When I pass by the Valley Veterinary Clinic I still experience a flood of memories. I worked there as a summer student. I remember sleeping over a horse stable and eating a lot of peanut butter and jam sandwiches in an attempt to save money for school. I remember being asked to take the lead on some clinical investigations. I remember learning that the way you present the values of your practice to the public is important. Mostly I remember the time spent with a great group of veterinarians and staff.
Dr John Stinson, one of founding partners, was a very hard worker. He also knew how to find the humor in almost any situation. He seemed, to me, to be fearless and did not shy away from a challenge. John was one of those veterinarians that had been steeped in veterinary medicine for his entire life. John’s father, Dr W. J. Stinson, was a local legend in the farming community and a self-proclaimed “horse doctor.” John had witnessed the evolution of companion animal practice as he grew up and then when he started his own practice. The values placed on pets in his practice were very different from those in his father’s practice.
John’s practice was a place where locals could bring a stray animal that had been injured. Whether it was a “dog hit by car” or “deer hit by car,” John was all about trying to do what was right for the animal. There were, however, practical limits to what a small clinic could do. On one occasion a stray dog with no tags was brought to the clinic. The dog was treated and housed while they tried to find the owner or a new home. With little prospect of finding the owner or a new home John eventually elected to euthanize the dog.
They say that “no good deed goes unpunished!” A short while later, the dog’s owner showed up at the clinic looking for the missing dog. The owner was told that the dog had been taken in and treated, but when no one claimed ownership or adopted the dog, it was eventually euthanized. Despite what John had done to try to help, the owner thought he should have done even more. Soon thereafter an official complaint was registered and there were some tough days ahead for John. We could tell when John got another criticism, as he would walk around the clinic with a long towel wrapped around his neck, upstretched towards the ceiling, and he would ask if anyone had a small table or chair that he could borrow for a short while.
John always seemed to have an endless supply of quotations that he could draw on for any particular situation. In this situation, where he was trying to do the right thing for these strays, he seemed to take some comfort that summer from one particular anonymous quote that went as follows. “Don’t fear criticism. The galleries are full of critics. They play no ball, they fight no fights. They make no mistakes because they attempt nothing. Down in the arena are the doers. They make mistakes.”1 I wrote it down, committed it to memory, and have never forgotten it since.
It was not until recently that I learned that this quote actually came from General David Monroe Shoup.2 Shoup was an Indiana farm kid who had joined the Reserve Officer Training Corp in order to pay for his college education. Shoup stayed in the military after graduation. As a colonel in the Marine Corps he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in liberating the Tarawa Atoll in WW II. He eventually became the 22nd Commandant of the US Marine Corps and part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Eisenhower administration. After retiring from the Marine Corps, Shoup became a very outspoken anti-Vietnam activist. For speaking his mind and standing by his convictions on that particular issue he received a great deal of public criticism.
It would have been easier for Dr Stinson to avoid criticism had he not tried to offer help for those animals in need. From his frame of reference he thought that he had made an ethical decision to euthanize that particular dog. He was being pragmatic and understood that resources were not limitless. Today we are experiencing a similar change in societal values and the “social license” needed for producing food animals.
The troubles eventually passed for John, but not without some adjustment to public expectations. The good news was that John continued to help animals in need when he could. In fact, one timid cat that he had rescued that summer headed back to school with me, and she was a part of my young family for 14 years. Often in life we can find ourselves in the right place at the right time, with an opportunity to effect change for the good. We may make a mistake as we try. We may be the target of criticism. Perhaps we should learn to wear that criticism as if it were a badge of honor for trying to do the right thing for the animals in our care.
2. David M. Shoup. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_M._Shoup#Commandant_of_the_ Marine_Corps.
George Charbonneau, DVM