WRV Large-Animal Vets Pass the Torch

Large-animal veterinarian Dr. William Barry works with Icelandic horses at Silver Maple Farm in Tunbridge in this 2013. (Herald File / Tim Calabro)

Large animal veterinarians have played an important role in the lives of farmers and horse handlers keeping animals healthy and being there through sickness and crisis.

I feel blessed to know two special veterinarians whose careers have spanned 40+ years in central Vermont.

Tom Stuwe and Will Barry both established practices around the same time with their own styles, techniques, and stories. These veterinarians have stood by so many in the farming community, through the thick and thin. With a sick animal weighing a thousand pounds or better, veterinarians are nothing short of heroes.

These two extraordinary veterinarians have recently retired.

These two vets to write about as they hold a special place in my heart. They are not only farm acquaintances, they have also become friends over the years.

The good news is that there are a handful of new large animal veterinarians that are starting up practices in central Vermont so our animals won’t be left without care.

Tom Stuwe performs a dental precedure on a horse during a riding event in this undated photo. (Provided)

Tom Stuwe performs a dental procedure on a horse during a riding event in this undated photo. (Provided)

Visiting with Stuwe and Barry to hear their personal stories, reflections on their careers, and how they made central Vermont their homes brought up memories and more than a few stories worth sharing.

Even those who’ve never farmed or owned a large animal, might find these recollections touching—who has not loved James Herriot’s book “All Creatures Great and Small?”

My mother used to agonize over calling a vet for a sick cow. Living in Northfield, we looked to the Montpelier area for a vet. In the early days, there were only a couple of choices.

Both vets in the area were older and overworked. They came for emergencies but not in a kindly fashion. A sick animal knows no boundaries when it comes to time. Chances are, sick animals will not be within regular business hours and cannot wait.

With time, another option opened up at the Barre Animal Hospital. In 1975, Dr. Stuwe joined a practice with Dr. Samuel Hutchins III, who he described as being one of his greatest mentors. Stuwe was a breath of fresh air when he walked into the barn. He was tall, strong, and moved in a slow, methodical way while his demeanor was kind, gentle spoken, and filled with compassion. By this time, Barry had established his own practice and another large animal veterinarian was starting up in Montpelier. Why not work together and cover for one another on rotating weekends, Stuwe offered? His idea was well received and likely extended the years that these vets practiced, affording them all some personal time.

Stuwe grew up in Michigan in a farming community. He was inspired into the profession by a well-respected German vet who practiced in that area. He didn’t grow up into farming; his family owned and operated an industrial brush-making business.

Being more practical than academic, Stuwe was attracted to piloting. He attended an aviation school and got his pilot’s license at the age of 17. He’d hoped to become a commercial pilot, but was born with tremor that caused his hands to shake. He flew corporate jets for a Cola company in Florida for a period of time. Although his condition did not affect his ability to fly a plane safely, he said he was inevitably let go.

Recently married expecting the first child, decisions had to be made.

Stuwe decided to go back to Michigan thinking he might find a job in the auto industry. Determined not to ask his family for money, he and his wife, Ruth, moved into an inexpensive and inadequate apartment. The economy was in recession and not knowing what else to do in the winter, Stuwe bought a snow shovel and went out knocking on doors to shovel driveways.

He ultimately made the decision to go back to college focusing on a degree in veterinary medicine.

He went in with the intention of becoming a small-animal vet. Alf Wight, better known by his pen name James Herriot, was on tour promoting his latest book when he stopped by the school during Stuwe’s senior year.

Wight sat beside Stuwe during lunch and asked what his plans were after college. When Stuwe told him that he was going to work with pets, Wright gave him something to think about.

“Why would you want to do that?” he exclaimed.

“From that moment on, I changed my direction and set my sights on becoming a large animal vet,” Stuwe said in a recent interview.

The industrial brush business had supply connections in Vermont, so Stuwe was familiar with our little state and the beauty of the four seasons had a good deal to do with luring him into the area.

Stuwe continued to do some recreational flying here in Vermont and flew over my farm often. He commented more than once how beautiful the farm was to look down onto. One time, when he was at the farm he said to me, “You need to fly over your farm.” I had never been up in a plane before, and flying was quite a treat in itself. Seeing the farm below was a spectacular sight; one I won’t ever forget. As Stuwe maneuvered the plane over the farm and headed off to fly over Camel’s Hump, I asked him why he changed careers. He told me, “I got fired.” I didn’t know what to say, and he didn’t say anything else on the subject. Now, after all these years, I know the whole story.

Barry’s Path

In 1979, Dr. Barry came to Vermont fresh out of vet school, stepping into Stuwe’s prior position at the Barre Animal Hospital, working for Dr. Hutchins.

Barry had grown up in Arlington County, Virginia. He was a suburban kid, and his mother was an attorney at the National Gallery of Art. Barry recalled her office was made of marble.

“Can you imagine such a thing?” he said whimsically. His father was a writer for the National Institute of Mental Health.

“It was such a different age then that you could do anything that you wanted to,” he said, feeling at the time that the future was wide open.

Barry attended the University of Georgia, Dartmouth College, and later Cornell University. Dartmouth is responsible for bringing Barry to the Northeast.

By wild chance, as Barry was walking through the gym on his way to an intramural basketball game, he saw a woman sitting at a table recruiting members for the Dartmouth horse riding club.

“It was so out of the ordinary and my curiosity peaked,” Barry remarked.

With little horse riding experience, he joined the club. He learned quickly, and as time went by, Barry rode more difficult horses with ease.

