After 9 years of college at Iowa State University, 5 years as an Animal Science major and 4 years of vet school, I finally fulfilled my lifelong dream of being a veterinarian. On that last day of college on a beautiful May day in 2004, our class of 102 DVMs to be recited the Veterinarian’s Oath:
Being admitted to the profession of veterinarymedicine, I solemnly swear to use my scientific knowledge and skills for the benefit of society through the protection of animal health and welfare, the prevention and relief of animal suffering, the conservation of animal resources, the promotion of public health, and the advancement of medical knowledge.
I will practice my profession conscientiously, with dignity, and in keeping with the principles of veterinary medical ethics. I accept as a lifelong obligation the continual improvement of my professional knowledge and competence.
Being a veterinarian is one of the noblest professions anyone could ever have the pleasure of being associated with. By nature, animals can’t speak for themselves and when they are sick, they can easily fall prey to predators. Veterinarians are the advocates for animals. When they are sick, we use our skills, knowledge, technology, and medicine at our disposal to try to heal them. As veterinarians, we serve the animals that can’t serve themselves.
Unlike human doctors, we can’t ask our patients how they are feeling or where does it hurt. Everything must be learned through the powers of observation and tests. Veterinarians are very keen at the art of observation. Without even realizing it, we have developed this skill in order to try to understand what is causing the problem.
Right out of vet school, I did a one year externship at an equine referral hospital in Goldsby, Oklahoma, just outside of Norman. We would get all kinds of medical and surgical cases in our clinic. Sometimes there would be up to 25 horses staying at our hospital. I would get to scrub in and assist with surgeries, but my main function was to oversee all the medical cases who stayed as in patients. I was in charge of making sure that the medicines got distributed to each patient according to their medical plan. I would also have to SOAP each animal in the morning and again at night. This SOAP method was a little different from the method we learned for studying the bible, but not completely different. The S stands for our subjective assessment of the animals. This is what we observe by just subjectively looking at the animal. The O stands for our objective assessment of the animal. This is where we would take objective measurements such as temperature, pulse, and respiration to help us track the health and progress of the animal during their stay. The A stands for our assessment of the animal based on the subjective and objective observations we had just made. The brought us to the P, which stands for plan. Based on our observations and assessment, we would develop a plan for how to treat or continue to treat an animal to bring them back to health. Over the course of that one year, I saw, observed, medicated, and helped heal thousands of horses. It is amazing when you can take a very sick animal, and through hard work and dedication, bring them back to health. On the other hand, if things don’t go well and the animal doesn’t get better and either dies or has to be put to sleep, it can be a very hard pill to swallow. I remember one case in particular where I had to put a horse that was 47 years old to sleep, just because he was no longer able to sustain himself. Luckily though, there were more happy moments than sad moments. What we did was serve the horses who found themselves in a position where they could no longer serve themselves.
After that experience, I moved back to Iowa and took a job as a grow/finish veterinarian for Iowa Select Farms. Iowa Select Farms is based solely in Iowa and they market around 4 million pigs each year. That is a lot of pork. Being a pig veterinarian is completely different from being a horse veterinarian. When dealing with a horse, you are usually treating an individual animal. When you are dealing with pigs, you are usually dealing with the overall health of the herd, rather than individual animals. One of the main jobs I had was to visit a site, where one of the herds of pigs was being housed. This would range from 3 barns of pigs all the way up to 20 barns of pigs per site. Iowa Select had over 200 different finishing sites that I oversaw the health of, all in the state of Iowa. I would usually visit when the manager of the site would report sickness or a sudden increase in death of the pigs. I would go to the site and do a thorough evaluation of the situation. It was like CSI for animals.
