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Crusading veterinarian practices what she preaches

The Williston Observer

May 20, 2004

Dr. Peggy Larson’s steady fingers gently nudge a mat of black, bloody fur away from the jagged neck wound in the cat lying on her operating table.

“This one has been in a few fights,” she says. “A lot of these animals aren’t in the best condition.”

The cat, in an anesthetic stupor, remains still as Larson neuters it, cleans out its wound, and neatly stitches it up. Veterinary technicians give the cat a penicillin shot, brush its fur, check for fleas, clip the cat’s nails, and give it an all-over physical.

Here at the Green Mountain Animal Defenders’ Spay and Neuter Clinic in Colchester, a bare-bones Facility that Larson, her husband and fellow vet Roger Prior, and technician Kathee Ludwig created in 1991, all this care costs only $35.

“We’re like a M*A*S*H* unit here,” says Larson, a Williston resident. “I’d estimate we have spayed or neutered about 40,000 animals since we began the clinic – that’s ultimately millions of stray kittens that don’t get born to inevitably die in a ditch.”

Larson is dedicated to protecting Vermont animals, but her journey began far from the Green Mountains on a cattle and grain farm in Devil’s Lake, N.D.

As the oldest of three children, Larson operated the family’s farm machinery and rode in the rodeo for money as a teenager. She knew she wanted to become a veterinarian since she could walk, but when she applied to vet school in 1961, back in the days when “women were second-class citizens,” the fact that most schools only admitted one or two female students was the least of her problems.

“Peggy took a bus from Salt Lake City, where she was living, to her interview at Ohio State,” Prior says. “Two days later, dressed in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, she realized her luggage hadn’t gotten off the bus with her, so she went over to the interview and said, ‘Well, I have been sleeping in these clothes for two nights and my luggage is in New York, so this is what you’ve got. You’re only interested in me from the neck up anyway,’ It was really kind of spectacular of her. And they took her.”

Larson loved veterinary school, but after four years of intense study, her opinion on animals and their relationship to humans began to change.

“In my anatomy and physiology classes I found out that the anatomy of animals is almost identical to ours,” she says. “At that point I changed my mind on everything, and really got interested in animal protection and animal welfare.”

She worked for a few years as a large animal vet and then as an inspector for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but soon Larson began itching to work on larger issues. She decided that getting a law degree might help, and one of the first things she did after law school was launch the Spay and Neuter Clinic with Prior and Ludwig – for only $3000.

“We started the clinic on Peggy and Roger’s kitchen table, free of charge for a few years,” Ludwig says. “Both of them donated their time and were wonderful.”

Combining her new knowledge of non-profit organizations with her skills as a lawyer, Larson then established the National Spay and Neuter Coalition.

“What law really does is help formulate how you approach an issue, so that you can be very persuasive,” Larson says. With her help, clinics have since emerged everywhere from Israel to China.

Recently, Larson’s increasingly well-recognized name began giving her considerable clout in the world of animal welfare. She joined an international team that tried to outlaw a rodeo from the 2000 Olympics in Salt Lake City – despite her teenage passion for the sport. She has also worked on matters much closer to home: Last week she testified before the Vermont Legislature for bill S.313, an attempt to create a statewide program to support cheaper spaying and neutering.

Each day, except for Fridays and Saturdays, when she is at the clinic, Larson writes articles defending the welfare of animals from her cat-filled Williston home. Often, she travels all over the country giving talks on the issue. But her philosophy, the same one she first developed in veterinary school, continues to resound in all the work she does.

“My big thing is this: if you are going to have an animal or use it for meat or show, you must treat that animal humanely,” she says. “I guess a lot of people think that animals are two-dimensional, that they’re disposable, like paper towels. Anyone who things that is really missing out.”

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