The 2020 census showed about 77,000 people living in Valencia County. Within the county and in nearby Albuquerque, there are several medical facilities to see to the health and well-being of us humans.
However, the county is also home to between 19,000 and 25,000 dogs, more than 17,000 cats, 40,000 cows, 2,100 equids (horses, mules and donkeys) as well as numerous sheep, goats, pigs, alpacas, a few rheas and no doubt lots of snakes, parrots, tortoises, etc. More animals than people! Who takes care of these folks? Why, veterinarians, of course.
My family and I have had pets — dogs, cats and horses — all our lives, and I know how meaningful they have been to us. We have experienced the joy and excitement of a new puppy or kitten and the sorrow and grief when we have had to ask a vet to help one of these family members get to the other side.
However, unless you have tortoises or parrots as companions, you are sure to outlive them, and you, too, have or will experience these joys and sorrows.
Before we look at the men and women who have served our furry friends, let’s take a look at some history. First a bit of etymology.
The word “veterinarian” comes from the Latin veterinarius, which means “of, or having to do with, beasts of burden.” This makes sense, considering that domesticated animals were the “machines” of ancient times, as well as prime sources of food.
Care for domesticated animals dates back into the Paleolithic Era. The first animals to be domesticated were probably dogs that hunter-gatherers first domesticated from wolves between 19,000 and 32,000 years ago, probably in Siberia.
There is fossil evidence that the first people to cross the Bering Straits into North America brought canine companions with them.
In addition to being companions, dogs helped with hunting, transportation, providing protection from other animals, and were occasionally used for food when times got tough. All of this meant that they needed to be cared for when sick or injured.
Over time, the men and women who had these dogs developed basic medical capabilities, probably very similar to those used on their fellow human beings. Harry Schenawolf, a retired history professor, has said that when these basic cures failed to work “they probably also turned to magic and religion, using talismans, incantations, prayers to gods, and a whole host of barbaric rites to care for their animals.”
There are references to animal care in the Bible (Proverbs 27:23) and in Mesopotamian, Greek and Roman literature. In fact, the first mention of a dedicated veterinarian goes back to a man named Urlugaledinna, who lived around 3000 BCE in Mesopotamia and was “an expert in healing animals.”
Some refer to Aristotle (384-322 BCE) as the “father of veterinary medicine” based on his seminal work, “The History of Animals.” Notwithstanding these ancient references, most people credit the beginning of the “modern veterinary profession” to the 1761 founding of the veterinary school in Lyon, France, by Claude Bourgelat.
The first “veterinarians” in the Rio Abajo were the Native Americans who, in addition to dogs, raised turkeys and may have had parrots or other exotic birds traded northward from Central America. They may also have domesticated bobcats after capturing them as kittens. They almost certainly used traditional herbal and incantational medical procedures to care for their animals.
Arrival in New Mexico
The real diversity in domesticated animals in New Mexico came with the Spaniards, starting with Francisco Vasquez de Coronado in 1540. According to Richard and Shirley Flint:
On the Coronado expedition … there was at least one veterinarian (maestro de albeitería), at least one horse groom (caballerizo), at least one head overseer of sheep (mayoral), at least one muleteer (arriero), and at least two farriers (herradores). In addition, there certainly must have been assistant overseers of sheep (rabadánes), shepherds (pastores), swineherds (porquerizos), and cowherds (vaqueros). These were all standard sixteenth-century Spanish trades and occupations that required certification by a gremio (guild).
The professionals who serviced the Spanish flocks, herds, and remudas (herds of saddle-broken horses) continued into the Mexican and American periods. These men served wealthy ricos and soldiers, but the farmers and ranchers were left to their own resources and the time-honored methods of the Native Americans and their own ancestors for veterinary care.
Although there were some “professional” veterinarians in the U.S. in the early 19th century, a historian of the profession characterized most of the individuals who claimed to be vets as “Charlatans, harpies, mountebanks, and a preponderant group whose practices were unthinkably barbarous to say the least.”
The arrival of the U.S. Army in 1846 brought some professional veterinarians into New Mexico. Although the Army Veterinary Corps was not formally established until 1916, Congress had long authorized each cavalry regiment to have a veterinary surgeon with the equivalent rank of sergeant-major and pay of $75 per month.
In addition to caring for the animals, these veterinarians were also responsible for inspecting the meat that was provided to the soldiers.
