Helping pets to the power of 3
Like many old-time, small-town medical doctors, veterinarians and brothers Randy, Mark and Scott Acker, in their roles as midwife, surgeon, euthanizer and counselor, have been embraced as extended family members by thousands throughout the Wood River Valley.
Randy arrived in the mid-1970s to work for Dr. Bob Beede, who founded the Sun Valley Animal Center. The youngster arrived with his wife, sixth-grade sweetheart Sue, and within five years bought the practice. "Early on," remembers Beede, "you could tell Randy had a knack for complicated surgical procedures. He’s become one of the top surgeons in the western U.S. if not the whole United States."
Randy was named Veterinarian of the Year by the Idaho Veterinary Medical Association in 2005. Today, he has gained national attention for his pioneering role in orthopedic research. He’s assisted in developing cervical disc fusion systems and bone replacement substances. Most recently, he licensed an elbow replacement system to BioMedtrix. This spring, he traveled to Boston to give a talk on the elbow prosthetic, and is scheduled to teach courses on its insertion around the world. One stop was at the St. George’s School of Medicine in Grenada, where his daughter, Maggie, is a student.
In spite of what sounds like a grueling schedule, "his family is very much a priority," says John Sfingi, a large-animal vet in Jerome, Idaho, who volunteered at the center in the late 1970s and has known the brothers for 27 years. Randy’s son, Marcus, has broken the mold to study construction engineering, but daughter Amber attends Oregon State School of Veterinary Medicine.
Is it coincidence that there will soon be five practicing vets in the family? "I didn’t push them," he says. But he also says, sincerely, "I like to say that I never go to work, which is true." It’s apparent that his passion for his profession has infected the next generation.
"He’s one of those unique individuals that combines everything you want in a vet," says Sfingi of the youthful looking man with dark, wavy hair that belies his 54 years. Randy disagrees. "Scott’s very good at ultrasound and internal medicine, stuff that I’m not good at," he says. "Scott’s the one with the bedside manner."
The statement is typical: the Ackers are modest, soft-spoken men who are uncomfortable in the limelight. Mark wants to talk about art and Randy wants to talk about Scott.
"Scott, tell us about your marriage," Randy kids his younger brother, deflecting the focus from himself. Scott, the youngest at 44, is the lone bachelor of the trio. He produces a slow smile and reveals a sense of humor that’s never far from the surface. "I really like my dog," he says, referring to an Australian shepherd mix.
Scott graduated in 1990, pulling nearly a 4.0 at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine ("Unheard of," says Randy). Sfingi calls him "a gifted veterinarian," and he now owns part of the practice, along with his brothers.
Mark, who runs Sawtooth Animal Clinic in Bellevue, says his favorite part of the job is seeing pets get better and communicating with people. "Seventy-five percent of the job is teaching clients what’s going on with their pets," he said.
In the south valley, Mark does a lot of juggling. "One client wants an MRI, and the next can’t afford a vaccination. But I always do the best work I can do for everyone." He, along with his brothers, sees health insurance for pets as a beneficial trend, due largely to rising veterinary costs caused by high-tech equipment.
With wavy gray hair lopping over his ears and wire-rimmed glasses, Mark offers a ready smile. "I can’t think of anything I’d rather do," he continues. And he’s done other stuff. He majored in art, and by 22 was teaching it at the high school level in Boulder, Colorado. "I made Randy’s wedding ring in art class," he says with a laugh. "I just didn’t have any money," replies Randy.
Mark left teaching for construction and, as he tells it, "Randy spent two years talking me into going back to school. My last argument was, ‘I’ll be 32 when I get out of vet school.’ And Randy said, ‘You’ll be 32 anyway.’" By 1984, Mark had taken over the practice’s growing Bellevue branch.
Randy’s pet family includes two orphaned kittens and a yellow lab. Mark tops that with an orphaned cat and six dogs, most of them "inherited." He and wife Barbara don’t have a television, so they paint five nights a week. "Hey, Barb got me a printing press for Christmas!" he tells his brothers, and enthusiastically launches into an explanation of making monoprints, a process in which an image painted on a metal plate is pressed onto paper. "Why don’t you just paint right on the paper?" asks Scott, who spends his minimal free time hiking or running. "It’s different," Mark insists. "The press does a little magic on it. Come over and do one some time!" he adds puckishly. He also manages a good-natured nudge at Randy. "The fishing was great on Saturday, by the way," he says, grinning. "I caught a nice 15-incher."
Well they are, after all, brothers.
The healing force of a horse
She strides between leather armchairs and brimming bookshelves with purpose, offering warm and hearty greetings to all. The bookshelves are filled with titles like Black Beauty and crowned by a collection of plastic horse models that make the fingers of any child itch. Those horses are for play, but who needs them? Here at Sagebrush Arena, a 21-strong stable of the real thing is at work for the nonprofit Sagebrush Equine Training Center for the Handicapped (SETCH), one of the nation’s premiere equine-assisted therapy programs.
The force behind it is Kristy Pigeon, a small, athletically built woman in dusty cowboy boots, with wavy hair the color of a stormy sky falling past her shoulders. She founded the program in 1991, when she built Sagebrush Arena, just north of Hailey. It swung into high gear in 2000 with the construction of the indoor arena. Last summer more than 300 clients—children and adults—rode weekly, free of charge, each accompanied by an instructor or volunteer. Eight staff members and more than 200 volunteers are integral to the program’s success, and SETCH’s Cowboy Ball—held annually in July—raises over $300,000, ensuring the sessions remain free.
