004, was ordained after the near-death experience and began ministering to patients receiving palliative care. His father, the veterinarian, died in 2008. Seven years later, Abrams established the charitable foundation for animals in his father's name.
The same health struggles that inspired his spirituality and desire to help others have served also as an explanation for problems at the foundation, including delayed payments and misplaced records. When pet owners or veterinarians complain about not getting paid or contradictory excuses he's made, Abrams replies that he is doing the best he can by working nonstop despite his “terminal illness.”
He raised a similar theme of being driven to death when pressed for information by VIN News. “[The stress] will most certainly cause my disease process to progress with more speed and rigor, causing a vastly greater result in premature death,” he warned by email.
A turning point
Abrams’ work in palliative care came under public scrutiny in 2012, when a cover story in the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal questioned his credentials as a rabbi and reported allegations that he stole from a nursing home resident and may have pressured patients in hospice to pay him for chaplaincy services.
The article reports that a half-dozen rabbis questioned Abrams’ right to call himself a rabbi. VIN News was unable to independently verify Abrams' ordination.
Among the most serious allegations in the Jewish Journal story is that Abrams stole a woman’s wheelchair and Social Security checks. Abrams denies the charges. Rather, he said, the woman’s son tried to “extort” from him money and information about his mother’s banking records. He provided to VIN News copies of a series of angry emails from the son vowing revenge, but none explicitly demonstrates attempted extortion.
Abrams said the Jewish Journal story has done lasting damage to his reputation, being used to discredit him with prospective foundation sponsors, employers and others. Veterinarians seeking overdue payments from the foundation told VIN News that seeing the article, which appears readily in a Google search, caused them to lose hope that they would ever be paid.
Abrams asserts that the article has made him sicker. “It caused my condition to get so bad because of the stress that it caused me … that I was hospitalized 13 times, and in one of those hospitalizations, I had a stroke,” Abrams said. “You know, the Jewish thing to do is to take the damn article down already. Even Moses’s wife, who spoke badly of his sister and got leprosy, was only banished for a week.”
While no charges were filed in the nursing-home case described in the article, Abrams has felony and misdemeanor convictions on his record. In 1984, when he was in his 20s, he was charged with grand theft and sentenced to probation after trying to buy a $26,000 Porsche in Florida with a worthless check. He violated the probation in Texas two years later, when he paid $15,000 for an Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme from a closed account.
In 1993, Abrams was found guilty in California of four misdemeanor counts of practicing veterinary medicine without a license at his father’s clinic in Chatsworth, a city near Los Angeles. According to the Superior Court of California docket for the case, Abrams was sentenced to 180 days in county jail, less five days served, and denied home detention. Abrams recounts the incident differently: He says he pleaded no contest to two counts and was not incarcerated but paid his penalty by washing police cars for 100 days. VIN News was unable to resolve the discrepancy, as the court no longer has records of the 24-year-old case.
Abrams maintains that he never practiced veterinary medicine and has never claimed to be a veterinarian. He explains the 1993 case as the result of a soured business deal. The problem, he says, started when his father purchased a clinic from another veterinarian, Dr. Alan Epstein, in 1992. Soon after, the Abramses claimed Epstein violated the terms of the sale. They stopped making payments and filed a lawsuit.
The case went to binding arbitration, where they won a substantial reduction of the purchase price, Abrams said.
“It was at that point that Epstein contacted our staff, who we had kept in place for continuity’s sake,” Abrams said, “and paid each of them to go to the state of California and tell them that I was the one practicing and hiding behind my dad’s license.”
Abrams said he was charged based on the false statements. His attorneys told him it would cost $50,000 in legal fees and take three years to beat the charge, he said, and that his father’s license would be suspended during that time.
“So, I fell on my sword to protect my father,” he said, “and pled no contest.”
At the time, the Los Angeles Times reported that prosecutors alleged “it appeared to be ‘a common practice’ in the clinic for the son to present himself as a veterinarian.” In one case, they said, he performed surgery on a cat that had been brought to the clinic to be euthanized.
Epstein, who is now retired, confirmed that the Abramses sued over the purchase terms and won a sizable reduction in the price. But he denies that he instigated former employees to take action against their new boss. “I never paid them anything to say anything about Alan Abrams,” Epstein said.