One of the first things I would focus on was the environment since the environment causes a majority of the sickness we see in pig herds. I would check the basic first, like making sure that they had access to feed and water. After that I would look at the temperature and check the records to see if there had been any major temperature variations recently. Big changes in temperature can lead to sickness. Then I would spend quite a bit of time on the ventilation. Was there adequate air flow patterns? Was the air flow too great and causing the pigs to get chilled? Was the air flow not enough and causing pigs to overheat or the ammonia smell in the barn causing respiratory sickness? Were all the ventilation fans working properly? Were the curtains on the sides of the barns working correctly? These were just a few of the questions I would have to go through and investigate. Over 90% of the time, the cause of the sickness could be traced back to some problem with the ventilation.
That meant that I had to switch hats and move from Bill CSI Animal Agent to Bill the teacher. I had to make sure that the manager understood what was causing the problem and put steps in place to solve the problem. Education was a huge part of my job. If the person who takes care of the pigs on a daily basis does not understand how to avoid causing sickness through environmental factors, we would be fighting a losing battle and have pigs sick all the time.
The last thing I would do is go look at the pigs themselves. I would observe them from a distance first and then closer up. I would look to see what percent of the overall herd appeared to be affected with sickness. I would look to see if the pigs were acutely sick or if their sickness was more chronic. If there were both types, I would try to estimate the percentage of each. I would then select 2 or 3 acutely sick animals and I would euthanize them and perform a necropsy. I would open them up and observe each of their organs looking for any abnormalities. As I went through the various key organs, I would collect samples of tissues that I would later submit to the diagnostic lab so they could be analyzed. I would usually collect portions of heart, lung, liver, kidney, intestine, and brain. After the lab analyzed the tissue they could determine if we were dealing with a viral or bacteria agent and narrow down our list of possible causative agents. Once we received this information, I then develop a treatment plan that might include medications given through the drinking water or individual shots that would have to be given to the pigs by the site manager. If we had a good idea of what might be causing the problem, we would usually start treatment right away and confirm our hunch once we got the lab results back.
We always kept the overall health of the herd as our primary concern. That sometimes meant that we had to kill a couple of animals so we could determine how to best treat the other animals in the barn so that less of those animals could be saved. Pigs in pens in barn are not able to do too much for themselves. My job was to serve those pigs that couldn’t serve themselves.
So by this point in the story you are probably wondering why in the world is there a picture of a bunny at the beginning of this story. Good question! Let’s get to that. About 5 years ago, I began working for the company, W&G Marketing Co., which I still currently work for. My official title is “Biomedical Products Manager.” We work with packing plants and human medical companies throughout the country. When a medical company has a need for some type of animal tissue, I work to provide that tissue to them by collecting it at one of the packing plants that we work with. This goes through the whole range of possibilities of different things that are needed. Some of the more common tissue we collect is pig aortas, pig pericardial sacs, and cattle jugular veins. This tissue is used by medical companies to construct replacement heart valves that they put into humans. We collect pig jaws that are used at different dental conferences around the country. Some tissue is used for treatment, some is used for educational purposes, and some tissue is used for research.
I really do enjoy traveling around to the different packing facilities and the relationships I have developed with the people there. I certainly have gotten to see a lot of the country. About 2 years ago, our company opened a rabbit slaughter plant in Jewell, IA, where we slaughter about 1500 rabbits each week. We sell the meat, mostly to up-scale restaurants on the east and west coasts. Given my veterinary background, I have been able to help out in some very specific ways. I wrote a protocol for ensuring proper live animal welfare during the time the rabbits arrive at the plant until they are slaughtered. You might say, what is the point? They are going to die anyway. That is true, but some of the rabbits can stay at the plant for as long as 3 days and we want to make sure that these rabbits do not experience any type of suffering in any way. We make sure that the rabbits have access to water at all times and food each night during their stay. I use my knowledge of ventilation to make sure that they have adequate ventilation and don’t get too cold in the winter months and too hot in the summer months. I use my observation skills to observe the rabbits. If I see rabbits bullying other rabbits in the cages, we remove and isolate them. I only go to the plant about one day every other week, so it was important that I train the workers at the plant how to see and do the things I would do to ensure the rabbits are as happy as possible if I was there. I found myself back in teacher mode. I train the personnel based off the written protocol I wrote. The training is ongoing and each time we get a new employee at the plant, the first thing I do is train that person. We even appointed a person who is in charge of the rabbit welfare on a day-to-day basis and they have paperwork they fill out each day to make sure that everything is getting done that should be getting done.
