Dr. Rebecca Law and patient

Dr. Rebecca Law and patient. (Photo by Sue Roebuck)

This is a peek at the daily work of Dr. Rebecca Law, doctor to the beasts of the north. It is the latest post in our series “Days of Their Lives,” in which we profile  accomplished women with unusual jobs. —Ed.

“When a cow’s having calving trouble, the first thing I do when I get out of the truck is put on my rubber suit,” says Dr. Rebecca Law, veterinarian, of Turner, Maine. “I wear the suit so I don’t get drenched in fluid while I examine and work on the animal.

“First I take a bucket and wash her up; then I lubricate my hands and reach in vaginally through the cervix and figure out what I’m dealing with.”

What Dr. Law is dealing with, a great deal of the time, is the birthing troubles of dairy cows. “You reach in up to your shoulders—that’s part of correcting the presentation for the delivery. Then there’s the grunting and groaning and pulling and tugging to get the calf on the ground.

“Or, on herd-health visits, which involve a lot of reproductive work, you reach in rectally, up to your shoulder, and feel the uterus and ovaries. I tell you, after you do that 30 or 40 times in an hour or two, the old shoulder starts to complain. I’ve palpated cows that way for the 25 or 30 years I’ve been in practice. I’m happy now to turn that over to the next generation.”

Dr. Law, 58, owns Turner Veterinary Service (cows, goats, sheep, pigs, poultry, llamas, alpacas, companion animals, and, recently, horses). Its three vets (two on duty daily) often travel 80 to 90 miles between farms. In the past two decades, so many farms have gone out of business that TVS’s veterinary clients are spread over seven counties. Indeed, both of Dr. Law’s associates—Dr. Meghan Flanagan (DVM, Cornell 2010) and Dr. Kelsey Hilton (VMD, University of Pennsylvania, 2012)—obtained partial federal student loan forgiveness for providing large-animal veterinary service to a documented “underserved” (food-animal- veterinary-shortage) area.

Dr. Law acquired her zest for this work when she was young, on her family’s dairy farm in Minnesota. “I have great memories . . . in my early childhood, helping my dad deliver lambs in the springtime. Sheep were a size that was not intimidating to me even as a preschooler; I could give them a bottle of milk. Farm animals, farmers, the whole culture of agriculture—that is my niche. It’s always been the place where I’m most comfortable.”

Three generations of large-animal vets- Dr. Rebecca. Three generations of large-animal vets: Dr. Rebecca law; her friend Dr. Everard Cooper, 89, who still goes on the occasional call; and Dr. Meghan Flanagan. (Photo by Lori Traikos)

“Mommy Moo” (that’s what her son called her when he was young) acknowledges that she’s known around her territory as “the goat doctor.” She says, “Goats are very, very popular with clients, but not many vets want to work on them. They’re considered a minor species. I’m a cow vet, but I like these little critters and used to raise them at home. My favorite pet goat lived to be 17 years old. So I’ve learned as much as I could about their unique conditions. Word spread, and I became known as a goat expert.”

All three of Turner’s veterinarians are female. They do hard, taxing work—work that, two generations ago, was considered too physically demanding for women. (In a Veterinary Practice News article first published in 2010, Jessica Tremayne noted that 78 percent of veterinary school seats are held by women. Why? Tremayne and her sources speculate that these days, a veterinarian’s income is too low to attract males to the field.)

A calf can weigh 100 pounds; adult cows, 1,000 to 1,500 pounds. Dr. Law is unfazed by the physical strain and inherent risks. Most of her patients, she points out, are used to being approached from behind—dairy cows, that is. But beef cattle—“now that’s another breed of cat. They are raised for meat, and the cow and the calf stay together. When a human approaches from the back, that’s when we could get kicked.”

When she gets to a farm, she hopes she’ll find that the sick animal has been put in some sort of restraint that will let her work more safely—a head-catch, a pen, a chute. Sometimes she uses chemical restraints. “I’ve used a lot of tranquilization in my patients right from the start.  It might be for just something that’s a little bit painful, even for a dairy cow—something like a laceration or a sore foot. It’s nice if they’ll feel no pain and stand there and let you hold their foot instead of kicking and jerking and thrashing around.  I often use sedation to make my emergency calls go smoother.” Dr. Law’s most serious injury has been a broken hand (she was caught off guard by an unusually spunky dairy cow named Becky).

 “Don’t Send That Girl!”

Rebecca Law graduated from Cornell Veterinary School in 1987, “at the tipping point in terms of gender; my class was 50 percent men and 50 percent women. But there were not a lot of women out there with years of veterinary experience. In my first large-animal practice, in Copake, New York, I was the first woman they’d ever had. But the farmers were very accepting. They wanted to make it easier for me, but they quickly saw they didn’t need to do that—I could do everything the four guys in the practice could do.

“There was only one farmer who said to my boss, ‘Don’t send that girl out here.’ But he sent me out anyway, without telling me I wasn’t welcome. When I got there, I noticed that the farmer was right next to me the whole time, watching me. But then he began asking for my advice on what he should do with this cow that couldn’t get up. When I got back to the veterinary clinic, there was my boss waiting for me, though it was a Saturday. He asked me how it went. I told him it had gone very well.”

Part 2 of this profile will be a glimpse of Turner’s vets at work, from C-sections at dusk in an unlighted shed to surgery on a male goat to remove kidney stones to working on sheep by flashlight in the back of a pickup truck.

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  • Leslie in Portland, Oregon April 6, 2013 at 8:47 pm

    Thank you for this inspiring story of a truly admirable person doing very important work.

  • Toni Myers April 6, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    I had NO idea the majority of vets are now going to be women.
    Bravo and thanks for this.

  • Liz April 5, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    Really interesting. Rebecca sounds remarkable. Love the “Days of Their Lives” series. Keep it up.

  • Don April 5, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    What a fascinating article. My son has a woman vet for his horses, and he says she’s fantastic. Great to have a better understanding of everything involved. Looking forward to next article on Saturday.

  • Margery Stein April 3, 2013 at 12:12 pm

    A fascinating article about women who are real troopers. In particular, I was amazed to learn that the income for vets (or women vets?) was so low. I await, with interest, part 2.

  • Deborah Harkins April 3, 2013 at 10:25 am

    Hello, Deb Haugen

    Yes indeed, please DO share Dr. Becky Law’s story on Facebook! We’d love that


    Deb Harkins, Women’s Voices for Change

    P.S. Look for Part 2 of the vets story tomorrow.

  • Deb Weberg Haugen April 3, 2013 at 9:35 am


    This was so fun and interesting to read. I can’t imagine you doing anything but working with animals…is it okay if I share this on FB?

    Will look forward to reading more of Days of their lives.

    By the way, good name for that spunky cow that you had… funny…

  • Joan Riegel April 2, 2013 at 12:51 pm

    Great article. Great women!