© 2023 MJH Life Sciences™ and dvm360 | Veterinary News, Veterinarian Insights, Medicine, Pet Care. All rights reserved.
Five veterinary careers on the fringe
Many great philosophers have noted that we find ourselves by doing, by allowing one path to lead to the next.
Many great philosophers have noted that we find ourselves by doing, by allowing one path to lead to the next.
The following five veterinarians seem to be living proof that the path one embarks on often reveals little about the final destination. For example, some of them began in traditional large-animal practices, but an experience — perhaps with a deer or a black leopard — led them to consider professional options they never dreamed of while in veterinary school.
While these DVMs focus on everything from parrots to molecular biology, each case reveals experiences and rewards that can come from learning on the job.
James and Linda Peddie, DVMs
JOB TITLE: Retired film veterinarians; now working as elephant specialists.
EDUCATION: Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine.
SALARY RANGE: $35,000 to $45,000, plus expenses, per major film.
WHAT THEY DO: After meeting in veterinary school, they developed a personal and professional relationship that led them to a develop a new practice, Drs. Peddie, catering to animals working in the film industry. They tended to the wolves in Dances with Wolves and the dogs and birds in 101 Dalmations, among a slew of others. Such a job required that they be familiar with the needs of a considerable range of species — from dogs and cats to primates, reptiles and birds.
Now that they've retired from film work, they concentrate their efforts on caring for the Asian elephants of Have Trunks Will Travel in Perris, Calif., a privately owned and operated herd of seven elephants that have appeared in a number of films and often are recruited as "guests" at Hollywood parties and weddings. Recently, the couple helped develop a trunk wash as a technique to properly diagnose tuberculosis in elephants. They also assisted the Johnson family, who owns the herd, in developing a way of observing the cycles of female elephants in order to use artificial-insemination techniques.
BEST THING ABOUT THE JOB: About their work as vets to celebrity animals, James Peddie says: "It requires a vet to have a pretty wide background to jump around from species to species. Most of the animals (in the films) are privately owned, and when you're called out on a job, you just go down the line — alligators, hawks, carnivores, herbivores, monkeys. And a lot of this requires that you shift gears very quickly. Every day was completely different from the one before it."
Jack Rhyan, DVM
JOB TITLE: Senior staff veterinarian for the National Center for Animal Health Project for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).
EDUCATION: DVM and a master's in public health from Auburn University.
SALARY RANGE: $65,000 to $115,000 (depends on locale and number of years in service).
WHAT HE DOES: At the National Wildlife Research Center in Fort Collins, Colo., Rhyan concentrates on interface diseases between wildlife and domestic animals. He is involved in research and development work on diseases like tuberculosis and brucellosis and creating the tools and vaccinations necessary to curb widespread transmission. From 1995 to 2001, Rhyan participated in a project on bison in Yellowstone National Park to monitor the spread of brucellosis, a bacterial disease that causes abortion in cattle, elk and bison, male reproductive-tract lesions, arthritis and long-term infection. Because bison represent a national treasure, Dr. Rhyan's team tried to develop non-lethal alternatives to eradicating the disease and often had to deal with the news media.
"It's an often contentious, politicized and highly public position. It's often everything private vets want to stay away from. They just want to pull a calf and get out of there," Rhyan says. Whether working on brucellosis in bison, tuberculosis in white-tailed deer or conducting research on foot-and-mouth disease, he hopes to build on his experience to develop vaccines appropriate for wildlife to control future outbreaks.
BEST THING ABOUT THE JOB: "After responding to e-mails and phone calls, writing articles and protocols for studies, I feel lucky when I get to do some hands-on animal work. You work in the office every day so you can spend a few days a year out in the field having a lot of fun," Rhyan says.
Mitchell Palmer, DVM, PhD
JOB TITLE: veterinary medical officer for the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Ames, Iowa.
EDUCATION: DVM from Purdue University, PhD in pathology from Iowa State University.
SALARY RANGE: $60,000 to $120,000, depending on length of service.
WHAT HE DOES: Like Rhyan, Palmer focuses his efforts on understanding the spread of interface disease from wildlife to domestic animals. But, instead of bison in Yellowstone, Palmer helps combat the spread of tuberculosis in white-tailed deer, particularly in northern Michigan, where in 1995 the disease spilled over from cattle to the deer population.
"At the time, the questions were, 'What do we know about tuberculosis in white-tailed deer, and what can we do about it? Where and how do they shed the organism, and how does it spread to cattle?' " Palmer recalls.
What veterinary researchers eventually learned is that deer shed the infecting organism in their saliva, so when a few deer wander into a cattle pasture and feed on hay and grass, or lap water from a trough, the risk of disease spreading to cattle increases. Experimenting with BCG, the same vaccine used to treat tuberculosis in humans, Palmer and other researchers found that it was effective in curbing the disease in white-tailed deer, though at this point the vaccine is limited to research purposes.
