For Gary Williams, owner of Williams Veterinary Clinic on East U.S. Highway 59, the list of exotic animals he has treated is rivaled only by Noah’s inventory before the flood.
In his more than 30 years of practice, his patients have included dogs, cats, horses, cows, pigs, sheep, goats, alpacas, llamas, camels, white-tail deer, an elephant, a kangaroo, primates, lemurs, sugar gliders, hedgehogs, baby skunks, birds, turtles, lizards, a chicken once, zebras, wildebeests, several species of antelope, wolves, bobcats, a mountain lion, a baby nilgai (look it up) and a Bengal tiger.
Such a retinue isn’t what Williams originally had in mind. “All I ever wanted to be was a vet, but all I wanted to treat was cattle.”
ARMED WITH a degree in veterinary medicine from Texas A&M in 1978, Williams first went to work in Gonzales. Two years later, he was ready to move on.
“I called every place south of San Antonio. Nothing.”
He then called Dr. “Scotty” McNeill in Beeville and asked if he had an opening.
“No,” McNeill said, “but I’ll sell it to you.”
Williams wasn’t interested.
Two months later, with his father’s encouragement (he knew Scotty), Williams called McNeill back.
“The place was still for sale,” Williams remembered. “I said I’d buy it; it scared me to death.”
At first, fulfilling his wish, most of his business was cattle. Not any more. Because drought-stricken ranchers have culled their herds, cattle now comprise only 20 percent of his patients.
Caring for whitetail deer comprises another 20 percent (“the hunting business is big business”); the remaining 60 percent is small animals.
But it’s a large animal that stands out.
IN 1989, when a circus came to the Expo Center, a 7,200-pound female elephant caught an eye infection. The Expo Center manager recommended Williams.
“The disease resembled what is known as ‘moon blindness’ you find in horses. It turns out elephants are evolutionary connected with horses.”
Williams treated the elephant, named “Jessie,” by giving her an IV full of antibiotics for 10 days.
“The only vein I could find was in her trunk. I thought she would probably kill me every time,” Williams says.
But Jessie was a lady.
“One of the hardest things about being a vet is keeping from being hurt,” Williams explains. “Not ‘if’ but ‘when’ it’s going to happen.”
Happen it has.
When a horse kicked him, it broke one of Williams’ molars into six pieces; a bull cut off the end of a finger, and another horse bit off a fingernail.
Such episodes have affected his professional attitude (“You’re always a little more distant with some animals”), but they did not affect his demeanor. He always seems to be on the verge of laughing, and his energy defies his 57 years.
His job also demands a jack-of-all-trades mentality.
Take the kangaroo, for instance. “I had to extract a tooth,” he says, which he did successfully – but only after calling the Texas A&M Large Animal Clinic for advice.
He doesn’t keep the number on speed dial, but often calls the university for guidance when treating exotic pets.
Zebras, he warns, are deceptive. “They look so cute, but they’re mean. They’ll hurt you.”
Most of his exotic patients belong to two clients: Wildside Safari in Mathis and the Lonesome Bull Ranch in Sandia.
Today, he considers treating the occasional camel “fairly routine.”
A FAIRLY ROUTINE case of a Bengal tiger kitten with two broken front legs soon became anything but routine.
Its owner had not fed the baby tiger a proper diet, thus weakening its bones. Once healed, the grown tiger was featured in a children’s magazine published by National Geographic. A framed copy of the multi-page article graces Williams’ reception room.
As do Pinkie, Spider, Sam and P.A. – four healthy cats who think they run the place.
Spider is known to stretch full-length on the reception desk, pretending to be a paperweight, and Pinkie often sleeps behind the computer screen in Williams’ office, waiting for an unsuspecting guest to sit in a nearby office chair. Elapsed time from laptop to lap: about 30 purr-full seconds.
All three were dropped off at the office by owners who asked the clinic to find them new homes.
They stayed at the clinic – although so far, this year, technician (veterinary word for “nurse”) Suzanne Lopes has found homes for more than 600 animals – but they earn their keep.
“Mothers will bring their dogs in, but the cats keep the kids happy while they’re waiting,” Williams says. “And every cat here has given blood at one time or the other,” Williams says.
In fairness to the dog world, “Bitty,” another stray who came to stay, remains at the clinic during the day, but Williams takes her home at night. She’s an old dog and usually sleeps under Williams’ desk during the day.
“Yeah, I’m a soft touch,” Williams says. But, speaking quietly lest Bitty hear him, Williams admits that, while in an election year prudence demands political independence, his allegiance leans toward the feline party of the animal kingdom.
Pinkie abandons the lap and saunters off, as if admonishing, “Tell me something I don’t know.”
IN A few years, Williams plans to sell his clinic to his associate, Ryan Daniels, who probably will be just as scared to death as Williams was so many years ago, but who agrees with Williams’ work ethic.
“This has been a great ride,” Williams says. “It’s a perfect mixture of dealing with people and dealing with animals. Where else can you play cowboy but people still call you doctor?”
Bill Clough is a reporter at the Bee-Picayune and can be reached at 358-2550, ext. 122, or at beepic@mySouTex.com.