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My ride-along with Dr. Angell, traveling large-animal vet

Reporter's Notebook
“I feel incredibly lucky to be in a line of work where I just love my job, and love the work I do…When I look at my life and realize that I’m living the dreams I had as a young person, I have to pinch myself.” — Dr. Isaac Angell, Bentley Veterinary Practice

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series focusing on a day in the life of a large animal veterinarian’s practice in the tri-corner region. [Click here to read Part 1.]


AMENIA – After tending to two old goats and three donkeys at an estate farm, our next destination was Elk Ravine Farm in Amenia, where a pregnancy check and a bull calf castration were on the docket.

The drive through scenic, hilly roads is time that Dr. Isaac Angell of Bentley Veterinary Practice, located in Stanfordville, often uses to make calls or think through treatments, but he took the opportunity to talk about the qualities he sees as important for aspiring large-animal vets.

“An ability to not take yourself too seriously. The job is quickly humbling in a few ways. One is always, ‘Oh wow, I’ve just gotten manure splattered in my face!’ But also that things don’t always turn out as expected.”

“Then there’s independence and persistence. Once you’re out there on your own handling cases, there isn’t anyone else to turn to. You’re also often on call, and could get woken up in the middle of the night to handle a calving or a foaling, and find yourself laying the mud to get the job done.”

Angell was quick to note that many of the lessons he imparted were in turn passed down to him by his mentor, Dr. Douglas Hart, the vet Angell credits with inspiring him to pursue veterinary medicine. One of three mentors who, “Made Dr. Isaac Angell who he is,” Hart was the Angell family’s vet during Isaac’s upbringing, and has provided guidance and advice to him throughout his career. This included hiring Angell to his first job out of Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine and later helping him establish his own practice.

Turning down the ochre dirt road to Elk Ravine, we were greeted by the whinnying of horses, and the sight of shaggy Highland cattle roaming a very Scottish-looking hillside. Angell’s first task was to castrate a bull calf, and without going into too much detail, it was a surprisingly gore-free and humane process.

Then it was time to check the pregnancy status of a young pony. For nearly 30 minutes, Angell knelt in the mud angling and repositioning the ultrasound, trying to get a perfect image for Jim Archer and his wife — a tiny beating heart popped up for a moment but then become impossible to locate. The ghostly image of a ribcage was a more reliable find that, along with a few other signs, indicated a healthy foal about six months away from birth.

Then Angell took at look at a growth on the ear of a massive Belgian draft horse, used to draw the carriage rides that Elk Ravine deploys as part of its eco-friendly and environmentally conscious farm-tourism business. As Angell dispensed advice and possible treatments, a calf born a week and a half earlier on Christmas Eve danced around our legs, making for a fairly idyllic scene.

The reluctant bull

Our final visit of the day had the potential for explosive action. A fully grown bull named MacDuff had been causing some trouble with his penmate, MacBeth at the property of Gregory Quinn, popularizer of the blackcurrant in the U.S. A castration had been decided upon, and were the procedure to move forward, it would involve some degree of lassoing, tranquilizing and field surgery from Angell.

“You know, a lot of the time my work is pretty low-key, but sometimes it can actually get dangerous. And for now, I’m still young enough to remain a bit adventurous in that way.”

Muddy conditions and a lack of frost, however, meant that surgery risked contamination, so it was postponed. Doubled with that, however, was the “attitudinal” bull, who seemed to know immediately that things were amiss and refused to come nearby. As Angell and the owner stood strategizing, MacDuff retreated past a small stone wall, never taking his eyes off us, stubbornly refusing the prospect of emasculation. Plans were for a future date, and MacDuff’s manhood was left intact for the time being.

Throughout the day, Angell’s comfort around farm animals of the MacDuff variety was in stark contrast to, for instance, my own. We spoke about this phenomenon more broadly as one of the factors leading to a decrease in the popularity of large-animal veterinary medicine among veterinary students.

In the U.S., only 2% of the population are in regular contact with farm animals, meaning many folks in vet school don’t have the same level of ingrown familiarity with larger animals. This can lead to a knowledge gap — from knowing how to position oneself physically in relation to a herd-system, to being able to tell from the body language of an animal if it might be ill.

The value of this kind of intergenerational knowledge was one of the recurring themes of the day, particularly as it was clear how much Angell has benefitted from it. His mentor Dr. Hart was  mentored by a vet named Dr. Webster, and it was evident from our conversations that this vocational lineage charted a clear pathway of knowledge leading down the generations.

As farming families disappear and large-animal veterinary medicine becomes less economically sustainable, the kind of knowledge that can’t necessarily be gained from a textbook becomes less accessible, and therefore more prone to being lost.

Day’s end

At the end of the day, we made a visit with Clarence Knapp, another of Angell’s three mentors, who, “Was able to speak into my life at an important moment.”

Knapp, a kind and quiet man in his late 70s, is the fourth generation of his family to live and farm on his property. But after Clarence, there is no one set to take over.

“I’m the last.”

I got the feeling that Angell brought me to Knapp’s property for a variety of reasons. One was certainly to introduce me to an influential figure in his life, but the visit also served the purpose of emphasizing community as a means by which to preserve traditions and ways of life. Angell’s family, it emerged, often helps Knapp with the reduced farm operations he still manages, and Knapp has housed some of Angell’s cattle. This intertwining and connection across generations is something that Angell seemed to cherish deeply and took great pains to acknowledge during our conversations.

Indeed, before any of our adventures together, Angell and I had spoken on the phone to plan things out, and one of the first things he said stuck with me throughout our day.

“I feel incredibly lucky to be in a line of work where I just love my job, and love the work I do . . . When I look at my life and realizing that I’m living the dreams I had as a young person, I have to pinch myself.”

If there’s anything to say about Isaac Angell, it’s that an earnest love of veterinary medicine was on full display during our ride-along. But that love was about more than a passionate devotion to his work, it was about all that surrounds that work: a love of helping his clients, of caring for animals, of honoring the agricultural traditions of the region, of driving through the hilly countryside and making calls, of thinking through treatments, and of being a contributing member of a community.

There is also a love of being close, in his own words, “to the aura of nature. To the sublimity of a birth, and the rawness of a death. Being close to the cycles of nature.”

As the region continues to change, it’s all but certain that practices like Bentley Veterinary will have to change alongside them. But if the success that Angell’s business has been able to find is any indication, those shifts can still be intertwined with a respect for what came before.

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