Unusual Jobs of Unusual Veterinarians
Meet three veterinarians whose jobs might not be what you'd expect.
You know veterinarians as respected doctors who greet you and your pet in the exam room. You’re familiar with their insightful questions, expert medical skills, and caring mannerisms. In general, you know they work in veterinary practice because they’re devoted to keeping your beloved cat or dog as healthy as possible.
Here’s what you might not know: Some veterinarians fly helicopters, treat tigers, and help craft laws for a living. They share the same training as the doctors who work in small animal practices—the ones you see regularly—and they use these skills to springboard into roles you might not automatically associate with veterinarians. Here are three such nontraditional doctors, along with an explanation of how they help people and pets—of all kinds.
Michael Barrie, DVM
Director of Animal Health at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Powell, Ohio
When he started veterinary school …
…he was that guy in the class who scrambled to treat the exotic animals that occasionally crossed paths with his fellow students. Everything he did, from his undergraduate degree in zoology to the residency he took later, was designed to get him into the wilds of a city zoo.
“I just always had a natural interest in the living world,” Dr. Barrie says. “My father said I had been bitten by everything he could think of. I was just always interested in frogs and birds and snakes.”
After graduation from the Michigan State University veterinary college, he worked a year in small animal practice then two years in an Englewood, N.J., practice that specialized in treating exotic animals. “I changed jobs with the intention of getting more experience that would lead to zoo work,” he says. Next was a two-year residency in zoological medicine at the Philadelphia Zoo then a post as the veterinarian for the Oklahoma City Zoo, where he worked for 14 years. In 2001, he landed his current gig overseeing almost 800 species and subspecies and 6,000 animals.
What he does in his job:
“In this job, you’re the ultimate generalist,” Dr. Barrie explains. “You apply all the medicine you’ve learned to treat the zoo animals in the collection. Domestic cats are similar to the wild species. We vaccinate the wild species with the same vaccines as domestic cats because they are susceptible to nearly the same diseases.”
“Dealing with wild animals in the zoo is not quite the same as meeting pets in the clinic.”
Of course, dealing with wild animals in the zoo is not quite the same as meeting pets in the clinic brought in for a physical. For example, horses can be taught to walk on a lead but zebras can’t, which makes physical exams more difficult. So zoo veterinarians, he says, become experts in anesthesia.
“We call in specialists in human medicine to help,” Dr. Barrie says. “Often they don’t understand that I can’t get a temperature every day on a tiger or look into the tiger’s ears any time I want. I can’t get a blood sample on a zebra every day.” Still, in 2007, his team of two veterinary technicians, an associate veterinarian, and a residency veterinarian—with the assistance of many volunteer professionals—took 900 blood samples, 1,600 fecal samples, and 300 X-rays.
What he brings to the job:
1. Advocacy: Part of Dr. Barrie’s role is to care for each and every member of the extensive collection of animals in the zoo. “Everyone in the zoo advocates for the animals,” he says. “That’s one of the nice things. People who work with the animals advocate for them, but so do the people who don’t work directly with them. Everyone is passionate about our mission.”
2. Collaboration with clients: Dr. Barrie sees a key similarity between cat and dog practice and zoo practice. In small animal practice, he says, you, as the pet owner, are the client, and it is essential for the veterinarian to talk with you and listen to what you say. “In the zoo,” he explains, “our clients are the keepers and the handlers. We are dependent on them telling us what problems are occurring. You have to be collaborative with the keepers. In private practice, you have to be collaborative with the clients.”
Gail Hansen, DVM, MPH
Legislative Assistant to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont
When she started veterinary school …
…she was dead sure what she wanted to do in the profession. “I stood up in front of my classmates and said, ‘If it isn’t black and white and gives milk, I’m not going to touch it,’” Dr. Hansen recalls. “Not only was I going to do dairy practice, I wanted to only do Holsteins.” But life had other plans. First, she decided residing in a small town surrounded by dairy farms might not be right for her. Also, after graduating from the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Minnesota, she married a man from New York City. He had even more trepidation about small town life than Dr. Hansen, who grew up in Minneapolis. Soon she wound up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, N.Y., practicing small animal medicine in a place where a three-block radius could yield plenty of work for a solo veterinarian.
What she does in her job:
Today, Dr. Hansen works in Washington, D.C., as a legislative assistant to Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Her primary responsibilities are in the areas of health care reform, childhood nutrition, and food safety legislation. On a typical day, you might find her working on legislation, getting the senator ready for a briefing, meeting with other members of committees, writing letters, or conducting those all-important sessions with constituents.
Veterinarians are good listeners. This serves me well when I’m speaking to our constituents.
Dr. Hansen was no stranger to government when she joined Sen. Sanders’ office last year as an American Veterinary Medical Association Health Care Fellow. She was named state epidemiologist for Kansas in 2004. Since 1996, she had served as an assistant state epidemiologist and public health veterinarian. Before working in Kansas, she was an epidemiologist for the Seattle-King County Health Department in Washington state where she worked in a variety of areas including public health issues, HIV, and needle-exchange programs. Before earning a master’s degree in public health from the University of Washington in 1993, she worked in private practice in Greensboro, N.C., and in New York City for six years—part in a house call practice. “In New York you see things you wouldn’t see in Greensboro,” she says. “In Greensboro you see cats hit by cars. In New York you deal with High Rise Syndrome—animals falling out of windows of apartment buildings.” In Washington, she’s treating “Beltway Syndrome” by trying to ground policy efforts in meeting the needs of people in Vermont who elected Bernie Sanders to the senate in 2006.
