Changes in the field: More women, young grads fill the shoes of retiring large animal vets
ADDISON COUNTY — Annie Starvish has a suitor.
The heifer tags along as the veterinarian makes the rounds in the free stall barns at the Vorsteveld Farm in Panton, where she is out doing “preg checks.” Periodically, Starvish and farmer Rudy Vorsteveld throw their arms wide, corralling one of the heifers into a stall. Then, after a gentle, reassuring pat to the animal’s hip, Starvish inserts a gloved hand into the cow’s rectum. Soon after, her arm disappears entirely.
Meanwhile, the moonstruck, mostly black Holstein heifer slinks along the wide alleys inside the barn, casting eager looks at Starvish.
“Watch out for that one,” the vet says, swatting at the love struck Holstein’s nose. “She’s in heat. They’re extra friendly when they’re in heat.”
Fending off one cow in heat, while shoulder deep in another, is just business as usual for Starvish, 31, a veterinarian with Vergennes Large Animal Associates. On the Vorsteveld farm she is checking to see if the farmer’s efforts to breed the cows — who had been impregnated roughly 40 days earlier — have been successful. She feels each cow’s uterus, seeking out what should have been a marble-sized fetus. A nod or a thumbs up to Vorsteveld means good news: this one’s pregnant.
That may be business as usual for Starvish, but the business of veterinary science more generally in Addison County is changing. Longtime veterinarians in the area say the roles of large animal vets are shifting, as small family farmers give way to larger commercial dairies.
And the demographics of veterinary science in the area are on the move, too. The scales tipped mid-decade, when women for the first time outnumbered men among the ranks of veterinarians. Women also make up the majority of veterinary students in the United States. That means that, in a county where most of the longtime large animal vets are older men, new hires look increasingly like Starvish: young, female, and fresh out of veterinary school.
That young vets are coming to Addison County at all bucks a trend other parts of the state are seeing. Statewide there is a shortage of large animal vets; of more than 300 veterinarians in Vermont, just more than 50 are practicing large animal medicine.
For the time being, that shortage hasn’t hit parts of Vermont like Addison or Franklin counties, where the large number of dairy operations means there’s more than enough work to keep vets busy.
And “busy,” as it turns out, is a good way to describe Starvish’s day. With Vergennes Large Animal Associates serving farms as far afield as Grand Isle and Castleton, she’s on the move a lot. Ditching her black rubber boots and plastic gloves and smock, Starvish strips down to her coveralls and climbs into her truck, loaded down with medical supplies and equipment.
She picks up her radio.
“Annie to base,” she radios in. The voice of the receptionist at Vergennes Large Animal Associates comes crackling back over the line. It’s back to “base” for a quick stop, and then Starvish is off on her next call of the day.
NEW VET ON THE JOB
Starvish, a New Hampshire native, landed in Addison County around four years ago. She first worked at Valleywide Veterinary Service in Cornwall before signing on in Vergennes.
“A lot of kids say they want to be vets when they grow up, and I was one of them,” she said.
And Starvish followed through. After completing an undergraduate degree in animal science at Virginia Tech, she enrolled at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.
Since she came to the area, two new female vets, also fresh out of graduate school, have followed in Starvish’s footsteps: Rebecca Whitcomb came on board at Valleywide a little more than a year ago, and Molly Witters joined the Middlebury Large Animal Clinic earlier this summer.
Kristin Haas, the Vermont state veterinarian, said the fact that more female vets are stepping up as large animal doctors is in line with national statistics that show women outnumbering men in veterinary school. At some schools, Haas said, women make up as much as 70 or 80 percent of the class.
When Starvish arrived on the scene, being a woman in a traditionally male field was less of a challenge than being a new graduate just out of school.
But she did run into some surprise, and in some cases skepticism, when she first began heading out on calls.
Starvish remembers showing up on one farm with a female student who was riding along for the day to observe a vet at work. The farmer greeted the two women with a question: “Where are the men?”
“‘In the office,’ I told him,” Starvish said. She worried for a second that the man might ask the two women to leave, but eventually he let them get down to work.
That’s what Starvish does when she encounters this sort of ambivalence — gets to work.
“Some people were a little skeptical at first,” she said. “But a lot of clients were very nice and gave me a chance to show them I was capable.”
When she started at Valleywide right out of school, there were even a few clients who went so far as to tell the practice that they didn’t want a female vet. But, once Starvish hit the farm she was fine.
Witters, on the other hand, hasn’t encountered much surprise among the farmers she’s served so far. She thinks many of farmers have worked with women veterinarians in the past.
“I didn’t have to break down any glass ceilings,” she said. “People have been really kind and generous.”
At the end of the day, veterinarian Joseph Klopfenstein, who owns the Vergennes Large Animal clinic, sees changes in the Addison County veterinary world as having less to do with an influx of female vets than with the bigger picture.