"The whole thing was her dream, and she did the work, and she made it happen," says 10-year program director Wendy Collins. "I think it’s hard to understand the depth and number of lives it’s changed."
It’s midweek, and classes are in full stride. Children look relaxed and happy astride their placidly gaiting mounts. "People say, ‘How nice. You give the kids pony rides!’" exclaims Pigeon. But as one handler plays Simon Says with her client, working on developing coordination and movement, it is obvious that much more is going on.
Since equine-assisted therapy originated in 1950, research has supported the premise that the movement of a walking horse simulates the way a human walks that cannot be duplicated in any other way. "If a person has MS (multiple sclerosis), or any motor problem, or if a child is recovering from a brain tumor, the best place for them is on the back of a horse," explains Pigeon.
As a youth growing up in Danville, California, Pigeon dreamed of owning a horse. When her parents refused to buy her one, she took tennis lessons in a city recreation program. By age 17, she had become the U.S. Girls Champion and won Junior Wimbledon. In 1975, after rising to become ranked among the top 10 women in the world, she moved to Idaho with the simple goal of buying land, a dog, and, finally, a horse. At first, she taught skiing on Bald Mountain, and then opened Elkhorn Tennis School, which she ran for 11 years.
Today, the floor of Pigeon’s modest office is almost entirely taken up by a large dog bed, inhabited by an affectionate Braque Français named Mac. They have just returned from hunting Gambel’s quail in Arizona with her two Chesapeake Bay retrievers. "People ask, ‘Why go kill things?’ If you’re hiking, you’re talking," she explains. "If you’re hunting, you’re in tune with the land."
Pigeon shares her Hailey home with her fiancé, four dogs, "and a lot of barn cats." Although she’d rather see the community stay small, she likes what she sees in the way of young new residents. "The community is becoming more well-rounded, becoming more solid."
Plus, every new resident is a volunteer waiting to be born.
Mountain goats in the scope
Yesterday was a good day for Nappy Neaman. He went on an early season bike ride, and then drove north with a high-powered spotting scope. He had no expectations. He saw 12 mountain goats.
Tonight, we rumble in his big diesel truck toward the ragged humps of Boulder, Silver and Easley peaks, snow clinging to their chutes and crags like stubborn plaque on a giant’s molars. "It’ll be interesting to see if we see anything, now that we’re going up with total intention," he muses. "They’re not just waiting there for you. You’ve got to be there for them."
Neaman is an expert on the local mountain goat population: its numbers, location, movement and habits. For years, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game consulted with him because he knew more than they did about the indigenous animals. His records—17 years’ worth—have been instrumental in protecting large swaths of their habitat.
At a local charity benefit two years ago, bidding for an overnight goat-spotting trip began at $6,000. Not everyone has that to spend on a goat sighting so, to make the trips more accessible, Neaman now donates shares in day trips. Elise Lufkin, who’s been on several expeditions, is a huge fan. "He’s put so much of his life into it. He knows the goats like a wildlife biologist; he can recognize individuals." Neaman thrives on educating the public about them. "Every time I see an animal, it’s still fun," he says, and "to see people, how excited they are for that moment."
Neaman’s interest inOreamnus americanus began 17 years ago, when he accompanied a friend on a hunt into the White Clouds. His friend got his trophy, and Neaman acquired what would become a lifelong passion. "What that animal did was take me to places I’d never go."
A short, scrappy man with a shock of blond hair above bright blue eyes, Neaman’s been a fixture at The Elephant’s Perch sporting goods store in Ketchum for 12 years, wearing flip-flops year-round. In his rapid-fire speech, one can still hear remnants of a youth spent 11 blocks from the Lincoln Tunnel, on the Jersey side. He arrived in the Wood River Valley in 1978 to work for Sun Valley Company.
When Neaman jumps out of the truck at Prairie Creek, about 18 miles north of Ketchum on Highway 75, and sets up his scope on the tailgate, I wait impatiently as he trains it on Easley Peak. When he finally steps back, I press my eye to the cold metal, sweeping my eyes across rocks and dirty spring snow. "Stop moving your eyes," instructs Neaman. "Get quiet. Just relax."
I look slowly, and slowly see rocks and dirty spring snow. Long minutes go by. I accept that I may not see a goat. I think of local artist Abby Grosvenor’s words: "He shows you more than just where to look. He shows you how to look." And suddenly one appears. The animal moving effortlessly up the 40-degree pitch is ivory hued, with a blocky head bearing dark, spiky horns atop theatrically burly shoulders. It ascends in sure, impossible strides, and then vanishes behind a band of rock.
The Idaho Department of Fish and Game recently raised goat kill limits in Idaho based solely on numbers of animals sighted, and Neaman fears that lack of information may be like that band of rock: an unseen element that could cause the animal to disappear.
The goats face other threats besides hunters: snowmobilers and backcountry skiers. What does he recommend? Education, of course. In the winter, when animal stress levels are at their peak, find out where not to go. In the summer, enjoy them from afar. Three permanent sighting scopes are set up along Highway 75 specifically for such viewing: two at Billy’s Bridge, one on the Harriman Trail at Prairie Creek.
"Really get out. Really see what we have. The animal is there for us to enjoy. A hike up to Norton Lake is a different experience with a pair of binoculars. Or get a bottle of wine and a chicken from Atkinsons’, go up to the scopes and spend an evening."