The first licensed veterinarian in New Mexico was Dr. R. M. Olbeter (New Mexico Veterinary license No. 1) who practiced in Clayton from 1898 until his death in 1959, and was president of the New Mexico Veterinary Medical Association in 1941.
One of the first licensed vets in Valencia County was Dr. Pierce Humble (license No. 16 — we are now up to about 4,000) who practiced in Belen for a short time before moving to Lubbock, Texas. Prior to Dr. Humble’s practice, veterinary services in the Rio Abajo were mostly supplied by veterinarians from Albuquerque.
Valencia County has had a great need for veterinarians with skills as diverse as the diverse animal population found on farms, ranches, dairies, and in each of our homes. So, with a bit of history behind us, let’s take a closer look at the men and women who have cared for our non-human family members — those folks who Drs. Roy Stewart and Linda Locklar called “the other family doctors” in their 2006 book by the same name.
One of the earliest vets in Valencia County was Dr. Norman Phillips. Dr. Phillips got his degree at the Ontario (Canada) Veterinary College in 1951 and moved to Los Lunas in 1953.
He traveled all over the state and even into Arizona and Colorado, taking care of cattle and horses with equipment and medicine in the trunk of his Cadillac. (Phillips claimed that a Cadillac would outlast a truck, even on back country roads, and he proved it by getting between 300,000 and 400,000 miles on his Caddi.)
Phillips mainly serviced dairies in the area until his retirement. Some remember him as rather curmudgeonly, although others, like dairyman Huck DeSmet, remember him as a kind and pleasant. Huck recalls a time when Phillips came to the family’s Bosque Farms dairy to perform a Caesarean section (C-section) on a cow that was struggling to deliver.
Dr. Phillips became something of a celebrity among local ranchers and dairymen. He was frequently asked to remain for a meal after treating animals.
During one visit, he was asked to say grace before dinner, something he was uncomfortable doing. However, he rose to the occasion and gave the entire prayer in Latin. The ranchers were suitably impressed. However, after the meal, one of the other dinner guests, a Catholic priest, pulled him aside and, with a wry smile, remarked that he noticed that the prayer had been just a long recitation of the names for pig entrails.
Dr. Greg Griggs, a graduate of Colorado State and originally from Tucumcari, came to the Albuquerque area as a federal meat inspector in 1967. Together, with Dr. Robert Blake, he started a practice on Country Lane in Bosque Farms in 1970. Dr. Mike Otto joined the practice in 1973.
Dr. Blake moved to New Zealand in 1976 and Dr. Otto, a graduate of Texas A&M, moved to Belen and started the Valencia Animal Clinic. Otto suffered a cat bite, which led to the amputation of his finger, a downturn in his practice, and a bout with depression. Sadly, he took his own life in the early 1980s.
Griggs sold the Bosque Farms practice to Dr. Marvin Bowman in 1999 but has continued to do relief practicing.
When asked about the most memorable event he had experienced, Dr. Griggs recalled a horse mutilation south of Mountainair. He said that the horse’s injuries were so precise that they could have been cut “with a laser.” The perpetrator of the deed has never been identified.
Recalling his nearly 60 years as a practicing vet, Griggs says that the biggest change he has noted is the increase of women in the profession.
He recalled that his veterinary school class had only two women in a class of about 75. Today there are between 95 and 100 women in a class of 130. He also noted the tremendous advances in anesthesia and surgical procedures.
I have never forgotten the cogent advice that Dr. Griggs gave me when he was treating my first (but not my last) colicky horse, “Never stand behind a horse that has been treated with mineral oil or you may be in for a big surprise!”
Dr. George Parker, a graduate of Kansas State, opened his practice in 1977 and retired in 2019. He welcomed “all animals, except birds and reptiles!” Raised on a dairy farm, Parker said he had always wanted to be a vet. His practice was mostly horses and some dairy cattle.
Dr. Parker recalled an incident when an associate had been sent to a ranch to euthanize a horse. The associate returned after putting the horse down. The good doctor was very surprised by a phone call the next morning informing him that the horse was still very much alive and kicking!
Parker said the biggest and most influential change he has noted was the introduction of ivermectin, a drug in the avermectin family, as a parasite control drug for horses and cattle. The drug had been first synthesized in Japan in the early 1970s and was introduced in the United States in 1981.
Parker pointed out after the introduction of the new drug, colics in horses were reduced by almost 80 percent. Parker also noted the rather alarming increase in mosquito-borne West Nile virus after it was first isolated in New York City in 1999.
