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Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Water For Elephants Trumpets Cornell

Posted by Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
April 26, 2011

A half century ago, Norman Rockwell painted an image of a young veterinarian examining a little boy’s dog. Partly obscured in the background is a Cornell University diploma. The year, 1963, was the centennial of the American Veterinary Medical Association. On the threshold of the AVMA’s 150th anniversary, another veterinary image has emerged in American pop culture and, once again, Cornell University is featured.

Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
Photo provided by Cornell.
 The movie, Water for Elephants, depicts a 1931 Cornell veterinary student who runs away during his final exams because of a family tragedy. Jacob Jankowski hops a circus train and claims to be a veterinarian. His prime charge was an Asian elephant named Rosie.

The movie follows Sara Gruen’s novel by the same title, including about 20 direct references to Cornell University and the Ivy League. For Cornellians everywhere―and especially for the 4,000 DVMs scattered across the country and around the world―there is great pride in seeing our college depicted on the big screen.

But how accurate is that depiction?  The following questions should test your knowledge of veterinary medicine at Cornell during the Depression. (Answers follow)

1.   Jacob Jankowski was forced to leave Cornell because his father (also a veterinarian) had mortgaged the family business to pay for his son’s tuition. How much was tuition during the Depression?
2.   How many women were in Jacob’s class? The movie highlights one who sits next to Jacob during his final examination, and appears to depict at least one other. In the novel, author Sara Gruen says there were four.
3.   A picture was seen for a fleeting second on the wall of the examination room when Jacob was leaving the room to learn of his parents’ death?  Was it the portrait of university founder Ezra Cornell or President Herbert Hoover?
4.   Did it take six years to become a veterinarian?
5.   Is the movie correct in describing the veterinary degree as Doctor of Veterinary Science?
6.   When did Cornell become part of the Ivy League?
7.   Would Jacob have lived with his parents while attending college?
1.   Because of the land grant agreement, there was no tuition for New York State students until the 1960s. This challenges the movie’s central premise that the Jankowski family lost everything because of tuition payments?
2.   Though Cornell’s first woman veterinarian graduated in 1910, most classes in the next 30 years -- including Jacob's class -- had none. The Class of 1940 was the first to have four women.
3.   Though not an exact depiction, it appears to be an image of the veterinary college’s first professor and dean (principal), James Law.
4.   It did not: four years after high school was the prescribed length at that time. The youngest member of the Class of 1931 was the recently deceased Dr. Lawrence Waitz. He entered Cornell at age 16 and graduated at 20.
5.   Except for the period before 1896 when the degree was Bachelor of Veterinary Science (in the British tradition), the Cornell veterinary degree has always been Doctor of Veterinary Medicine.
6.   The Ivy League was not established until 1954.
7.   Almost certainly not. Most students were poor, living in modest single rooms near campus.
Enjoy the movie!
Dr. Smith welcomes comments at

Monday, April 25, 2011

Water for Elephants is Not Enough: The Disease that is Killing Baby Elephants

Posted by Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
April 25, 2011

Like millions of other movie-goers, I watched Water For Elephants on opening weekend. As remarkable as the story and the acting by Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz and supporting cast was, it was elephant Rosie’s performance that was totally captivating. Her grace and elegance, her ability to collapse, expand and trumpet that 9,000-pound frame was nothing short of breath taking.

Foreground: Tai, who stars as Rosie in "Water for Elephants", and her nephew, JP, who succumbed to a devastating Herpes viral infection in February, 2011. Please consider donating to the research efforts to stomp out this killer. Photo provided by Kari and Gary Johnson, Have Trunk Will Travel.

As Rosie’s veterinarian, Dr. Linda Peddie told me when I interviewed her in February, “Tai (who plays Rosie) is the best-trained and most mature elephant in the world.”
Some people watching the movie were horrified by the images of animal cruelty depicted towards Rosie. However, Gary and Kari Johnson, the husband-and-wife owners and trainers of Tai, were absolutely adamant that nothing harm her, either physically or emotionally. For example, during the depiction of Waltz’s most severe beating of Rosie, the handlers gently moved Tai out of harm’s way. Again Dr. Peddie, “Because Tai has never known mistreatment, she does not view the flailing rampage as anything more than some imbecile beating the air."