However, he doesn't doubt the reports that Abrams posed as a veterinarian. Epstein said Abrams claimed he attended veterinary school at the University of Florida.
Soon after Abrams' conviction, he went on to work with and among licensed veterinarians as a practice consultant. That work was an apparent violation of his three-year probation, which specified that he was not to be "employed by, or act in conjunction with, in any capacity, a business engaged in the animal health care field, including but not limited to veterinary clinics, hospitals, animal shelters, zoos or rehabilitation centers." However, VIN News found no record that Abrams was found in violation of probation.
In his work at the charitable foundation, Abrams has continued to present himself as a veterinarian, according to accounts by two veterinarians and a practice manager. Further, his LinkedIn profile lists a BVSc degree from the University of Florida, and he claimed to have a BVSc when he applied to rejoin the VIN in 2015. (His application was denied.) A BVSc is a veterinary medicine degree given by institutions in the United Kingdom and other locations outside of the United States.
According to the University of Florida registrar, the university has never conferred a BVSc. DegreeVerify for the University of Florida was unable to confirm Abrams attended, as he claims, from 1979 to 1983. Abrams’ sisters — Tami Loew and Debra Ozolnieks, with whom he has a contentious relationship — told VIN News that they believe his postsecondary education consists of no more than one semester of community college.
Asked about these contradictions, Abrams said his degree was “basically a BS with a veterinary science subspecialty.” He said he has a University of Florida diploma listing the degree but did not know where the document is located.
Role of VIN and veterinarians
One reason the Abrams charitable foundation has struggled, Abrams contends, is that the Jewish Journal and Los Angeles Times stories repeatedly are shared on private message boards on VIN. (VIN is the parent organization of VIN News.)
“I think this whole thing is a smear campaign and Paul Pion is behind all of it,” Abrams said, speaking of VIN’s co-founder and president. “Paul Pion contacted me shortly after we started this foundation, and he told me that he would make it his life’s work to see to it that this foundation fails.” Pion disputes this characterization but has voiced concerns about the foundation and Abrams’ history.
In addition to reposts of news stories about Abrams, there are at least two dozen separate complaints about him on VIN message boards from former consulting clients. They claim he overcharged them, set them up in costly and phony equipment leases, uploaded pirated software on their computers and more, causing financial and emotional hardship.
“The reason that I have not been able to bring more veterinarians onboard is because that is on VIN,” Abrams said. “[They] spew hate. Not even knowing or caring that I’m trying to save pets’ lives, with terminal lung disease and taking calls to help people at 3 o’clock in the morning. Nobody cares about that."
He continued: “The whole nature of this foundation, a lot of people are missing or not paying attention to or whatever. We’ve saved 818 animals, of which probably 95 percent or more would have been euthanized or if not euthanized, they would have gotten lesser of a treatment with no diagnosis. I feel very, very good about that. That’s how we give back.”
As to the unpaid veterinarians and frustrated pet owners, Abrams said he never intended to hurt anybody. “The only intent here has ever been to save animals from economic euthanasia,” he said. “And the bottom line really is, really is that if … companion animal veterinarians were to work like my dad did, and were completely to eliminate economic euthanasia as a treatment … nobody would need us or anybody like us.”
Abrams complained that veterinarians overcharged his foundation and added steep markups on procedures. “It’s not going to break you,” he said. “And they know it but most of them are too flippin’ greedy. And that’s sad. Somebody should become a veterinarian because they’ve got the compassion ...”
Though Abrams readily criticizes veterinarians as too willing to accept euthanasia as an economic option, he said he intends to continue to build the foundation in partnership with them. Abrams said he has a new team, plans for sorting out overbilling, and a cash infusion likely by the end of the year.
“We have got every intention of getting this made right,” Abrams said. “But it’s very, very difficult when articles like this one that just came out, that you wrote, gets published.”
If and when personnel and back payments are sorted out, Abrams added, “It is very, very highly probable that I will leave the foundation.”
Why? “Because of the stress," he said. "It’s making me more sick.”
VIN News Service commentaries are opinion pieces presenting insights, personal experiences and/or perspectives on topical issues by members of the veterinary community. To submit a commentary for consideration, email firstname.lastname@example.org.