A Cut Above
How a onetime rodeo gal is wrangling animal cruelty
Peggy Larson spays a cat
Veterinarian Peggy Larson gets along better with animals than with most humans. “The spaying and neutering is pretty easy,” she says, cleaning up after a surgery in her Colchester-based Cat Spay/Neuter Clinic. “What’s hard is dealing with people.”
It’s not surprising that Larson takes a sometimes-dim view of her fellow humans: She’s spent decades fighting instances of animal abuse ranging from livestock mishandling to rodeo exploitation to outright neglect and cruelty. But this feisty and outspoken woman wasn’t always an animal crusader. She grew up a self-described tomboy on a North Dakota ranch, and at 16 decided on a whim to take up bareback bronco riding — a rodeo sport dominated by men. “I was crazy when I was young,” Larson says with a laugh.
“You really have a different mind-set when you grow up on a ranch,” she continues. Animals were “income-producing objects,” a commodity, and so she didn’t worry much about the spurs she dug into a bronco’s back, or the calves who were shocked repeatedly before a roping event — until she enrolled in veterinary school and found herself gobsmacked by just how much animals and humans have in common.
“It was a real revolution,” she says.
Now Larson is 77, though she looks a good decade younger. At 5-foot-4, she’s spry and petite. Today she’s wearing scrubs and comfortable Crocs sandals, and she perches atop a small step stool next to her operating table. Larson keeps up a steady stream of chatter from behind her surgical mask while she deftly preps a long-haired gray cat for surgery. Already asleep with the aid of an anesthetic, the cat is splayed belly up on the operating table.
Larson flips on a bright lamp and drapes the animal with a blue operating cloth that covers everything except her abdomen. She makes a careful incision and then works swiftly. Larson was one of the pioneers of a speedy, five-minute cat spay, a technique that she videotaped for YouTube. It’s had more than 30,000 viewers.
Engaging in lively conversation isn’t a distraction for Larson, who has performed this surgery tens of thousands of times, she says. Since opening the Colchester clinic 21 years ago, she estimates that she and her late husband, Roger Prior, spayed and neutered 70,000 cats, and she’s on track to hit 73,000 by the end of this year. In a typical day she’ll operate on 30 cats, aided by her practiced crew of four other women. Prior performed surgeries alongside his wife until 2007, when he finally retired at 87. Larson believes that spaying and neutering prevents the birth of yet more unwanted cats, and her work is a sort of preemptive strike against animal cruelty: Fewer feral and unwanted cats means less suffering, to her mind.
The clinic they founded together in 1992 is a bare-bones operation — just a few rooms in the half-basement of a nondescript office building on Route 7. Low overhead means Larson can perform the surgeries for just $50, a fraction of the cost charged by most veterinary clinics.
“This is a MASH unit,” Larson says, referencing the mobile Army surgical hospitals. “It’s not the Mayo Clinic.”
Larson didn’t set out to become a vet. She married her first husband out of high school, and then worked to put him through medical school. She studied alongside him and was accepted to medical school herself on two separate occasions, but ultimately decided to enroll in the veterinary school at Ohio State University. The choice between the two was a toss-up, but Larson’s ex-husband ultimately helped her make the decision to pursue veterinary medicine.
“He saw my unease with people,” Larson says. “I think he saw that in me long before I did.”
Larson knew, when she enrolled at OSU in 1961 in her mid-twenties, that she was in hostile, male-dominated territory. At the time, three other veterinary schools in the country were under court order to allow women to attend. She learned in her interview that the Ohio administrators just wanted to “keep the courts off [their] backs.” And her fight didn’t stop at admission. She was kicked out of vet school twice, both times on thin excuses concocted by faculty who, she claims, didn’t want to see a woman in the program. Once, a dean told Larson that “women [were] too neurotic to handle the course load.” She was “mouthy” by the end, as she tells it, fed up by the chauvinistic behavior of some faculty members — but that didn’t prevent her from graduating in the top 10 percent of her class.
“You give a woman a chance to do something, and [she’ll] do it,” Larson says now. “Women can do this job … but you have to prove that you can do it.”
Larson and her first husband divorced amicably when she was 30; her ex-husband, she explains, wanted a partner who was interested in children and homemaking, and she hadn’t the faintest interest in either. She married again, this time to Prior, a Vermont native who’d bought a veterinary practice in Larson’s hometown in North Dakota. The two were married for 38 years.
