Animal doctors adapt to changes

As suburbs take over, focus switches from farm animals to pets

June 14, 1999|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

The cows are losing ground to dogs and cats as suburbia takes over farmland in Carroll County, but even rarer is the veterinarian who will see creatures great and small.

"The old [James] Herriot books make it sound very romantic to do all that, but it's difficult to be an expert in all species," said Nicholas Herrick, a Westminster veterinarian.

Herrick and partner John Kable will phase out their large-animal practice by next month to handle the cats and dogs that are increasing in Carroll County at an estimated rate of 1,680 every year.

Meanwhile, the cattle population has decreased by by an average of 643 a year between 1992 and 1997, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture farm census.

"There's going to be less and less cows every year -- it's a foregone conclusion," said veterinarian William L. Graves. Graves and partner Locher Bray still have a primarily large-animal practice in Taylorsville, a South Carroll crossroads where development from Mount Airy to the south and Westminster to the north creeps closer every day.

Ten years ago, Graves and Bray could see that changing demographics called for some diversification.

"That's one reason we started a small-animal clinic," Graves said. Houses were going up everywhere, and there wasn't a veterinarian in either direction for eight miles.

"But I'm thinking our area will always have a certain number of dairy farms," he said.

In the early 1980s, newly out of veterinary school, Bray started the practice in his basement, dealing exclusively with cattle. He recruited Graves a few years later, and the two continued working from the basement.

Typical day

Now, a typical day can start out with a litter of 2-day-old shelties at the clinic and end with emergency stomach surgery on a 1,400-pound Holstein on the floor of a barn.

"I'm sorry, honey," cooed Graves as he trimmed a dewclaw off a yelping pup one morning.

Graves then drove his Chevy Tahoe to a Carroll County farm for his next patient. Little Tex -- all 2,000 pounds of her -- is a Brown Swiss cow unmoved by small talk. Before Graves got out of the Tahoe, he slipped his left arm into a "palpation sleeve," a plastic glove that reaches up to his shoulder. He was all business.

"This is a real good cow that will not get pregnant," he said. "She's a reproductive problem."

Graves and Bray are among the few young veterinarians willing to meet the demands of what used to be an exclusively rural county. They manage some 25,000 head of the 30,584 cattle the 1997 USDA census lists for Carroll. The 1992 census counted 33,700 cattle.

"In the east, it's very hard to find a vet who wants to do a mixed practice," said Herrick. His patients have always been mostly pets, but the clinic sign features a silhouette of a horse, cow, dog and cat, with a bird soaring above them.

1 percent of income

Suburban development handed Herrick more household pets -- and more time stuck in traffic when he went out on farm calls. Horses and cattle make up about 5 percent of his practice but take up 10 percent of his and Kable's time and bring in about 1 percent of the practice's income, Herrick estimated.

"You could spend half an hour sitting at traffic lights in Westminster," Herrick said.

So much for the romance of Herriot's Yorkshire countryside veterinarian, immortalized in books such as "All Creatures Great and Small."

Romance takes a back seat on today's farm. Little Tex is tall, sleek and massive, but looks will take her only so far.

"This cow, if I can get her pregnant, would be in the five figures," said owner Brad Garst, who breeds and sells show cows such as Little Tex on his New Windsor farm. "If I can't, she's $500-$600 of meat. She's Roy Rogers."

That's not the kind of thing a pet owner would say, but Graves is comfortable with patients that feed the family, as well as those that are part of the family. He and Bray would just as soon devote their practice to cattle exclusively, but the small-animal clinic brings in money. Pets now make up 30 percent of their practice. Associates do most of the small-animal work.

Early choice

Graves has read Herriot. The books started coming out in the 1970s and led to a surge of interest in veterinary medicine. But Graves, 42, had chosen the field long before, while growing up on a large family farm in Madison County, Va.

"I've only had two kinds of jobs: working on a farm and being a veterinarian," Graves said.

His father was an engineer, his mother a school administrator. They raised him with the expectation that he would go to college.

Graves could pass for a farmer, wearing the unofficial uniform: tan coveralls, rubber LaCrosse boots and a cap. The farmers respect him as a doctor but also treat him as a colleague and friend, a part of their community.

Farmers often give Graves and Bray photos of calves their veterinary expertise has made possible, the way new parents might submit a snapshot for the obstetrician's waiting-room album.

Mobile clinic

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