Animal welfare in the county took a big step forward recently thanks to a “game-changing” new addition to the Valencia County Animal Shelter team.  

In October 2023, seasoned veterinarian Dr. Ralph Zimmerman was hired by VCAS as its first full-time vet. VCAS Director Jess Weston said this invaluable role has been something the shelter has been seeking for years.  

Dr. Ralph Zimmerman
VCAS veterinarian

“I realized spay and neuter is the only answer to getting our intake numbers to be lower and the only way to get that done was dedicating someone in our community to spay and neuter,” said Weston. “It’s been my goal — my dream — since I started in 2016 to make that happen.” 

Weston said funding for the position came through in 2022 from “the county commissioners realizing that we had the need for it and it was a concern in the community, so they stepped up and did it through the general fund.” 

Zimmerman, a long-time Valencia County resident, brings decades of experience to the shelter acquired through an extensive, distinguished career working with a wide variety of small, large and exotic animals.   

Prior to joining VCAS, he served seven years as New Mexico’s state veterinarian ensuring healthy livestock populations across the state.  

Before that, he was the head veterinarian at the Albuquerque Biopark Zoo, where he provided veterinary care to some of our planet’s most iconic animals ranging from elephants, apes, big cats and many more species in between.  

While Zimmerman spent the last 14 years working primarily with livestock and exotic animals, he is no stranger to shelter environments. Earlier in his career, he spent a fair share of time working in Albuquerque’s animal welfare department, so he knows all too well the struggles animal shelters face.  

“It’s hard medicine. You see a lot of things that should never happen,” said Zimmerman. “You can’t always save them all and it can get overwhelming, but you just got to keep in mind you’re doing everything you can for as many as you can.”  

About two years ago, Zimmerman began volunteering with local nonprofit Homeless Animal Rescue Team to provide spay and neuter services at the VCSNAP clinic, right next door to the shelter. 

A few times a month, he spayed and neutered local cats and dogs there through HART’s low-cost spay and neuter clinic, and he fixed feral cats as part of their trap, neuter, return program.  

Having this connection to the area, Zimmerman decided to implement his skills closer to home after retiring from his state position earlier in 2023. 

“Valencia County is not so kind to their animals, so there’s really a need for helping the critters here,” Zimmerman said in response to why he decided to take on the role.  

“He is well versed in anything we can throw at him because he’s more than likely dealt with it before,” said Weston. “We’re blessed to have him.” 

Zimmerman spends most of his time at the shelter spaying and neutering cats and dogs, which entails up to 10 to 15 surgeries in a single day.  

Weston said this is the most impactful aspect of having a full-time veterinarian at the shelter, as their goal is to now try and fix all adoptable animals before they leave the facility, ensuring they are not continuing the cycle of overpopulation.  

Zimmerman, right, and vet tech Shayla Marteney, left, prepare a cat to be spayed at the VCSNAP clinic last spring. 

“I think if we can provide some spay, neuter and vaccine services, it’s not going to stop everything, but I think we can provide a substantial community service to help the animals in our community,” said Weston. “We have to set the example for the community that this is the way to take care of your animals.” 

It will take about 18 months or so to get through a backlog of surgeries from past adoptions and voucher programs but, once that’s done, the shelter will be able to start providing some free services for qualifying residents, “and hopefully start seeing some impact on our intake side at that point.” 

Apart from spay and neuter, Zimmerman assists with shot clinics and does a walk-through of the shelter every morning to check on the health of each animal.  

“We’re not trained veterinarians. We kind of know what to look for, but his expertise has definitely helped us catch some things before they turn into something bad down the road,” said Weston. “He’s also helped us with some cleaning protocols, some equipment changes and overall going through our program where things were lacking and being able to help us take it to the next level.” 

While the shelter is not equipped as a full medical clinic, Zimmerman is also able to provide more attention to animals in need of emergency services.  

For example, he recently worked with a cat brought into the shelter by some good samaritans who witnessed the cat being thrown out of a car on the freeway. The cat sustained a broken leg from this and was taken to a veterinarian the shelter contracts with for orthopedic surgery.  

Zimmerman’s presence allowed for extra care and attention to the cat’s recovery, which led to a faster rehabilitation process for the feline, who made a full recovery and ended up finding a forever home soon after.  

The additional mental support and care Zimmerman is able to provide for the animals is also just as important, especially to the “underdogs,” senior animals and owner surrenders.  

Dr. Ralph Zimmerman, pictured outside the VCSNAP clinic in Los Lunas, is the first full-time veterinarian to be employed by the Valencia County Animal Shelter.

“A lot of dogs get into the shelter and they start shutting down mentally; you can see them just sinking into themselves,” said Zimmerman. “So I try to get them out and get them walking and just let them know somebody’s paying attention to them, and it really makes a difference.” 

As such, Zimmerman said his message to the community is to be committed to taking care of a pet. 

“Animals aren’t throwaway items,” he said. “People just need to be kinder to the critters and a little bit more thoughtful about what happens to them when they drop them off here.” 

The Valencia County Animal Shelter is always seeking donations of blankets, toys, cleaning items and dog and cat food. The shelter gives out free pet food to those in need when able, so donated food “goes a long way to keeping animals in their homes instead of ending up here.” 

When asked about how it feels to fill in such a needed role within the county, Zimmerman said it just feels good to give back. 

“You got to have a reason for going to work everyday,” he said. “The community has been good to me over the years, so I figured it was time to come and do something to give back.” 

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Felina Martinez was born and raised in Valencia County. She graduated from the University of New Mexico in 2021. During her time at UNM, she studied interdisciplinary film, digital media and journalism. She covers the village of Los Lunas, Los Lunas Schools, the School of Dreams Academy and the town of Peralta.