Because BCG is a live organism, once it's injected into an animal, diagnostic tests become inaccurate because it is not known whether a positive test results from disease or vaccination. Palmer is working on developing a better vaccine, while also considering the issue of how to properly diagnose the disease in the field. He stays involved with collecting blood and tissue samples from animals housed at the ARS facility, in addition to his vaccine research.
BEST THING ABOUT THE JOB: "It's the (variety) of my work. It's different every time; the questions are always changing, and I'm forced to stay abreast of new things. It's just very intellectually stimulating," Palmer says.
Fern Van Sant, DVM
JOB TITLE: Avian vet and owner of For the Birds in San Jose, Calif. Also involved in disaster relief and conservation efforts.
EDUCATION: DVM degree from the University of California at Davis.
SALARY RANGE: $80,000 to $100,000.
WHAT SHE DOES: With parrots, cockatoos, budgies, macaws, chickens and ducks as the staples of her avian practice, Van Sant is well acquainted with how the industry has changed in recent decades. She is among a small. but growing, number of vets who focus on bird care. Since starting her practice in 1989, Van Sant has dealt with many tropical birds and imported baby birds but, since the Wild Bird Conservation Act was passed in the early 1990s banning commercial trade, her focus has shifted to her clients' treasured pet parrots.
But Van Sant believes in making conservation education part of the visits with her clients. With ties to the World Parrot Trust and RARE, two of the model conservation organizations for habitat protection and maintaining quality of life for certain avian species, she has developed a strong passion for fitting her own practice into the context of larger global issues related to birds.
After Hurricane Katrina,Van Sant was asked by her colleagues, avian veterinarians Dr. Tom Tully and Dr. Greg Rich, to assist in the disaster-relief effort in New Orleans. Many pet birds were evacuated before the storm to a shelter on the campus of Louisiana State University. Many of the rescued birds found after the storm were placed in cages and piled into three stalls at the Lamar Dixon Expo Center, a "superdome" for birds.
"The crazy thing about birds is that they weren't in anyone's protocols. Many came with location tags and owner IDs. But many changes in cages were made and a number of the ID tags were lost. It was complete chaos," Van Sant recalls.
In addition, she worked with several rescue efforts involving abandoned parrots. For five years until 2002, she worked for the Maui Animal Rescue and Sanctuary, an organization devoted to caring for about 100 abandoned birds. "What I've found out in parrot practice is that living with treasured pet parrots can be difficult — they chew on walls and furniture. People's lives often change so much in a decade. Many think that 10 years is a long time to have a pet," she says.
She plans to continue her practice and her efforts as a proponent of avian conservation.
BEST THING ABOUT THE JOB: "I love the challenges that demand I keep an open mind. It's been a very creative profession, and I've figured it out as I've gone along. I started with imported birds, then domestic birds, then aging birds. So little is cemented in the literature that it's a phenomenal opportunity to learn and synthesize from a variety of traditions what works well for a particular bird," Van Sant says.
Brian Bird, DVM, PhD candidate
JOB TITLE: Orise Fellow (guest researcher) in the Special Pathogens Division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
EDUCATION: Master's degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University; currently a candidate for a combined DVM/PhD in comparative pathology/virology at the University of California at Davis.
SALARY RANGE: $58,000 to $77,000.
WHAT HE DOES: With prior public-health experience while pursuing his master's degree at Johns Hopkins and a stint as a Peace Corps volunteer in Kazakhstan, Bird's role at the CDC's BSL-4 facility seems part of a natural evolution. He works primarily on "identifying in-vivo mechanisms in Rift Valley Fever virus and Ebola virus that cause disease, such as hemorrhagic fever, or a virus's ability to avoid the host's immune response. "I then use molecular biology and reverse genetics to identify ways to attenuate the virus and prevent disease or potentially develop vaccine candidates," Bird says.
In January and February of 2007, he was deployed with the CDC hemorrhagic-fever outbreak investigation team to Kenya, testing human and veterinary samples for signs of the Rift Valley Fever, a virus spread by mosquitoes that had infected thousands of cattle and then infected humans.
"That was the first time I'd been in the midst of a significant outbreak. It was a great learning experience in a high-stress environment. If you're confident in the work you're doing in the lab at home, then it's nice to see things work in the field and be really useful to people," he says.
In Kenya, the team worked closely with local veterinarians to understand how the fever directly affects their lives and then tried to properly inform the public about how to take precautions.
In Atlanta, Bird performs animal experiments to learn the behavioral characteristics of diseases for which there is no known vaccine. He recently participated in a large Ebola study, in which 30 mice were inoculated with various strains of the virus.
Besides providing routine animal and veterinary care, tissue collection and blood sampling, Bird spends much of his time on molecular biology and genetic sequencing to create potential vaccines.
BEST THING ABOUT THE JOB: "It's exciting to feel that you're making a real impact. As the rains shifted from east to west across Kenya, mosquitoes also moved across the country and spread the virus. When you're in the lab studying, you project — will this ever have any impact? This is what you train for," Bird says.
Ms. Wangsness is a graduate student at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.