At 6-foot-2 and 200 pounds, Prior towered over his wife — and conformed more to the expectations of the ranchers the two veterinarians served. “They thought I was too small,” Larson says. But that didn’t stop her in the least — “I was running after … cattle that could kill me,” she remembers, and it didn’t take long for Larson to win over her tough-to-impress clients.
One time, she rushed to the rescue after a rancher’s cattle gorged themselves on grain (too much of which can block a cow’s digestive system and ferment in the rumen, poisoning the animal). She told the rancher’s wife to call the neighbors: They’d need help. She cut open each cow and, assembly-line style, the ranchers and their neighbors scooped the grain from the animals’ insides. Larson followed along at the end of the line, sewing up each animal as they went.
“When you have a few cases like that, where you actually save somebody’s cattle, it doesn’t take much before they’ll ask you to come up again,” she says. By the time Prior and Larson left North Dakota to move back to Prior’s native Vermont in 1978, she was in high demand: “Frankly, I was too darn popular,” she says.
Not that Larson is especially worried about popularity contests: She’s not afraid to ruffle feathers, particularly in her work as an advocate for animals. She rails against the American Veterinary Medical Association, which she dubs a “backward institution” and accuses of worrying more about making money than animal welfare. “The AVMA is pro-rodeo, they’re pro hogs in gestation crates, they’re pro hens in batteries,” Larson says, disgusted.
While working as a USDA inspector of animal welfare and livestock disease programs in the late ’70s and early ’80s, she blew the whistle on embezzlement within the program. Larson later took a no-nonsense approach to overhauling meat inspection in Vermont during her stint as state veterinarian. The onetime bronco rider now campaigns to eliminate the sport. “There’s nothing more cowardly to me than a calf roper,” she says fiercely.
Lawson even earned a law degree from Vermont Law School, in 1988. She now brings both legal and veterinary savvy when she rides along with law-enforcement officers as a “humane agent” investigating allegations of animal abuse. She says it can sometimes be difficult to persuade prosecutors to put their full weight behind fighting animal-abuse cases — “they’ve got so many human issues going on.”
But Larson concedes that the situation is better than it was two decades ago. “We have some very, very active pro-animal groups in Vermont that have really put pressure on law enforcement to deal with these issues,” she says.
Larson also has strong words for vets whose high prices can keep low-income pet owners and animal rescue workers from obtaining treatment for animals. As a result, Larson says, animals are getting “left behind” — meaning untreated or euthanized.
“How many vets in town do you think will fix a fracture for a cat for 50 bucks?” she asks. “They want $2000. Jesus, [it’s] a $3.50 bone pin and a little bit of time.”
Granted, many veterinarians have higher overhead, and many come out of school saddled with student debt. Kathee Ludwig, who has worked with Larson since the spay/neuter clinic opened more than two decades ago, says the business has changed dramatically.
“Doc Prior and Dr. Larson did more by the skin of their teeth. They do stuff by feel and examination,” Ludwig says. “Now the whole mind-set is x-ray, ultrasound. God forbid you do anything by looking at the animal.”
The banter in the spare, shabby Colchester clinic is lively: The five women who work there — including Ludwig, Doris Lashway, Ginny Shores and Nikki Manookian — work as a well-oiled machine to move the cats from pre-op to surgery to recovery.
They all have horror stories to tell — often about pet owners who mistreat or misunderstand their animals, or college kids or summer campers who abandon a cat when it’s time to pack up and go home. Ludwig admits that, after more than two decades, she can be a little bit cynical about the work. Even after more than 70,000 cats, does she feel like they’ve made a dent in the problem of animal overpopulation and mistreatment? “Some days yes, some days no,” Ludwig says.
“There’s so much ignorance out there,” Larson says, shaking her head at the cat owner who dipped his animal in gasoline in an effort to remove tar from the animal’s fur, or the person who accidentally poisoned his cat with radiator fluid. Larson has adopted two cats — Pete and Pinto — who came into the clinic as rescues. One of them was tossed from a moving car’s window when he was just weeks old.
But, Larson says of the clinic’s staff, “We have a good time.”
“You have to be able to laugh,” adds Ludwig. “Otherwise,” cuts in Manookian, “you’d cry.”
Cat Spay/Neuter Clinic, 3619 Roosevelt Highway, Colchester, 878-2230.