Grace and Grit: A young veterinarian does his part for the American food system

October 15, 2009

interview by Marissa Guggiana
photos by Julio Duffoo
This article originally appeared in 
Meatpaper Issue Nine.

GRANT MILLER IS A LARGE-ANIMAL VETERINARIAN in Petaluma, California. Meatpaper spoke with him about caring for the animals that feed us. He treats livestock on both traditional and boutique ranches to maintain health in a ranching system that is making room for organics, a younger generation, and an interest in eastern medicine.
And he palpates.

Did you always know you were going to be a vet?

I remember a friend telling me when I was 13, “If you don’t become a vet, you’re going to miss your calling,” and that stuck with me. I really respect the people I work for because they are providing the nation’s food supply and that’s a big, big job. I’m just proud to be helping them out. I’m lucky.

Are there any peculiarities to practicing in California?

We have diseases here in California that are not in any other parts of the country. But the same can be said for other parts. For instance, the Potomac Horse Fever (1) exists largely on the East Coast but is not very prevalent here. We have things like Epizootic Bovine Abortion (2) and Pigeon Fever.(3) California is known for having a very, very difficult state board exam. A lot of people are deterred from practicing here because they don’t want to take the exam here or they can’t pass it.

What happens when there is a viral outbreak?

The State Veterinarian’s Office at the capital comes in and takes over. When it comes to infectious disease like avian flu — there was an outbreak of that a few years ago in Los Angeles — they usually will come in and take over because it’s so much effort to find every animal. Once in a while we get a tuberculosis flare-up in cattle. We are dealing with one right now.

What do you spend most of your time doing?

We spend a considerable amount of our time doing vaccinations. With the economy the way it is, more owners are doing their own vaccinations, which is fine to do, as most vaccines are over the counter.

My role on these ranches is really to formulate health plans for the animals. For example: This is when I am going to do my vaccinations, this is when I am going to de-worm, this is when I am putting my rams or bucks in with the females, here is when I am going to give mineral supplements. We create an overall management plan for the year because my role is largely to prevent problems.

On any given day, I could be dehorning a goat, doing a hoof abscess on a horse, and then a pregnancy check on a cow. I do lameness work to dental work to emergencies. I can pretty much see it all in a day, and I have, believe me.

Are pregnancy checks done with sonograms?

Not on cattle; we just palpate. (4) On sheep and goats I’ve done ultrasounds.

Is it ever emotionally confusing to work with animals that are considered commodities?

A lot of my sheep and goat people have what we call boutique herds or flocks, so they’re really pets. I definitely respect the fact that a lot of the ranchers have to be careful about their options, so they do what they can do within their means. It’s not that they don’t care for the animals. Horses are no different. It’s just that one animal owner might have more means to care for one horse than another has to care for one sheep in a flock of 1,000. You have to get creative with how you’re going to treat a lot of animals. There are those animals that may have a chance, they just need a couple of hundred more dollars into them and they don’t have it. It’s sad when that happens, but I think it’s the reality of the business.
You have to respect that line.

Do ranchers usually trust your opinion?

When I save an animal, they start to trust my opinion on things. I think most of them know that I’m looking out for their best interest as well as the animals. And I definitely hear when they tell, “Money’s really tight right now.” Or I hear them when they say, “Let’s do everything we can do to save this animal.” It’s really just about fostering relationships with people and getting to know them, getting to know their priorities and their beliefs and learning to abide by them. There can be stark, stark differences. There can be people that are really coming from left field, in my opinion.

For instance, there are people who don’t believe in the use of western medicine whatsoever. They only use eastern medicine. Not that herbs and acupuncture don’t work, but I think there are appropriate  modalities for every situation, and sometimes a western approach might be better than an eastern approach, and I let them complement one another. A lot of times, people view it more like a religion and they  don’t “believe” in penicillin, which is ridiculous to me. But since that’s their core belief system, you have to do what’s best for the animal within that realm. You have to really stretch your knowledge.

