(This 698th column was first published in the August 15, 2004 issue of The Buffalo Sunday News.)
I have always held veterinarians in high regard and, when some years ago my wife and I read to each other James Herriott's books, that respect was reinforced. I am now again captivated by television reruns of All Creatures Great and Small so I have long wanted to spend time with one of these animal doctors.
My chance came with a phone call from Carl Eisenhard to tell me about a heron rookery along the edge of Cattaraugus Creek just south of Springville. In our conversation it turned out that Carl and I had several connections: among them I had taught his older brother in Warsaw and his wife in Greece. He's also related to Jerry Czech, the outstanding Rochester bird artist.
But best of all, Carl is a doctor of veterinary medicine and he responded to my plea by inviting me to spend a day with him at his small animal hospital. I jumped at the chance.
I was quite unprepared for the quality of care given to the animals treated in the Springville Animal Hospital, which Carl informed me was one of three such clinics in that town alone. Together we watched Carl's colleague, Dr. Barbara Dworak, perform two of the many kinds of surgical procedures they offer. The sterile conditions and the care given the animals compared favorably with what I have experienced in the wards of navy and civilian hospitals.
Carl also introduced me to Dr. Joseph Tashjian, whose Springville Veterinary Services practice is with large animals. I spent another day with this vet, known to his many clients and colleagues as Dr. Joe.
When he agreed to have me tag along, he warned me that I would see the rear end of many animals and indeed I did. The picture I will always carry of Dr. Tashjian is with his gloved left arm up almost to his shoulder in the rectum of a big cow or horse, his right hand holding an ultrasound picturing the its innards. Each animal accepted this invasion philosophically, scarcely responding with a tail switch. The kicks I expected were never forthcoming.
We spent the morning with cows, the afternoon with horses. Other species - sheep, goats, deer, even llamas - constitute only about one percent of Joe's practice.
Gone from the cow barns were the antiseptic conditions of the small animal hospital. Here were urine showers and heavy plops accompanied by rich smells. Despite this, I could see that these barns were regularly cleaned and the animals well treated. And of course Joe displayed exceptional care to maintain clinical sterility in his own work.
There were hundreds of cows on each of the farms we visited. That's about average Joe said but he told me that he visits one farm where a thousand are milked daily. Cows bear numbered identification tags in their ears and Joe was checking designated individuals to see if they were pregnant.
I asked Kelly Chase, who was helping her dad with record keeping, if they knew any of the big Holsteins by anything but number. "Oh, yes, many of them," she said. "For example, that one we call 'Pony' because she tries to jump over stable walls." Kelly also named for me her attractive, tan and strangely deer-like Jersey cows that she was preparing for the Chautauqua County Fair.
The world of horses is very different. Although we visited both small and large operations, I would class all of these animals as pets: very valuable and beautiful pets at that.
Here Dr. Joe showed his versatility. His truck serves as a traveling clinic with medicines and instruments, even including a microscope and a portable x-ray. He addressed a variety of conditions, from bug bites and a dental problem to careful examination of an expensive quarter horse for sale and even an extraordinarily delicate embryo transplant from an Arabian horse to another mare.
Needless to say, I was most impressed with each of these veterinarians. They are just as caring as those of Herriott's stories.
But I also found myself taken with the animal owners and most of all with the dairymen and women. Joe and I talked about this as we drove from farm to farm. "We think of small animal owners as especially caring for their pets, but these dairy owners care as well," he told me. "For example, Phil Pagett hates see a single one of his scores of cows ill, often asking for treatment knowing full well that it is uneconomical."
Sadly, we're losing these dairy farms as costs rise, the low price of milk punishes their owners, and children leave for less demanding and better paying work. I have tremendous admiration for those men and women who fight these trends and continue to serve the rest of us so very well.