February 2005

Gena Anderson

nonfiction

A Country Practice: Scenes from the Veterinary Life by Douglas Whynott

The straightforward narration of this book at first seems annoyingly provincial but ends up being what makes A Country Practice resonate on other levels. Douglas Whynott follows about a year in a veterinarian’s life, detailing in very plainspoken tone what a veterinary practice sees every day. The book starts out as a commentary on rural life and differences between types of animals and their owners, but ends up paralleling how said differences between small animal and large animal practices can reflect the differences between both gender and class in society and economics.

Chuck Shaw, the veterinarian that Whynott follows, is a man who owns a practice in Walpole, New Hampshire. He runs a true mixed practice -- that is, of the 45,000 veterinarians in private practice, only 1,262 of them run facilities that take care of both large and small animal needs. On the other hand, 33,000 of those veterinarians handle only small animals (domestic pets) and 7,000 handle only large animals like horses and cows. A mixed practice is unique because it has a main office where it handles the companion animals, but the vets also go out to farms and handle production animals as well. This type of practice can get difficult with the long hours and the on-call work, all at different locations.

What complicates the dichotomy of the two kinds of animals, companion and production, is the way that each type of animal is typically handled by their owners. Small animal pets have typically more emotional relationships with their owners; however production animals, while often seen fondly by the farmers that own them, tend to be treated more pragmatically. After all, the cows are there to do a job and while their health is important, the farmer is dependent on them for economic stability. The challenge of a mixed animal vet is then to have the knowledge and the people skills to treat two very different categories of animal.

The book also follows Rodger Osinchuck, a horse breeder who works as an associate at Shaw’s practice. Rodger grew up on a ranch, and Chuck is a plainspoken man as well, so the book really becomes interesting when they decide to hire a young, recently graduated female to their practice. In the 1990’s, women graduates of vet school finally surpassed in number the male graduates, and because of this people such as Dr. Carin Smith, a veterinarian and writer, recently gave a speech on the effects of more women entering the profession. She says that assuming it’s good for women to be vets because they are more empathetic can backfire on them:

They lead to other assumptions, such as that men are not good at such things as nurturing and empathy. Women could be held to a higher standard. And veterinary medicine could become a women’s job. Ultimately it leads to the assumption that it’s okay that we make less money. A trade-off, of empathy for income.

Smith contends that women care about respect more than money, and this is reinforced when Dr. Shaw decides to hire Erika Bruner for his mixed practice. The book goes into a series of descriptions that make her seem like, frankly, a flake, if an empathetic one. The book missteps when it makes claims of her emotional state -- crying every morning before work, meditating to find her true path, and wanting to be constantly reassured that she is doing a good job. Whynott seems to be strengthening the stereotypical views of how men and women are seen in the workforce. When Bruner finally leaves the practice to go to a job at a small animal clinic where she will work with three other female vets, it does seem to highlight the contention that women tend to lean towards more of a mentorship than a professional job. I think the fact that she goes from treating both the practical and indulgent type of animal to only treating the pets and not the farm animals corresponds with the belief that we are not the practical animal, we are the ornamental one. Owners may spend a lot of money on their pets, but it is the farmers that have money coming back to them by owning animals with a non-emotional purpose. In this way, A Country Practice is not only about veterinarians, but also about a universal workforce that needs to adapt to a changing society.

A Country Practice: Scenes from the Veterinary Life by Douglas Whynott
North Point Press
ISBN: 0865476470
289 Pages