Even though there is superb care, veterinary attention, and humane treatment of Tai and the other five elephants at the Johnsons' ranch Have Trunk Will Travel, they have been affected by a devastating and unseen virus that kills elephants worldwide. It is a relatively new viral disease called Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpes Virus (EEHV), and it affects baby elephants in both captivity and in the wild with devastating results. Tai’s “nephew”, a 3½ year-old baby named JP―named in honor of veterinarian Dr. Jim Peddie―died in February, 2011. As is typical of babies with EEHV, the uncontrollable hemorrhaging disease killed JP in less than 48 hours.
JP’s death represented another tragic loss in the elephant world, not only because of the personal anguish at the Have Trunk Will Travel Ranch, but also because it highlights the sad reality that there is as yet neither a cure, nor a vaccine, for this deadly virus.

Research to prevent, manage and treat EEVH is being led by a consortium of veterinarians and biomedical researchers at the following institutions:
·         Smithsonian’s National Zoo
·         Baylor College of Medicine
·         Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine
·         Johns Hopkins University
Please consider Donating!
To support research to stomp out the disease that is responsible for the deaths of about 25% of the baby elephants born in the United States in the last three decades, please donate to:

The International Elephant Foundation (IEF), a 501 C (3) non-profit organization.  

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Letters of Recommendation for Veterinary Students

By Donald F. Smith, Cornell University
Posted April 19th, 2011.

This blog addresses recommendation letters, both for students preparing their applications for veterinary college, and for current veterinary students applying for jobs and internships.

Selecting the right people to write your reference letters is the most important decision. The people you ask to write letters should:
  • Know you and your work. Avoid having a well-known person (eg. legislator, dean) write your letter unless they know you and your accomplishments well.
  • Be well-known in the professional community. A good rule of thumb is to ask the most prominent and respected people who also know you well.
  • Not be too familiar personally. You should usually avoid letters from family members, neighbors and clergy unless specifically requested.
  • Be responsive, reliable, and prompt in writing the reference letter.
  • Provide an articulate and concisely-written reference, avoiding hyperbole or exaggeration.
  • Make your letter unique to you, your circumstances, and the college or position for which you are applying. I acknowledge that the electronic veterinary college application service (VMCAS) makes it difficult to specify individual colleges.

The reference letter should contain at least five parts, usually in the following order:
  1. Description of how long the reviewer has known you, and under what circumstances.
  2. If a working situation, the letter should describe your employment responsibilities, and how the work has progressed as you have gained experience and competence.
  3. Description of your attributes, including both technical and personal qualities in specific terms to your situation. Letters with platitudes and non-specific descriptions are unhelpful in distinguishing you from other candidates.
  4. Narrative of your technical competence, personal and professional qualities, creativity, intellectual stimulation, and progress in your work or studies.
  5. Comparison of your suitability for the position with other candidates previously evaluated.

You should determine ahead of time if your evaluator has concerns about recommending you. At an early stage in the process, meet with your prospective evaluator, describing the reason you are requesting a reference, and asking them if they feel comfortable providing a highly supportive letter. Because some reviewers may have a hard time acknowledging their concerns to you directly, you should frame your question in a manner that allows them to express lack of enthusiasm or other possible clues to their lack of full support.

After you decide to request a letter, provide him/her with your resume and a series of bullet points outlining those experiences and attributes that you feel might be helpful for your application. Remember that most reviewers will be writing letters for several applicants and any help you provide will likely be appreciated.

Except in the most unusual circumstances, waive your right to see the letter. Failure to waive your right of confidentiality may mean that the letter will not be taken seriously. It may not even be read!

Consider it your responsibility to ensure that the letter is actually written and gets to the evaluator on schedule.

If you are disappointed that you do not get the position you seek, feel free to follow up with both your evaluator and the institution/employer. To inquire specifically about the contents of a letter is unprofessional and may even imply a breach of ethical judgment. You can, however, ask both parties if there is anything you could do regarding your evaluations to improve your chances in a subsequent year.

Dr. Smith invites comments at

Thursday, April 14, 2011


Author, Donald F. Smith, DVM
Date of posting: April 14, 2011

Congratulations to you who have been accepted to one of the U.S. veterinary colleges this fall. As you anticipate starting classes in just four months, let me offer some specific suggestions.

READY!  Don’t waste this Summer.  Whether you need to work, take a vacation to re-energize before classes start, or reconnect with family and friends, plan this summer in a purposeful manner. Don’t just ‘let it happen’. Determine what your personal, professional and financial goals will be for the fall, and establish a plan to achieve all of them.

Write a thank you note to those in your support network, the veterinarians and mentors who inspired your interest in animals and medicine, and your parents and family members who encouraged and helped you achieve your goals.

