By Aurus Sy
Published: 04/22/2022, edited: 04/29/2022
Veterinarians are heroes, dedicating their lives to making a difference in the health and safety of domesticated and wild animals. Some spend their days taking care of our pawdorable pets in vet clinics across the nation, shelters and rescue organizations. Rural veterinarians extend their care to horses, livestock and other farm animals in their area, while wildlife vets often travel to lend a helping hand to wild animals in zoos, sanctuaries and in their natural habitat.
Many veterinarians regularly go above and beyond the call of duty, but some extraordinary individuals have left their mark on the hearts and minds of the animals and people they serve. Here are five such veterinarians we'd like to recognize for World Veterinary Day whose incredible dedication and passion for animals deserves a medal!
The winner of the 2021 American Humane Hero Veterinarian Award, Dr. Mary Kate Lawler has worked tirelessly to help animals for almost three decades. Having worked with shelters and rescue groups, she has focused on spay/neuter surgery throughout her veterinary career and is a big proponent of stopping the problem of companion animal overpopulation where it starts.
Dr. Lawler is currently the Executive Director of Houston-based charity Spay-Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Chief Surgeon of its San Antonio clinic. Every year, she performs as many as 8,500 spay/neuter surgeries, as well as leads her team to perform more than 20,000 spay/neuter surgeries and 8,500 veterinary wellness visits. She's also taken her passion for stopping overpopulation worldwide by providing spay/neuter and veterinary training in other countries such as India, Mexico, and Ecuador.
Growing up, Dr. Gwendolen Reyes-Illg had always been passionate about animals. While most of her veterinary career involved working with dogs and cats, her patients have also included rodents, rabbits, reptiles, chickens, chimpanzees, and injured or orphaned wildlife. For many years, she volunteered at wild animal sanctuaries in Cameroon and Uganda. She also developed the veterinary program at Project Chimps, a Georgia sanctuary that cares for chimpanzees formerly used in research.
As a vet student, Dr. Reyes-Illg spearheaded two unique programs that continued to do well after her graduation: the Willed Body Program, which provides ethically sourced cadavers for equine anatomy courses, and Helping Alachua’s Animals Requiring Treatment and Surgery (HAARTS), which gives rescue groups access to affordable surgery. The latter has saved the lives of over 2,000 homeless companion animals to date. Dr. Reyes-Illg is currently the Veterinary Consultant for the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI)’s Farm Animal Program.
As a little girl, Dr. Sarah Sharp dreamed of becoming a marine mammal veterinarian, but her passion has led her to work with animals even before she obtained her veterinary degree. As the Stranding Coordinator for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), she developed the organization’s stranded dolphin satellite tagging program, which tracks dolphins after their release back to the wild and has tagged more animals than any program in the world.
While in vet school, Dr. Sharp conducted a study that looked into whether blood and physical parameters from stranded dolphins could predict their survival after release. This study was the first of its kind and earned her the prestigious Switzer Environmental Fellowship in 2013. Now the Animal Rescue Veterinarian for IFAW, Dr. Sharp is based in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where she helps stranded dolphins, seals, and whales by providing medical care and overseeing disentanglement programs. Check out her first-hand account of rescuing a stranded whale here!
For the past several years, Dr. Brian Murphy has been committed to improving the health of cats. In 2008, he helped establish a system for continuously monitoring the effects of lifelong feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) infection in cats, and he has been actively involved in FIV research ever since. In 2013, his team began studying feline coronaviruses, particularly feline infectious peritonitis (FIP), which led to the discovery of various antiviral therapies to treat cats affected by FIP.
In addition to giving veterinarians a better understanding of the development and treatment of these diseases, Dr. Murphy’s efforts have prompted others to pursue veterinary research to improve the health of cats. For his contributions to advancing feline health, Dr. Murphy received the 2021 American Veterinary Medical Foundation (AVMF)/EveryCat Health Foundation Research Award. When he is not researching feline diseases, he is teaching at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Known as the “mother of shelter medicine,” Dr. Lila Miller pioneered the field of veterinary medicine dedicated to the care of homeless animals in shelters. Just a few decades ago, animals who ended up in shelters would only receive food and water and nothing else. Those who had minor temperament issues or treatable diseases were put down. That all changed when Dr. Miller crafted the first veterinarian-written guidelines for shelter animal care, which are used in shelters across the US today.
She also co-created the nation’s first shelter medicine course, co-edited four shelter medicine textbooks, and co-founded the Association of Shelter Veterinarians (ASV). While working for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), she developed protocols to improve the health of shelter animals, make them more adoptable, and lower euthanasia rates. Dr. Miller retired in 2019, but her groundbreaking work continues to transform the lives of countless animals in need.
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