I grew up to be a ballet dancer, studying at the best ballet school in the country, The School of American Ballet, which is the School attached to the New York City Ballet, during George Balanchine's heyday. It was also the era when the greatest Russian ballet dancers were defecting. They all came to the Schoolto take class, including Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova. It was a unique time. I was very lucky to have been there then. The year before turning professional, I tore my ACL which ended my career before it really got going. I did have my fifteen minutes, though, as I spent two years in a regional ballet company in upstate New York, where I danced the lead in Sleeping Beauty.
I then became a recording engineer at WBAI-fm, the listener-sponsored, non-commercial radio station, during the height of the Vietnam War. I worked for Bob Fass, the father of free-form radio, for four years, again during a truly unique time. All the famous and not-so-famous counter-culture people came to the station to be on his show, including many great musicians. I recorded them all and had a great time! I also spent two years as daytime engineer and like to tell people that I was responsible for the Women's Movement, as the women who came to the station to talk about women's rights wanted me, the "girl engineer", to record them and be their recording engineer when they went live on-the-air.
I moved out of Manhattan to Westchester in the late seventies. Soon after moving, my first favorite cat got mauled by three dogs and because of the vet's indifference and my ignorance, he suffered for four months and died at the age of only seven years. That tragedy started me on the path that eventually led me to vet school. I went back to college (Pace University), which I hadn't finished the first time around, for biology, and graduated first in the class, but I wasn't accepted into the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell because I lacked the required animal-related experience. I then went to work as a lab tech for a protein biochemist at New York Medical College, which was my first exposure to the world of the medical school. I was completely fascinated and knew I'd finally found something to replace dancing, fifteen years after losing it. I realized very quickly that I didn't have enough of a chemistry background to pursue graduate work in life science, so, while working at New York Med., i went back to Pace and got another B.S., this time in chemistry, graduating second in the class.
When the biochemist I was working for lost his grant and I lost the job, I went back to Pace again, this time in the graduate school and got an M.S. in Computer Science. I worked as a LAN (local area network) administrator for four years, but it wasn't what I really cared about. Then, one day, I was riding around on ambulatory horse calls with a wonderful vet named Dr. Charles (Chick) Gandal, who'd been the Bronx Zoo vet for twenty years and spent the next thirty years visiting stables, diagnosing and treating people's horsies. He turned to me and said, "Would you quit screwin' around already and go to vet school - the animals need you, the clients need you". I realized he was right, this is what I was supposed to do, so ten years after my first application, I re-applied to Cornell and this time I got in. I packed up my eighteen cats and moved to Ithaca.
I had the best time at Cornell! Of course, the program was grueling, but I loved it. This is what I was born to do. The professors were amazing. Not only are they great scientists, they're also great people - so very dedicated and caring, with the attitude, "Treat them all as you would your own". After all those years, I was finally back amongst a group of people I could really relate to.
I made the most of my time at Cornell, going to all the continuing-ed conferences held at the vet school, such as the Annual Conference for Veterinarians, the annual Feline Conference, run by the Cornell Feline Health Center, and the Farrier's Conference, run the by wonderful head farrier (blacksmith) at Cornell, which was a fabulous conference all about horse feet. It got blacksmiths and veterinarians together (a feat not easy to accomplish).
I spent a lot of time in the wildlife clinic, helping rehab injured raptors (red-tailed hawks, owls, and eagles, to name a few). There is nothing like holding one of these incredible creatures in your arms! I would go to the Syracuse Zoo every week to help with the animals there. I got to go into the underground lair where the lions lived when they came in from outdoors, I did the anesthesia for the two male wolves' vasectomies (I'm not kidding).
Back at school I did the anesthesia for the river otters who had been humanely trapped and brought to Cornell to have radio transmitters implanted in their considerable brown fat (which is what keeps them warm). This was done so they could be tracked when they were relocated to another river in New York State to re-populate the rivers that were depleted of these beautiful creatures. (They didn't appreciate spending two weeks at Cornell, although I must say, they were very well fed. The whole place stank of fish.) One day we went a hundred miles west of Ithaca to release them. We let them go one-by-one. I swear to you, as we let them go, two of them stood up in the water and waved at us before they disappeared into the water! I'll never forget those days.
I helped care for Dondi, the elephant who had an arthritic wrist. He was the 3-ton pet of a former circus couple who had heard about baby elephants in Thailand being slaughtered so their mothers could go back to work. They rescued baby Dondi just in time, had a special van built for him that had hydraulics to lessen the wear-and-tear on his limbs and feet, and traveled around the country with him, educating people about elephants and other animals in the wild whose habitats are being destroyed. The couple had their nine-year-old son with them, who never went anywhere without his pet snake, whom he carried in a shoulder bag. Dondi was particularly attached to the wife, who had to sleep outside the big horse stall Dondi stayed in during the time he spent at Cornell. He tolerated the husband, but elephants typically get attached to one person. He knew a hundred commands. I remember the wife would tell Dondi to "do the helicopter" and he'd wiggle his ears and swish his tail around in a circle. Ah, those were the days...
After getting my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree, I came back home to Westchester, where I've been ever since. Sometimes I wonder why I left Ithaca, which is so beautiful. Then I remember - there are nine months of winter with tons of snow and weeks of temperatures below 20 degrees, and three months of heat and humidity. I loved it there, but this is home.
At present I have eight cats, including two blind kitties, Seraphina and Violet, and one visually-impaired kitty, Wendy. See their stories on the page entitled "My Cats".
And always remember that we, as the "highest" species on the planet, are here to preserve and protect those who cannot do it for themselves.
- Nancy J. Allen, DVM