Today was one of the days that I was at the plant. I went through my normal process of observing the rabbits, making sure everyone had water and food, and evaluated the environment they were living in. When I find things that we could be doing better, I use them as teachable moments to train our employees. On this particular day, there was a rabbit in a cage with about 9 other rabbits. This rabbit had an inflamed area of skin over its back where the hair had come off. The other rabbits were constantly licking the area and really tormenting the rabbit. I gathered my group of employees and had them observe what was going on and asked them what we should do. Of course the answer was to remove the rabbit from the pen and put the rabbit in a different cage, by themselves, so the other rabbits would leave this rabbit alone. These are simple common sense things, but if you are not used to thinking this way, it might not even occur to people. Simply put, I train people to think through a rabbit lens. I want them to put themselves in the place of the rabbit and ask themselves how they would feel in the environment they were in. Would they want water? Would they want food?
This past summer, we had some really hot days and we were having some struggles keeping the rabbits cool during their stay at the plant. One of the things we did to help prevent deaths from overheating was to install jet fans with misters. Airflow keeps the rabbits cooler. During this time, the growers who raise the rabbits (there are hundreds of them throughout Iowa and Missouri) were having difficulties keeping their rabbits cool as well. To help with the situation, I wrote a handout called Keeping Your Rabbit Cool in the Summer. Catchy title isn’t it? We distributed the handout to all the growers throughout Iowa and Missouri. I think it did give people some ideas for ways they could keep their rabbits cooler.
On this particular day, I learned that we had 50 rabbits that had died earlier in the week. I immediately went back into animal CSI mode and started investigating things and asking questions to witnesses. I discovered that the rabbits were acutely ill with some sort of respiratory infection and all the rabbits came from the same grower. After looking into the issue, we learned about what had gone wrong and used education with the growers, truck drivers, and employees at the plant to try to prevent such incidents in the future.
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus talks about caring for “the least of these.” I don’t think there is any question that Jesus was specifically talking about humans when He said this, but I think animals should be included in this too. Animals can live in the wild and sustain themselves, but when we have animals in captivity situations, those animals rely on humans to sustain their lives. It is up to us to provide food and water for them. When you look specifically at Matthew 25:35 we read the following:
For I was hungry
and you gave Me something to eat;
I was thirsty
and you gave Me something to drink;
I think that caring for animals definitely qualifies as serving “the least of these.” Animals are God’s creation and God loves each of the animals that He created. He commanded us to take care of everything He created on earth and animals are definitely a part of that. When we are taking care of animals, we are serving them. When we are serving animals, we are serving God. There are few things in this world as gratifying as seeing an animal that is in distress or suffering in some way and being able to do something to help them. I think part of the reason God created animals was to teach us how to serve.
It is clear that Jesus wants us to be servants. Jesus lived His life on earth in service to others and He wants us to do the same. He provided us with the example while He was on earth. If we want to serve Jesus, we do this through serving others around us. The “others” around us includes our spouses, children, parents, family members, friends, strangers, and even enemies. It also includes animals. Serving enemies can be the hardest one, but Jesus did it and so should we. Just hours before Jesus was arrested Jesus was washing the feet of all the disciples. Included among them was Judas, who had sold Jesus out and told the Roman soldiers where Jesus was for a small bag of gold coins. Jesus knew what Judas had done and He still chose to serve him by washing his feet. That is our example. That is what we are supposed to do. So this all leads up to one simple question we all need to ask ourselves. Are we serving those who can’t serve themselves?