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Lessons Learned From Animals

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Long before Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.) was on the campaign trail to the Capitol, he used campaign strategies to win over his fellow Oregonians as a local veterinarian, knocking on door after door, pitching his slogan.

“Hi, I’m Kurt Schrader,” he would say. “I’m a darn good veterinarian. Give me a shot.”

It was a practice he later would turn to when running for elected office.

“I went around farm to farm. It was good training for here because I’m not a very outgoing guy,” Schrader said. “It’s a lot better having had that experience where you have to humble yourself but at the same time tell people that you think you are of value.”

In Schrader’s hometown of 6,000 people, veterinarians were known for their local involvement, from the chamber of commerce to the school board, and Schrader served as chairman of the town planning commission.

He first decided to join the profession after a summer fixing fences on a ranch in Wyoming.

“I got a sheet of paper out and on the y-axis, I listed all the professions that I’d explored, and on the x-axis, I put the things I wanted out of life,” Schrader said. And veterinarian was one. … So I took zoology my senior year so I could have my one biology course, and I applied to veterinary school in Illinois and was lucky enough to get in.”

Schrader earned his undergraduate degree in government from Cornell University before attending veterinary school. After finishing his graduate degree, he took a job in Oregon under a veterinarian, but that didn’t satisfy him. So he started his own business with nothing but a few supplies and a pickup truck.

Many of Schrader’s ideals and viewpoints on life come from his time spent with the animals that he’s helped and his interactions with their owners. If inspiration is needed on how to approach life and its problems, Schrader suggests looking to animals.

He recounted an experience he had treating a dog:

“You take an X-ray and the [animal’s] hips are gone, I mean literally gone … and up until yesterday, this dog was fine,” Schrader said. “When I first got into the practice, I thought, ‘That’s bullshit, there is no way, you’d be hurting.’ It’s amazing: You give that dog a little bit of pain medicine, and they are poppin’ right back up — just mind over matter, their ability to deal with things that people can’t.”

Schrader didn’t work only on small animals; his main focus was horses. Of the countless cases he has worked on throughout the years, some stand out and capture the essence of his career.

In one instance, a barn fire left a horse named Fishstix badly burned. The horse’s owner was not wealthy, but she pushed Schrader to be more than a “country vet” and conduct in-depth research. As a result, Schrader adapted a human slip pocket skin graft technique for the horse.

Stretching his credentials a second time, Schrader collaborated with Oregon State University to prove that pentachlorophenol (a chemical compound used as a pesticide and disinfectant) from a lumber firm was causing issues for mares on a breeding farm. The side effects consisted of a propensity for early stillbirths, hoof issues and digestive cowlick problems. The chemical had been “leaking and leeching into the ground and affecting the ground water.”

One of the routine procedures that Schrader didn’t enjoy but makes for an interesting part of veterinary life involves worming horses, which is required three times a year.

“I remember being up at the racetrack in the middle of winter, and back in the old days, the way you wormed the horse is you got a big long tube and you stuffed it down the nostril into the stomach,” he joked. “You have to blow on the end of the tube and so I was pretty much parasite free most of my life.”

Schrader shared the two biggest veterinary medicine advances he witnessed during his more than 30 years in the field.

“Nutrition, which is what we need to do for people. If you want to get health care reform, nutrition’s the key element,” he said. “The other is dentistry. I was shocked at that. I was a country boy. … You didn’t do any dental on your dog, and you sure didn’t do it on your horse. Now, people swear by it in terms of performance and longevity.”

The transition from Schrader’s veterinary career to one in politics seemed a natural path to take.

“I mean, as a veterinarian, at least in rural America, you are usually involved in your community,” he said. “You are looked upon as a leader, someone they trust.”

Schrader got his feet wet when serving on the local planning commission, turning the tide by moving the commission from “just a responsive to a proactive legislation.”

As he became more involved in the local political scene, his veterinary team began to run his practice on autopilot.

Maddened by a home builder who was attempting to pass legislation Schrader believed would restrict local communities’ powers on growth patterns, the veterinarian decided to run for the state Legislature. After serving in the state House and then the state Senate, he was elected to the U.S. House in 2008.

Schrader sold his veterinary practice last year to his associate.

“There is a time when the profession moves on. Veterinary medicine is different now,” he said. “I believe there is an era with which you serve in a capacity, and then there is a time for you to move on and let the next generation come in.”

Schrader said new beliefs on pain management are difficult for him to cope with. He does not agree with the anthropomorphism of animals, the idea that animals have humanlike qualities. His take is simpler: Animals don’t care and have their own view of the world. It was time to move on.

“I spent the first third of my life gong to school, being academic and enjoying the opportunity to think creatively, and the middle third of my life I spent doing stuff,” Schrader said. “And at this point, I’m putting what little I learned doing into practice and am starting to use the intellectual part of Kurt Schrader one more time.”

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