Alone on the Grange

The farm-to-feline practice of Dr. Donna Thompson carries the load of two South Georgia counties and highlights a bigger problem—a vet shortage that affects humans beyond their pets
Under other circumstances, Lady would have been put down. The once-graceful horse, a piebald American Paint, kept walking in circles and falling, until finally she could rise no more.
“We don’t have any horse vets near here,” says Lady’s owner, Gina Davis, proprietor of Southern Class Farms in Toombs County. “Horses aren’t easy to transport like puppies; most vets don’t make house calls, and most vets today tend to be genuinely afraid of horses and large animals in the first place.”
Dr. Donna Thompson, though, is not like most vets; she does not shy away from any hurting animal, except maybe, she concedes, a rattlesnake. A couple of times a week, Thompson—the only veterinarian serving Telfair and Wheeler counties—extends her territory to Toombs to administer medicine and fluids to Lady, who is trussed and harnessed to stand upright for a long convalescence from a neurological disorder called equine protozoal myeloencephalitis.

“She’s able to walk some on her own now,” Thompson says. “I’d probably make more money around here as a mobile vet, because I wouldn’t have the overhead, but I like having my place.”

Her place is Countryside Veterinary Clinic, a mixed-animal practice (meaning she handles pets and livestock) in McRae, a flyspeck community of around 2,700 in the piney woods of South Georgia. Thompson, who earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree in 2002 from the University of Georgia, says she was influenced early in life by All Creatures Great and Small, a series of stories about a mild-mannered country vet in England. “What we do here is really not that much different,” she says, even though the James Herriot mood is occasionally salted with a Harry Crews moment. “Dove season opened last week.” She points bleakly to a dog with bandages around two of its paws, hunched in a backroom recovery kennel. “This fella may have stumbled into the middle of a shoot or something. We’re not sure what happened, but it looks like he was shot deliberately. The sheriff’s looking into it.”

Thompson is the caretaker of about 3,000 regular patients, not including walk-ins. She is on call all the time, her cell phone number a sort of 911. The night before, her dinner was interrupted by a message about a listless goat. The next morning, after a few hours of gently prodding the bleating animal’s belly and treating his urinary infection, she called the owner and announced: “The kid just peed like a champ, but I’d like to keep him overnight.” The young goat cocked his head in her direction with seeming gratitude.

The grassy paddock and barn in back of Thompson’s downtown office are hospitable to ruminants like the goat, which are not always welcome at other clinics, even in this rural, agricultural belt. Fitting, considering her job title, coined in print as early as 1646, derives from the Latin veterinae, which means “working animals.” But as social perceptions of animals have shifted from chariot- and plow-pulling utility to fawning, sentimental anthropomorphism—98 percent of Americans count pets as “members of the family”—more veterinary grads are making a beeline for small-animal practices in the big city. Only 4 percent of UGA’s 2009 DVM grads entered large-animal medicine and 13 percent went to work in a mixed-animal practice, presumably because a cosseted shih tzu in Kirkwood commands less dirty work than a herd of Santa Gertrudis cattle kicking up muck in Hahira. Also, women have dominated vet schools since the early 1990s (and now constitute about 78 percent of grads nationwide) and traditionally have not gravitated as readily toward cattle, poultry, and hogs.

At the moment, thirty counties in Georgia lack a vet practice devoted to the “food supply” end of the field, and twenty-five of those are adjacent to each other, increasing the distance vets must travel to support agricultural clients. Moreover, about ten more counties are currently served by livestock vets who are near or past retirement age. They tend to trudge on until they can recruit replacements.

Before Thompson opened her doors in 2004, local owners of both livestock and little breeds were driving thirty minutes or more for treatment. “It would be nice to have another vet around, even on a part-time or fill-in basis, so I could take a vacation sometimes,” says Thompson, thirty-five, who grew up in Vidalia and speaks with a 98-degrees-in-the-shade Southern accent. “Atlanta is just very enticing to people. If I hadn’t grown up around here, I probably would not want to move here right out of school, either, so I understand.”

The veterinarian shortage in South Georgia proves frustrating and costly to aggies and pet owners and exhausting to Thompson and her colleagues. But it also highlights a much broader national shortage—projected to worsen by up to 5 percent annually—that threatens even the bipeds at the top of the food chain.