“The farms are certainly changing,” said Klopfenstein, 51, a large animal vet who has practiced in Vermont since 1986. “There are fewer farms and the farms are certainly larger.”
That means the roles of vets are changing, too. Large animal vets are moving away from a “reactive” role, responding to calls from farmers about a sick cow, toward providing farmers with more information about health maintenance and overall herd health.
And while Klopfenstein hasn’t had any trouble recruiting and hiring new vets yet, he isn’t so sure the shortage of large animal doctors couldn’t hit the county in the future. As it turns out, Starvish’s choice to pursue large animal medicine is unusual among new vets, male and female alike.
These days, she said, the majority of students coming out of veterinary school plan to practice small animal medicine. She was different. She knew she wanted to work with production animals, and in the Northeast that meant dairy cows. After working on a few dairy farms during graduate school, she was hooked.
LARGE ANIMAL VET SHORTAGE
As many large animal vets in Vermont near retirement, parts of the state are hard-pressed to find replacements.
As to just why more students gravitate toward small animal medicine than large animal practices, Starvish and Klopfenstein had a few guesses.
“Fewer and fewer people are being raised on farms,” Starvish said. That means that “farm boys” aren’t the ones matriculating at veterinary school. Vet schools have also become increasingly selective — which makes the odds of getting into a veterinary program less favorable for students from rural and urban areas both. Starvish said there was talk at one point about lowering certain standards to give kids from rural areas a leg up in the application process, though she thinks that’s “ridiculous.”
Klopfenstein thinks that the large animal vets in practice now need to work hard to expose students to the possibilities of the field. That means practices like his in Vergennes are eager to let students ride along for a day with the vets, and Klopfenstein works closely with students at the University of Vermont who are considering veterinary degrees.
“I came from a city, but I had a good mentor. I wanted to be a zoo vet,” he laughed, “but I had a good mentor who pointed me in (this) direction. That’s really important, to provide that kind of mentorship.”
Even if a student does decide to pursue a veterinary degree, achieving that goal can be tough. Vet schools are few and far between; in New England, the only program is at Tufts University in Massachusetts. After a student does land in a program, the cost of the education is dear.
Starvish was lucky: her state of residence at the time, New Hampshire, struck a deal with Cornell that allowed three New Hampshire students to attend the veterinary program at in-state tuition rates. (Right now, Vermont does not have similar program with any vet school. Students from the state who want to attend veterinary school have no choice but to pay out-of-state tuitions.) Even then, Starvish left school with more than $100,000 in debt, almost all of that accumulated during vet school.
Given those debt loads, she said many students gravitate toward small animal work. While the pay is often comparable for new graduates, the potential to make more is typically greater in small animal medicine. Small-animal vets can treat dozens of animals each day in their offices, rather than spending time on the road between farms, and some vets say owners of family cats or dogs are more likely to pay for expensive treatments.
Plus, the work isn’t as strenuous: small animal vets aren’t on call as often, and rarely does their work propel them out into a field on a snowy winter night.
And though Addison County hasn’t been hit by the shortage of vets, vets like Haas and Starvish still say the ripple effects of that shortage could be problematic for more than just the farmers searching for veterinarian.
“Vets are on the front line (of animal and public health issues),” Starvish said. She worried that if illnesses begin to crop up in underserved areas — particularly zoonoses, or illnesses that spread from animals to humans — they might not be caught before the problem spreads.
“It affects everybody, whether it’s a direct or indirect effect,” Haas said. “The animals that (these vets) work on are ones that often become part of our food supply. It’s absolutely an issue of food safety. … If you eat in Vermont, then the shortage of food animal veterinarians affects you.”
Right now, Haas is working on a report she hopes could eventually spur legislation that would create a student loan repayment plan or some other type of incentive program to coax vets fresh out of school to practice medicine in underserved parts of the state.
But making a life as a large animal vet in rural parts of the state is tough, particularly in areas where a new vet might be the only one practicing large animal medicine. Working in a practice with two other vets, Starvish said her on-call time is reasonable. Every third weekend one of the vets is on call, and someone is available around the clock.
But if a vet is working alone in a more remote region — Haas pinpointed the Northeast Kingdom as particularly underserved — they can find themselves on call around the clock.
Still, for vets like Starvish, it’s the love of the work that makes up for long hours and grueling physical labor.
Not unlike that lovelorn heifer at the Vorsteveld farm, Starvish is smitten: she loves the cows she tends. She remembers one particularly stressful call. She’d been called out to a farm late — 1 a.m. — to inspect a cow, and she was grumpy about the call.
But as she was tending her patient, the cow in the next stall over began nosing into her bag of instruments, disrupting Starvish’s equipment with her curious tongue.
“I looked down and thought, ‘Oh, you’re cute,’” she said. “I like the cows, I like the area, I like the relationships we have with our farmers.”