Interestingly, the discoverers of avermectin/ivermectin received half of the 2015 Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology because of the efficacy of the drug on river blindness, lymphatic filariasis and other parasitic diseases in humans.
Parker sold his practice, located on North El Cerro Loop, to Drs. Donny MacDougal and Bill Thompson. MacDougal and Thompson built a new building on north N.M. 314 in Los Lunas. The practice, named Los Lunas Animal Clinic, treats both large and small animals.
Marvin Bowman, DVM, well known throughout Valencia County as a “horse doctor,” attended veterinary school at Kansas State and practiced out of his home in Bosque Farms starting in 1974.
He purchased the practice on Country Lane from Dr. Griggs in 1999. For a time, Bowman was one of the only large animal vets in Central New Mexico and characterized his practice as basically living out of his truck.
One of the remarkable accomplishments of Bowman’s nearly 60-year career was developing a successful technique and drug regimen for colic surgery on horses. Prior to this time, it was assumed that if a horse colicked to the point of needing surgery, the animal could not be helped.
Applying what were then revolutionary techniques, Bowman and Dr. Jim Brighton lost the first 10 horses they operated on, but saved the 11th, the first colicky horse in New Mexico saved by surgery. As their technique improved even further, more than 80 percent of the horses they put under the knife were saved.
Dr. Bowman also provided veterinary services to the Albuquerque Zoo for about six years. During his service there, he helped diagnose and treat an outbreak of clostridium perfrigens that was killing newborn hoof-stock calves. He also designed a big cat enclosure to make it easier to treat the animals. His design attracted national recognition.
Although, Dr. Bowman has been retired for some time, the Bosque Animal Clinic is still operating as a small animal clinic under the able leadership of Samantha McKinney, DVM.
Dr. Roy Stewart grew up in Southern California and always wanted to become a vet. Getting into vet school was a real challenge in the mid-1970s, due in part to the popularity of the series of books by English veterinarian James Herriot, from “All Creatures Great and Small” in 1972 to “Lord God Made Them All” in 1994. Stewart was accepted in the freshman class of the Kansas State University School of Veterinary Medicine in the fall of 1975.
After graduation, Dr. Stewart accepted a position with Drs. Stan Agenbroad and Jim Cole at the Rio Bravo Animal Clinic in Albuquerque’s South Valley. Not long after joining the Rio Bravo Clinic, Agenbroad suggested that Stewart open a much-needed second veterinary clinic in Belen. The new mixed-animal clinic, named Mesa Vista Animal Hospital, opened on Aug. 1, 1979, on River Road in Belen.
In his book, Dr. Stewart recounts several interesting occurrences. One of the most interesting was his first introduction to animal surgery. This actually occurred when he decided to spay his own cat while still in high school and acting as a kennel assistant in California.
He optimistically believed he could do the procedure in 30 minutes and administered an appropriate amount of anesthesia. Finishing the “30-minute procedure” two hours and several additional doses of anesthesia later, he then spent several tense hours waiting for the poor cat to awaken.
Later in his practice, he recalled a client who bragged about castrating tomcats by stuffing them into a boot and “clipping them” before they could escape!
Dr. Stewart sold his Belen practice to Brenda Mack, a graduate of Colorado State, in 2007. Dr. Mack moved her previous practice from North Belen to Stewart’s building on River Road and renamed the new practice Valencia Animal Clinic. Dr. Stewart retired and is now living in Albuquerque.
(Part two of John Taylor’s “Cattle and Horses and Dogs, Oh My! — Veterinary Care in Valencia County” will be published in the Valencia County News-Bulletin on June 24.)
(La Historia del Rio Abajo is a regular column about Valencia County history written by members of the Valencia County Historical Society. The author of this month’s column a retired engineer from Sandia National Laboratories and board member of the Valencia County Historical Society. He is the author or co-author of seventeen books on New Mexico history, including “Murder, Mystery, and Mayhem in the Rio Abajo,” “A River Runs through Us,” “Tragic Trails and Enchanted Journeys,” “Mountains, Mesas, and Memories,” and “Years Gone by in the Rio Abajo,” all co-edited with Dr. Richard Melzer. Opinions expressed in this and all columns of La Historia del Rio Abajo are the author’s only and not necessarily those of the Valencia County Historical Society or any other group or individual.)