Veterinarians occupy an emotionally charged role in medicine. Their patients, who cannot articulate where it hurts, have relatively short life spans, and euthanasia of animals is sometimes sanctioned to the point of being owner-elective. Even with the drawbacks, there are plenty of people wanting to be vets—just not enough vet schools to teach them.

The United States offers twenty-eight veterinary training institutions, and only one of those opened within the past thirty years. Together, they produce about 2,500 DVMs annually. That’s not nearly enough grads hanging their paw-printed shingles in remote towns—or filling posts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is where some of UGA’s vet school alumni end up.

The University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, founded in 1946, accepts 102 applicants every autumn while turning down at least four for every one of those. It also serves as the official training ground for our neighbor South Carolina, with seventeen spaces reserved for Palmetto State natives in exchange for per-student fees.

This exclusivity is primarily a matter of logistics and a side effect of the program’s growth and innovation. When the school was built, its curriculum focused on the down-home, calf-pulling basics. Now the school treats around 20,000 animals a year, and its specialties—ophthalmology, oncology, anesthesiology—tend to keep up with progress made in their human equivalents. The Wildlife Treatment Center works with turtles, squirrels, and birds, and the university was the first vet college in the U.S. to offer a certificate in international veterinary medicine. Plus, the teaching hospital welcomes exotic, head-turning patients. As if to drive the point home, a camel lopes through the lobby on a day in late summer.

“When I first came here, land use in North Georgia was mostly for traditional farms; we never saw an alpaca or llama walk through the door, and there wasn’t a single computer wire in the whole place,” recalls Dr. Andrew Parks, a professor of large-animal surgery and head of UGA’s Department of Large Animal Medicine. “Now North Georgia is becoming urbanized; people are turning toward more alternative farming and fiber animals. And we were not even dreaming of some of the technological advances we’re enjoying now.”

Among the newer gadgetry is a high-powered 3T MRI that has serviced animals from as far as the Pacific Northwest (and whose screening subjects have included hundreds of cats and dogs, as well as a warthog, a stingray, and a whale fetus). There is also the Glass Horse Project, an animated, three-dimensional teaching model designed to breathtaking scale, as well as machines for cancer-fighting radiation and anesthesiology. “It’s all amazing and good progress,” Parks says, “but, in addition to the pressure of raising public expectations of what we can do, the machines take up space.”

In fact, due to that lack of space, students and teachers meet for daily rounds in a cafeteria, workstations and equipment clutter hallways, and faculty members roost in cramped, unusual places—one is even using a projection booth as an office. The grief room for animal owners has also been displaced.

“We are bursting at the seams,” says the school’s dean, Dr. Sheila Allen, who has been with the school since 1981 and was the second woman in the country to be named dean of a veterinary college. “Our building is landlocked on campus, so there is no room in this current location for expansion.”

It helps, of course, to have a friend in the Governor’s Mansion. Sonny Perdue, a 1971 graduate of UGA’s vet school, recently secured $7.7 million in planning money from the state to build the proposed Veterinary Medical Learning Center, a complex that could include more than a dozen structures such as classrooms, offices, five barns, plenty of pastoral greenspace, and a gleaming, high-tech teaching hospital. The university has to raise about $15 million privately, with South Carolina expected to pony up some costs in exchange for more slots in the new enrollment, which will gradually be increased to 150 a year. The university vet hospitals at North Carolina State, Tennessee, and Florida are three times the size of the Athens facility, but their enrollments are smaller.

“The state’s population has grown from about 5.4 million in 1980 to around 10 million now—and the number of pets and other animals has grown along with the number of people,” Allen says. “As the population ages, pets will become even more important to those people, and the connection between veterinary medicine and public health also is growing in urgency.”

In fact, the first sentence of the Veterinarian’s Oath invokes the “promotion of public health,” which is at risk with the current shortage. An estimated 70 percent of modern, emerging infectious diseases and 80 percent of bioterror agents—including anthrax, Ebola, avian flu, mad cow disease, and listeriosis—are zoonotic, meaning they can be passed from animal to human.

“Not to paint too scary a picture, but what if a strain developed that was as easily transmissible as H1N1 and as deadly as H5N1 [a form of avian flu that circulated in Asia, leaving hundreds dead]?” says Dr. Nina Marano, a UGA vet school graduate who is chief of the CDC’s Quarantine and Border Health Services Branch. There, she monitors epidemics, pathogens, and animals arriving in the U.S. Marano speaks to students about careers in veterinary public health and promotes six-week CDC volunteer stints to “get more bright young people prepared to head off the next pandemic.”