“From that, I deduced horses had an affinity for me. I think that has always stood by me, you know, I’m not the biggest, strongest person.”

Barry originally studied psychology, but decided the field was not for him. He liked being around the country, and then it occurred to him, why not become a large animal vet?

“It came to me almost like a dream, and I’ve always kept it in my heart.”

Time and Changes

The driving distance between clients increased with the decline in farms, he said. A country vet spends a lot of hours driving these days, putting on an easy 40,000 miles a year. One of the biggest changes both Stuwe and Barry said they’d witnessed is the dramatic reversal of business. In the early days of their practice, business consisted of 80% dairy and 20% equine. Today, it’s just the opposite.

As small farms disappeared, agribusiness and large dairies became a part of the scene. Each vets has developed his own calling over the years. Stuwe excelled in managing the health of large dairy herds and became respected as one of the best cow vets in central Vermont. Barry recalled that he was never attracted to the large farms, and instead he focused his practice on organic and small, niche farms. Here he could bring in alternative treatments and techniques such as animal kinesiology.

Horses have always been a special interest of Barry’s. Equipped with an impressive array of state-of-the-art dentistry equipment, routine teeth floating became a big part of his business. Cold laser and chiropractic hands-on work which included delving into the emotional state of horses helped many feel and perform better.

Pregnancy checking cows is routine on a farm. In Stuwe’s early days as a vet, checking a cow for pregnancy was done by wearing a long, rubber glove and running an entire arms length into the cow’s reproductive tract. Before ultrasound became available, it wasn’t unusual for Stuwe to check up to 200 cows a day. He noted how badly his elbows would hurt from the repetition of performing these checks.

Barry had a similar story about how hard pregnancy checks are on the human body. For him, it was his hands that suffered.

“I knew I couldn’t keep it up, because I don’t like to just destroy my body to do so. I jumped on ultrasound and that gave me another 25 years. With ultrasound, I could tell where the ovaries were and predict heats with a fair amount of accuracy,” he said.

Being a country vet requires a big dose of personal sacrifice.

Stuwe talked about one such occasion when he was attending a play when he received an emergency call and had to leave suddenly.

“One of my regrets,” he said, “is having lost so much time with my family. It was rare to sit down together and have a meal. Ruth pretty much raised the girls.”

Both Stuwe and Barry describe their wives (Ruth and Terry, respectively) as saints.

Working with the Vets

I’ve known Barry since he arrived in the area, though we were already well established with Stuwe as our primary vet on the farm.

When we moved to Randolph Center, Barry lived up the road, about a mile from us, so we started using Barry’s services more frequently.

One morning, my mare was showing signs of colic. Colic is a belly ache that can have serious consequences for a horse. Horses can twist their gut if they are allowed to lie down and thrash around. One of the best things to do when a horse is exhibiting signs of colic is to keep the horse moving by hand walking them.

My early morning call found Barry just sitting down to have breakfast. He instructed me to keep walking her and he would be over as soon as he was finished. When he arrived, the mare was doing much better. He listened to her stomach with his stethoscope and there was noise which indicated the stomach was working. In an unforgettable moment, Barry turned to me with a smile on his face.

“Perhaps she had a bee up her bum,” he joked. Barry is like that—nothing like a little humor to lighten the mood.

We had our fair share of milk fever cases on our farm, which is a metabolic disorder caused by insufficient calcium.

It needs immediate intervention, and Jersey cattle are particularly prone to it. Milk fever generally occurs soon after calving.

Stuwe taught me how to give intravenous injections and give a cow a bottle of calcium to treat it. He also educated me about preventative measures. He loved to help farmers do for themselves and save on expensive vet bills.

As a vet, things don’t always go as planned, and having to euthanize animals is one of the hardest parts of the job, the two agreed.

“I didn’t know what to do or say after putting down an animal,” Stuwe said. “I’d just stand there and then I started giving a hug. I can’t tell you how much that has been appreciated by my clients.”

The human-animal connection is fascinating and rewarding both vets said.

Stuwe has put his ingenuity into figuring out ways to save horses that, at one time, were destined to be destroyed. Kissing spine is a painful condition where the vertebrae become compressed, rubbing together bone-on-bone. Stuwe studied the most recent surgical advancements, fashioned his own set of tools, and set about performing surgery on these horses with great success.

With the help of Ray’s Seafood in Stowe, Stuwe has even grafted the skin of a tilapia fish onto a horse’s previously inoperable wound.

Barry has focused on paying attention to and conserving his body over the years. He told me that he and Terry decided years ago to garden, eat local and organic foods, and take preventative approaches to health care.

Life in Retirement

As we sit outside at the Barrys farm on a fieldstone patio called the Firefly Café sipping tea, I can’t help but notice how well rested Barry is looking on this beautiful morning. With a sparkle in his eyes, he told me that he’s going to take up paddle boarding.

“It’s the perfect thing to do, plus it will be good for my balance which is important as we age.”

When I asked Stuwe what his plans for retirement were, he told me that he’s dealing with setbacks in his health due to the recent discovery of Bartonellosis.

Stuwe has struggled with Lyme disease for nearly 60 years and Bartonellosis is one of a number of co-infections that often coexist with Lyme. He is on a strict diet these days as part of his protocol and is feeling much improved.

Even with his setbacks, Stuwe still rides his bike tallying miles upon miles. The day before our visit, he rode his bike from his home in Barre to his daughter’s home in Waitsfield.

He is looking forward to having time to work around his property. He had recently been repairing some of the old stone walls on the property with his tractor and marvels at how amazing it is that these walls were constructed so long ago without the help of machinery.

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