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For the love of animals

Animal care is at the forefront for veterinarian Dr. Bob Evenson

Dr. Bob Evenson made a swift entry into the real world of veterinary medicine the first morning of his career when he delivered a calf by C-section only to return to the clinic to find out that another case 30 miles north would be the second of what would add up to more than 4,000 C-sections during the next 47 years.

It was June 1, 1969. He had been among the first 27 students to graduate from the new Western College of Veterinary Medicine at Saskatoon that year and he and his wife, Paulette, had just purchased the clinic at Tisdale, Sask.

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Today, Evenson has the distinction of being one of, if not the eldest practising veterinarian in the province and this year’s recipient of the Saskatchewan Veterinary Medical Association’s highest level of recognition, the J.J. Murison Distinguished Veterinarian Award for service to the profession and public.

His successful career as a veterinarian wouldn’t have been possible if not for his love and compassion for animals. He grew up in Watrous, Sask., where a favourite pastime was helping relatives on their mixed farm nearby. From Grade 8 on, his goal was to become a veterinarian once he got a first-hand look at the profession while tagging along with his brother-in-law to care for animals.

“That was the way it was in those days. When I started, we could handle animals at the old clinic if necessary, scouring calves and we did a few C-sections there, but most of the work was done in the countryside,” Evenson recalls.

That didn’t come without challenges. The good old days of the ’70s don’t seem like that long ago in some ways, but country roads and highways weren’t near what they are today at the worst of times. Oftentimes, it meant travelling by whatever was available — snowmobile, horse and cutter, tractor, even boat and plane — to get to animals and rig up some way to treat them. Back then, if a vet didn’t know how to use a lariat, he wouldn’t get the work.

Cattle on the whole did tend to be quieter because they were handled more often than today with the shift to larger herds calving on pasture and swath grazing and corn grazing into the winter months. The cattle on the mixed farms typical of the early era were usually part of a menagerie that included pigs, horses, chickens and sometimes sheep, so it wasn’t uncommon for cows to be tied into stalls at night during the winter months. Some farms raised dual-purpose cattle for beef and milking to sell the cream and he had 17 dairy farms among his clients, the largest being 50 cows.

It was normal to put on 70,000 miles a year travelling to and from calls across the large region any hour of the day or night. Paulette handled the office side of the business and when he was too tired to drive another mile in the dark, they would bundle their sleepy kids into the back seat and she would take the wheel.

The 1990s were interesting times, too, as farms diversified into exotic livestock from rabbits, wild boars, buffalo, elk, deer, alpacas and llamas, to heritage poultry, ostriches and emus. Although not many of those remain, there are still a few large dairies in the region. The beef herds are fewer and larger as well with many numbering into the hundreds and some nearing a thousand.

Most farms nowadays have good handling setups to restrain animals that need to be treated on the farm because of their condition, as well as for semen testing and preg checking, but the majority of animals that needs individual attention are brought into the clinic for treatment.

Evenson is widely known for his strict attention to hygiene. “The way I look at it is why go to all the care of doing a surgery and end up with complications that could be fatal or take many days of therapy just because of unclean hands or equipment,” he says.

Clients who have anxiously watched or helped him do C-sections say the scrub-down seems to take more time than the surgery itself, not counting the care he takes closing up the incision.

“I have to say it’s a pleasure to watch his skill with a knife during surgeries and see stitches so precise you’d think he had done them with a machine. He works quickly, efficiently and always with control. Those times were great opportunities to learn from him,” notes Earl McCorriston, a beef producer who supported his nomination for the award. “I have always appreciated his willingness to answer calls day or night, seven days a week. Whether it meant a speedy drive out to the farm or opening the clinic in the middle of the night to attend to an emergency, he was always on call — a remarkable feat considering he ran a single-veterinarian practice for most of his career.”

His commitment to helping wildlife in distress and pets without owners didn’t go without mention either. The clinic has been a refuge for countless misfortunate animals through the years and the staff goes to great lengths to find homes for abandoned animals, oftentimes found trying to fend for themselves in the cold of winter and more than once found at the local landfill. He is proud that they have never had to put down a healthy cat or dog for lack of finding it a home. An arrangement with New Hope Dog Rescue near Saskatoon helps make their own rescue work a little easier these days.

