the Book

From the Book

The Job Interview


At University of Pennsylvania Veterinary College in 1978 I had plans to practice large animal medicine, focusing on dairy cows. Harry, my husband, lived in Freeville, NY, a small town near Ithaca, right in the middle of cow country. That’s where I hoped to find a job, but all the local veterinarians were men who took a dim view of a woman large animal veterinarian. This was one of the dozen unsuccessful interviews I had in the spring of 1978.

In early April, I visited a practice near Canandaigua, New York, for an interview with Dr. Sherman. His practice was farther from Ithaca than I wanted, but it was getting late into my senior year. I needed a job. He was a country vet, with a dirty truck, and the typical receptionist, bookkeeper, scheduler, and launderer of dirty coveralls, the Wife. He had graduated from Cornell Veterinary School fifteen or twenty years ago, when women, with very few exceptions, were not admitted. I remembered a student who told me that Cornell Vet School would only admit ugly women so as not to distract the men, and either two in a class or none, because if they admitted only one, she wouldn’t have a partner for dissection or surgery because none of the men would work with her.

With my work clothes, stethoscope, bandage scissors, thermometer, and rubber boots in the car, I drove through the early morning countryside of upstate New York, rolling hills, pastures just beginning to green, spring sunshine warming up the dark soil, the air so fresh I could eat it. A welcome relief after the grime of Philly. The sun was in my eyes when I turned northeast, toward Canandaigua, window down, tapping out a beat to Jackson Brown singing Running on Empty.

Down a long driveway ending at an old farmhouse and classic red hay barn, I saw a vet truck, full of drawers and equipment. Just then, Dr. Sherman came out his front door, shook my hand firmly.

“You made it,” he said, walking toward his truck. “Let’s get going.”

He pulled into the driveway of a run-down farm with dead tractors, broken harrows, piles of rubble scattered around the yard. No one was around. Since it was spring, the farmer and farmhands were out preparing the fields for planting.

“Got this call yesterday. A bull needs a ring in his nose,” Doc Sherman said. The bull, the farmer had told the Wife, would be tied up in the shed. She passed this message along to Doc Sherman this morning.

Dairy bulls are amazing creatures. Lovely at birth, they weigh a mere hundred pounds and have large liquid brown eyes, extravagant eyelashes and soft black noses. But they grow rapidly into huge, aggressive, ferocious beasts, powerful beyond belief with murderous intent for anyone who would merely walk by, much less attempt to perform a medical procedure.

The nose ring is one way to control these raging maniacs—a typical rope halter would never suffice. Pulling on a rope tied to the nose ring is painful for the bull, allowing a handler some measure of control. Walking toward the shed, I remembered watching Dr. Hammel do the procedure on a young bull my senior year. The ring opens on a hinge to reveal a sharp pointed end on one side. Dr. Hammel leaned up against the young bull, while I held the halter, stretching the bull’s neck out. In one decisive move, she pushed the ring through the nasal cartilage. It reminded me of a human ear piercing. Quick and painful. The bull let out a bellow, and it was over.

In a young bull weighing up to six or seven hundred pounds, no problem. But when Doc Sherman and I walked into the shed, I could see that our patient was much bigger. Maybe a thousand pounds, shoulder about as high as mine, head as big around as a very large exercise ball, rump about three feet across. He was all black with a little white patch around one leg like a sock. And he was furious. Fully sexually mature, with hormones showing, he was used to being out in the pasture, mounting his girls. But today, all morning, he’d been rudely confined to this little shed, waiting for the veterinarian to arrive. He panted, bellowed, pawed the ground in gestures showing his masculinity. He rolled his eyes and tossed around his massive head, spittle flying. He was only a teenager (on his way to a fully mature two thousand pounds), but he knew something was up, and he knew he was not going to like it.

The small shed was in terrible shape, knocked up with rough two by fours, a tarpaper roof, two small stalls inside, separated by quarter inch plywood. It must have been built for sheep at one time or perhaps for the kid’s 4H ponies. It looked like the next big wind would topple it. This amount of bull was too much for such a rickety structure, and the bull seemed to know it.

Doc Sherman handed me the ring and a halter, said, “Go ahead,” and stood off to one side.
I put the halter over my shoulder, took the ring and looked at it. Time seemed to slow down, and I walked slowly toward the bull, trying to think. Shouldn’t we tranquilize this creature? Dr. Hammel didn’t use a tranquilizer when she did the procedure, but that bull was half the size of this one. I looked back at Doc Sherman, and he smiled and made a little shooing motion with his hands. The bull spotted me and perked up his ears in my direction.

My heart started to pound. I looked again at the ring in my hand and stopped for a minute. I was on a job interview. Was I supposed to be able to do this? Could a big man veterinarian do it? Could Doc Sherman do it?

“Don’t climb into the pen,” I thought.

I tossed some sweet alfalfa into the feed bunk and when the bull stuck his head in to sniff it, I threw the halter over his head, cinched it close and ran the free end around the post on the side of the stall. He bellowed in surprise. I tied a slipknot, restraining his big head, and reached in my pocket for the ring. This might work out better than I expected. With the bull’s eyes bulging and protruding tongue dripping saliva, I grabbed his head and with all my might, pushed the sharp end of the ring against his nasal septum. He jerked his head in pain. His skin was so tough that the ring didn’t penetrate, but slid off the slimy surface, leaving a raw red scrape. Now he was seriously mad. He jerked his head back and the two by four post that he was tied to snapped in several places like a dry twig. I was holding a slimy ring, and the bull was tied to a loose piece of lumber about a yard long, with splintered ends, which he swung in all directions tossing his head around in fury.

With a guttural roar, he crashed through the feed bunk and came after me. I ran flat out, made it to the fence, leaped up and had one leg over when he crashed into my other leg, smashing it between the fence and his enormous forehead. I managed to pull free and land on my side in the dirt on the right side of the fence. The bull lost interest and trotted away. He was liberated and headed out to the pasture to his ladies, wearing the halter and a piece of the shed, ringless. I lay on the ground breathing heavily, leg throbbing, heart racing and glad to be alive.

Doc Sherman laughed at me. I lay there for a minute, waited for my heartbeat to slow down, my leg already swelling. Gingerly, I tried to put weight on the leg and winced. It hurt, but I could walk—it wasn’t broken. My side where I landed was covered with dirt. I shook clumps of mud out of my hair. Balancing on my good leg, I leaned on the fence and brushed off the worst of the dirt.

“Now how do you plan to get that piece of wood and rope off him?” Doc Sherman said.

I stared at him feeling the throb in my leg with each heartbeat. A crow cawed and flew over the shed. There was a long pause. He mumbled something about another call and that he would come back later for the bull. He walked back to his truck. I hobbled along, climbed in and tried to stretch out my hurt leg, but the cab was too cramped. I looked forward to some ice and aspirin. The ride back was silent.