Jun 09, 2010

Large Animal Vet Holds Her Own

By Caitlin Meredith

On a routine shift last February, Amy Jo Pilmer was drawing blood from bulls the evening before a livestock auction in Fredericksburg, Texas, when something went perilously wrong. Testing for brucellosis, a rare but dangerous bacterial infection, Pilmer took her eyes off a bull exiting the chute for a split-second. “Look out!” she heard someone yell, and before her boots could lift her to safety, an 800-pound force of nature had flattened the 5-foot-3, 120-pound woman into the dust-caked concrete. It hurt like hell, but she wasn’t about to show it to the crew of cowboys. Laughing, she picked herself up, brushed herself off and told the gatekeeper to release the next bull. “It’s 10 o’clock at night,” she said, looking at her cracked cellphone, “and we have 25 head left to go. Let’s get this done.”

Pilmer’s bout with the bull is just one of the ways she’s had to prove herself in what has traditionally been a man’s job: large-animal veterinary medicine. She’s been practicing in the Texas Hill Country for over a year, a young-looking out-of-towner, with same struggles any outsider might have finding her place in a tight-knit Texas community. The irony is that few people want to be in the club she’s worked so hard to join. It has become increasingly rare for vets, men or women, to take on the challenges of treating cattle, horses and other farm animals on the modern Texas ranch.

Large-animal medicine is a full-contact sport. Those who don’t know where to grab the bull by the horns or who have a squeamish stomach could never make it. But for Pilmer, her calling goes way back. “I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian ever since I knew what one was,” she said, taking a break between clients in the Hill Country Veterinary Clinic in Fredericksburg. The money could be better, but Pilmer is in it for the challenge, the adventure, the hard work and the opportunity to prove to herself that she is has the grit and endurance she admires in others.

After her close encounter with that auction bull, she said, she was black and blue for a week, “but I tell you what, I went to the sale barn the next day and every guy there was like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you got up and kept working.’ … What else was I going to do?”

Related Story: Vet Shortage May Mean Risks for Food Supply