Next to losing animal patients, Evenson says his only disappointment was not being successful in the effort to establish a regional Saskatchewan Prevention of Cruelty To Animals shelter in Tisdale after the town donated property, rallying the support of other local municipalities, and fundraising activities that secured nearly $350,000 to build it.

McCorriston adds that the cleanliness and orderliness of the clinic is a priority and doesn’t go unnoticed by clients.

Evenson has always taken great pride in the facility and any slow time is taken up with keeping the equipment, building and grounds in top-notch repair.

That made 1998 a particularly notable year because they were able to purchase their clinic, which had been built by the town and surrounding municipalities in 1973. It was a fully modern clinic but in need of an expansion to accommodate new equipment, livestock and pet supplies, and the growing demand for pet care.

The expansion also provided space for his son, Mike, and wife, Karen Sigfrid, to join the practice in 2001, with her sister, Kristen Sigfrid, joining them in 2008. The clinic now operates as Northeast Veterinary Clinic with a staff of 10 including the four veterinarians and Paulette who takes care of the bookwork, alongside their veterinary technicians and receptionist.

Having family members to help and carry on the practice is among Bob’s most rewarding experiences even though at 79 years young he has no plans to retire.

One of the best additions has been the drive-through-style loading/unloading area with a secure walkup directly into the examination chute inside the building. It saves the worry of having to capture escapees — an exercise that had taken them through the downtown and residential areas more than a few times through the years.

The purchase of a second-hand X-ray machine in earlier days is still a standout because he no longer had to make arrangements with the local hospital to X-ray animals after hours. Today, they have modern X-ray equipment and digitalization has made it possible to share and discuss images with experts at the university or anywhere for that matter. Ultrasound, including a portable unit for preg checking, ultrasonic tools for dental work, instruments for blood chemistry and hematology analyses, and an endoscope for non-invasive gastrointestinal examinations are a few of the advancements in animal care that he couldn’t have even imagined at the start of his career.

Without a doubt, tranquilizer guns, gas anesthesia and the newer injectable anesthetics for animals have made procedures a whole lot easier and safer for veterinarians and their patients.

Clients certainly appreciate the effectiveness of today’s specific and long-acting antibiotics, products that control internal and external parasites in one dose, and vaccines.

In his early years, producers might have vaccinated young stock against blackleg and kept up with warble control. Today, the majority uses the broad-spectrum products for parasite control and vaccinates against clostridial diseases, scours, pneumonia and abortive diseases, such as BVD and IBR.

In his experience, today’s vaccines are very effective because they don’t see the abortion storms and weak calves they once did. Only the odd scouring calf gets down so low that it needs to be kept at the clinic for IV fluid therapy. He thinks the trend to later calving probably hasn’t been as important as the overall improvements in managing herd health and nutrition.

Most of the abortions and weak-calf problems they do see are tied to vitamin or mineral deficiencies, but even those cases are becoming less frequent as feed testing and supplementing to meet requirements for energy, protein, vitamins and minerals become routine. Testing feeds for toxins, such as ergot and fusarium, are now on the radar screen as well.

Semen testing is another practice that has become more the norm than the exception because producers see its importance in a successful breeding program. It and preg testing are a big part of Mike’s work nowadays.

As for C-sections, the years of doing as many as 200 are a thing of the past because of better breeding programs with calving-ease sires selected for replacement heifers. Most of the C-sections are on mature cows due to the cervix failing to fully open. They still do around 50 a year and seeing one come in and two go out is still one of the most rewarding parts of his job.

To young veterinarians just starting out, he says not to feel bad if you don’t know something and don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Communication networks and expert call lines make it much easier to get information and discuss cases with others, which was something he missed as a young vet starting out on his own.

It’s been said that a lot of diagnoses are missed for not looking rather than not knowing, meaning that thorough examinations are important.

“Most of all, if your reason for choosing to be a vet isn’t for the love of animals, then you are probably in the wrong profession,” he says. “You have to love animals.”

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