The American Veterinary Medical Association has also been campaigning for several legislative initiatives to shore up the profession, including a workforce expansion act that would increase the number of vets and improve research, and a loan repayment program for the physicians who agree to practice in underserved areas, particularly in the fallow field of food-supply animals. (The average graduate’s debt hovers around $106,000.) At UGA, the veterinary and agricultural colleges have joined forces to entice high school students with the Food Animal Veterinary Incentive Program, an undergrad specialty that ideally guarantees admission to the DVM school; its first five participants are scheduled to enroll next August.

As for recruiting those students, “there’s this dichotomy between the northern and southern parts of this state,” says Dr. P.O. Eric Mueller, director of equine programs. “So many people in South Georgia seem to think that we don’t care about serving them, when in fact it’s the opposite. We recruit hard from there, and we get some of our best students from that part of the state. The problem is getting them to go back there and practice once they graduate—noncity kids tend to want to go to urban areas. Sometimes, even if you offer them a house and a truck to go with a high salary, some of them still won’t go back. I think if we can get them there, though, even for a little while, they’ll end up staying, because people tend to get ingrained in the community.”

Mueller, who is from Rhode Island, notes that as a young graduate, he originally had planned to stay in Athens for just a year or so before moving back to the Northeast or to the West Coast. “But here I am, all these years later, and I love it.”

He also reports a heartening surge of interest in the understaffed fields. “I’d say about half of our students are thinking about a mixed practice, which is up,” he says, “with maybe fourteen of them focused on horses and four on large food animals. From the 1990s until about 2006, you could pick your desired city, move there, and then find a job. But now, I think because of the economy and other factors, we’ll see graduates making those geographic decisions based on where the jobs are. And our large-animal graduates are highly sought after all over the country.”

Wild horses may not be able to drag some grads back to the farm, but Thompson is content in McRae. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she says, looking like a fresh-scrubbed cowgirl, her waist cinched by a hand-tooled leather belt. She perfunctorily collects a fecal smear from a Chihuahua.

Like most vets, she yearns for greater heartworm awareness, an aggressive spay and neuter ethic, and more compassion in general. Her office, staffed by four female assistants, teems with foundlings and

abandoned creatures who live there, including an elderly, deaf Siamese; several dogs, some sporting bandannas; two horses who peer through the waiting-room windows; a clownish, overweight goat; and a rabbit rescued from a stew pot. A sort of Disney aura pervades, suggesting a cartoon bluebird might alight on Thompson’s shoulder at any moment.

“There are no animal shelters or humane societies anywhere around here within miles, so we’re it,” she says. “When we get here in the morning, we regularly find a dog tied up on the porch or thrown over our fence, and on any trip to the dump, you’ll always find abandoned animals. Our philosophy is: ‘Fix ’em and keep ’em.’ A Georgia Power crew found a bucket of newborn kittens covered in maggots by the road—they’re mine now.”

One of the horses, a thirty-year-old mare, had been malnourished, so the Countryside crew boarded, fed, and medicated her for a month. “I quoted the horse’s owner a fee of something like $400, which is low for a whole month’s worth of work, but she said she couldn’t afford it,” says Thompson, whose unassuming modesty (“I try not to judge”) contrasts refreshingly with the high-strung sanctimony of some in the animal-welfare scene. Careful not to insult anyone’s dignity, Thompson offered simply to adopt the horse in lieu of payment, and now it can be seen grazing and nosing around her office window.

In such a small town, attachments run deep. Everyone knows Thompson—who encourages children to pet Sunshine, the resident goat, on school field trips—and people routinely stop her in the grocery store to inquire about the horses.

“When I first started, I had several elderly [owners] who were extremely close to their little dogs,” she says wistfully. “A lot of [the owners] have died of the usual complications of old age. To lose them and their dogs is especially tough. People talk about the intense bonds, the way people get attached to their veterinarian. Well, I get attached to my patients and to their owners. It’s entirely different from any other relationship, and I don’t like to lose any of them if I can help it.”

In the back, a dog barks, and the rabbit twitches its nose. Thompson looks up at a visitor and says, “I patched this stray cat up after it was hit by a car. We named it Plastic, ’cause he bounced. Want to take him home with you?”

Photograph by Gregory Miller