SET!  Get to know your College and Begin to Explore the Profession:  Every veterinary college has a story and a legacy. Discover the historical roots of your school, perhaps online or in a book commemorating an anniversary. Search your college’s web site, identify faculty whose interests match yours; write to them, introduce yourself, and make plans to meet them this fall.  

Resolve to learn about what it means to be a DVM (or VMD). Veterinary medicine is a versatile profession because the breadth and scope of our activities are almost limitless. Discover opportunities available to veterinarians beyond your own interest in shelter medicine, zoological medicine or equine practice. Read a great book on some aspect of veterinary medicine, for example, the biography of Dr. James Steele; and also on human medicine, for example, the biography of Dr. William Halsted (I have referenced these two on the side bar to this blog). Periodically check for veterinary news on the web: I find the AVMA and DVM360 sites excellent for this purpose. Also check out your state and regional veterinary association.

OPTIMIZE!  Prepare for next summer now: Your experience next summer (2012) may be one of the most important learning opportunities in your first year. Start planning now by talking to upper class students, faculty, advisors. For many students, getting out of the university town is important so you can experience the practical world of veterinary medicine. If you don't have a paying veterinary job for next summer, and earning money is important (as it will be for most of you), consider working part time as wait staff in a local restaurant during the afternoons and evening – and pursue your veterinary career during periods of times when you are not working (such as shadowing a veterinarian, working at dog or horse shows, or volunteering in a nursing home that uses animals).

Finally, I invite you to write about your experiences and goals in the comment section of this blog, sharing your ideas, challenges and opportunities. The veterinary community is small, so let’s take advantage of each others’ experiences and wisdom.

Dr. Smith invites comments at

A Letter to Sasha and Malia Obama on the Second Anniversary of Bo's Arrival

Bo Obama arrived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue two years ago today (April 14, 2009). A six-month-old puppy at the time, he fulfilled the president’s campaign promise to his daughters to get them a dog.

Months earlier, when Bo was just a month old, I presented the homily for the “Blessing of the Animals Service” at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City. The centerpiece of my homily was an open letter to Sasha and Malia, describing how bringing a dog into their lives would provide great joy, but also new and lasting responsibilities.

What follows is an abstract of my homily that day, which I share with current and future dog lovers as a reminder of the wonderful pleasure and obligations that pets bring to our lives.

My words to you this afternoon will reflect upon one of the most popular animal stories of the year, the acquisition of a puppy for Sasha and Malia Obama. Let’s meditate upon our own relationship with animals through this open letter to the Obama girls.

Dear Sasha and Malia,

We, the assembled animal lovers at All Souls Unitarian Church in New York City, are excited that you are about to embark on a wonderful journey with a puppy.  What an inspired way to ease your transition to Washington.

Do you know what the letters of PUPPY stand for? Here is our interpretation….

“P” is for pleasure, that effervescent joy that radiates from a well-cared-for pet. Dogs have two sides to their brains, one side is to please and the other is to work. The pleasing side craves attention and friendship which, when supplied in abundance, yields a strong return on investment.

But there is more to a puppy than all that is pleasurable, because the “U” stands for utility.  This side of the dog’s brain wants to work: to pull a sled, to guide blind people, to jump and fetch a stick, to swim, or protect the weak. Not all such activities are possible in Washington, of course, but I’m sure you can develop some creative activities for your puppy, perhaps at Camp David.

The next “P” stands for presence. As you admire your dear puppy, take a moment to sense the presence of the rich wholeness of the earth and all the abundant manifestations of nature.

Puppy’s third “P” is perseverance. Acquiring a pet carries the moral obligation to take care of your dog, to train, to groom, to assure proper nutrition, to provide quality health and veterinary care. Moral outrage occurs when pets are sickened or injured by humans. But other times, pets are harmed inadvertently, such as the dog who develops pancreatitis from eating table scraps, or the dog who indiscriminately bites strangers because of lack of training. With pets, the sins of omission may be as serious as those of commission.

And what happens if you get tired of your pet, when you have friends over who do not like dogs, or if your boyfriend turns out to me more exciting than your puppy, or when you go off to college?  Never forget that perseverance and commitment represent a two-way street.

As always in life, it all comes down to you, the final letter of PUPPY.  Getting a pet will change your life. It will bond you with joy, with friendship, with commitment, and – yes – occasionally with sorrow. Because dogs have a shorter life span than people, we have several opportunities to have them join our family. In this way, they can meet special and unique needs at different stages of life.

Sasha and Malia, you are now at the beginning of your adventure with a puppy. May the joy that you derive and the comfort that you receive, create for you a fresh and personal perspective on the wonder of all animals and the world that we share with them.