What she brings to the job:
1. Observation and analysis: “In veterinary school, you learn a way of thinking about things,” Dr. Hansen explains. “You’re taught to observe things and not put a judgment on them. You learn the scientific approach. You may reach a logical conclusion but you’re taught not to go beyond what you know. You’re taught to question whether your foundation of information is as sturdy as you think it is. Should I do another test? Should I look at the animal again? Do I have all the information I need?”
2. A good ear: An important part of her job in the senator’s office is listening. She learns from constituents. “They teach you about things,” is the way Dr. Hansen puts it. “You need to learn what the people in the state want done. Sometimes when you’re in Washington you get the feeling the whole world is inside the Beltway.
“I like to think veterinarians are good listeners,” she says. “As a veterinarian, your patients can’t tell you what’s wrong. You learn to take a good history and you have to listen carefully to their owners. You have to understand what they’re saying. You have to be able to tell if the question you’re asking is the same one they’re answering.”
Maj. Madonna M. Higgins, DVM, MVPH, VC
Assistant to the Chief, U.S. Army Veterinary Corps
When she started veterinary school …
…she was no stranger to the pressure of treating a dog or cat hit by a car. As a Huey pilot in the Army, she had already learned how to stay cool at the controls of a 5,000-pound helicopter.
Higgins was in ROTC as an undergraduate at West Virginia University. “When I graduated, I was accepted into flight school and I began flying Hueys for the next seven years,” she says. But veterinary medicine called and she left the Army for the Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine where she earned her veterinary degree. She spent the rest of the ‘90s in civilian life as an emergency veterinarian in Atlanta. But the attack on Sept. 11, 2001, changed everything for her.
“I had been getting calls from recruiters to come back to the Army, but I was in my early 40s and I just thought I had been out too long,” Maj. Higgins recalls. “Everybody remembers what they were doing on 9/11. I was in surgery and somebody wheeled in a television. I was finishing the surgery and watching the towers go down.” Soon after that, a recruiter called her.
“I thought maybe I could go back in the reserves, but then I decided to throw caution to the wind and go on active duty,” she says. “That was shortly after Sept. 11. By Nov. 1, I was raising my right hand and by March 1, I was on active duty.”
She discovered she was wrong about being out of the Army too long. When it came to the physical challenges of returning to military life, she consistently outdid her younger colleagues. “It was as if I had never left,” she says.
What she does in her job:
Her first post was at Ft. Carson, Colo., where she was branch chief in charge of three veterinary medical clinics—one in Wyoming, one in Colorado, and one in Utah. The clinics saw military working dogs and Army pets and also worked to prevent zoonotic
diseases on the post and to complete public health inspections.
From Colorado Maj. Higgins went to Korea where she set up field units near Seoul. “You’ve seen M*A*S*H on television. Think of MASH tents for animals,” she says. “We could do surgeries out in the field, do food microbiology in a field lab, and we treated the animals the soldiers stationed there brought to us.”
“Everybody remembers what they were doing on 9/11. I was in surgery and somebody wheeled in a television.”
After a staff stint in Texas, Maj. Higgins moved to her “most exciting deployment” in Kuwait. She traveled the Middle East, doing food inspections to ensure healthy meals for soldiers there and dealing with cultural sensitivities along the way. If a camel came onto the base, it was her job to be sure it was free of disease. And the Veterinary Corps also treated working animals at the base in Kuwait.
But her most interesting mission involved two Bengal tigers. Termed “Operation Flying Tiger,” Higgins was part of the team escorting the two tigers, named Hope and Riley and valued at $200,000, from the North Carolina Conservation Center to the Baghdad Zoo. “I was just one in a long line of veterinarians who participated in this mission,” she says. “I was there to pick them up at the airport in Bahrain before they went on to Iraq. I made sure they were not under heat stress. To airlines, they’re just cargo. You had two Bengal tigers in steel cages lined with plywood on the tarmac at the airport where the temperature was 120 degrees. It was a fun job and an important job.”
What she brings to the job:
1. A commonsense approach: Maj. Higgins’ study in veterinary school at Auburn prepared her with the skills necessary for animal medicine—both diagnostic and surgical, she says. But her more important skills were honed in the military. “The commonsense approach was something I learned in the Army,” she says. “In the Army, sometimes you have to learn to fly by the seat of your pants and figure out solutions on your own.”
2. Cool in crisis: “Not only was I a helicopter pilot but I also worked as a maintenance test pilot for the UH-1 helicopter,” she says. “The job entailed figuring out how to fix a helicopter when it’s broken. Troubleshooting an animal’s illness is the same. In both cases you have situations where you have to react very quickly to an emergency.”