Ahem … acupuncture?

Yep, I’m a certified acupuncturist, and I do use acupuncture daily.

When do you use it?

You can use it for everything from a fever to hives to arthritis. You can have a cow that’s down and you do some acupuncture on that animal to help get it up. Sometimes for reproductively challenged animals you can use acupuncture to help them get pregnant.

I can’t imagine an animal sitting still for it.

They like it. A lot. They relax.

What other types of eastern medicine treatments do you use?

Eastern medicine is largely acupuncture and herbs. Make no mistake about it; herbs are pharmaceutical agents, just not recognized as such by our FDA. You need to have a pretty good knowledge of how they work, because they can have powerful effects in the body. It’s something that you learn as you go because there is so much to know. I do incorporate it in a lot of cases where people are interested or if I think it may be the best possible treatment.

Is being a vet profitable?

Yeah, it is. We work very, very hard, but you don’t really have to worry about money. We’re such an underserved profession that there are not enough of us, according to all the studies done by the American Veterinary Medical Association.
So we have a surplus of work.

Have you ever had a dramatic rescue?

Yeah, I have. I’ve had so many … what species do you want?

Something meat-related.

I remember a goat that had this really complicated birth and there was a baby stuck in her birth canal, and basically the head was just too big to fit through and we thought there was going to be one big baby in there. Because usually it’s a couple of small kids or one large kid. I gently pulled it out, and I stuck my hand back in there and realized that there was another baby in there. So I worked as fast as I could, and I pulled the second baby out and then put in my hand and there was a third one! The worst thing is that those kids are in there breathing birth fluid into their lungs and they can easily suffocate. So I run back to my truck, covered in birth fluid so everything is all slippery, and I have to grab this special fluid that helps them to breathe, and I squirt it under their tongues and they take a gigantic  breath. And then I’m compressing their little chests and I actually got them to start breathing again.
The first one died, but the other two survived.

Do most ranchers get involved in birth or let nature take its course?

Most commercial ranchers have a lot of experience handling birthing issues. But they will call us if it’s the worst of the worst. I’ve done Cesarean sections on the tailgate of my truck, in the dark, in the rain. I would say 90% of births ranchers  handle on their own, but with those last 10% they call us and they’re usually pretty big emergencies.

When is a vet usually present during the animal life cycle?

For the operations that choose to use a vet for the birthing cycle, who use a vet to tell them whether the animals are pregnant or not, usually you’re there one to two times a year for that; and with the kids, generally I see a young, growing animal just once, like to give them vaccinations or do a health check.

But that is just on an as-needed basis. It’s more about working with the adult animals to make sure they’re pregnant, making sure their vaccinations are up to date.

Are there certain animals with which you feel an especially strong connection?

I have a real soft spot for goats. They make you feel happy to be alive.

Do you ever get grossed out?

I can eat a sandwich while doing the grossest thing. The only thing that  might gross me out would be a smell. There are some smells, usually in birth. Like if a baby was dead and rotten in the mother, and I think there’s been maybe one time when I started to gag a little bit. For the most part, I’m totally immune to it. Most of the time, I’m really concentrating on saving the animal’s life so I’m not thinking about being covered in something. When I go to the store and I’m covered in blood and poop, I wonder what people think. To me it’s just a normal thing. It’s all in a day’s work.

(1) A syndrome that can cause fever, diarrhea, and even abortion in mares.

(2) Commonly called Foothill Abortion, it is transmitted by ticks and only affects heifers in their first pregnancy.

(3) A bacterium that causes abscesses in horses.

(4) Determine the shape and size by hand.

MARISSA GUGGIANA is the author of a love letter to America’s butchers called Primal Cuts.

JULIO DUFFOO was born in Peru, was raised in Brooklyn, and is now based in San Francisco. He has photographed people who spend their lives engaged with meat for every issue of Meatpaper since Issue One.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Nine.

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