Mind Over Miller: From dog catching to vet school
In the spring of 1951 I had earned my bachelor’s degree in agriculture from the University of Arizona. I had also been turned down for the fourth consecutive year for admission to the Colorado A&M School of Veterinary Medicine. The competition was fierce due to the post-World War II GI bill (which gave returning soldiers the opportunity for education and training, among other services), and I had been advised to establish legal residency in a state with a veterinary school to facilitate admission.
I chose Colorado. I had spent the previous three summers working in that Rocky Mountain state and at the time wanted to spend my life there, preferably in a ski town in order to be conveniently close to my favorite sport.
I spent the summer working for the U.S. Forest Service with a string of pack horses. With the onset of winter I was no longer needed by the Forest Service, so I drove to Denver to see if I could find a job.
First I went to one of the big meat processing companies and flaunted my ag degree in animal husbandry. They offered me a job as a sales rep, traveling through Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. I gladly accepted and then was told that all the job applicants had to work for 30 days on the slaughterhouse floor before beginning their permanent job. I agreed to do so and was shown into a huge windowless room and assigned to a sausage machine.
After I left the plant I sat down outside and choked back tears. I was about to spend 200 hours of my life in an unbearable room doing a hateful job. I had just finished a Forest Service job riding every day through glorious forest, surrounded by magnificent alpine peaks.
I went back into the meat packing plant and told the interviewer I had changed my mind.
“Fine with me,” he said.
I had visited the Denver Zoo the previous day and I got an idea. I went to the government office that hired zoo employees. I loved zoos.
Again, waving my bachelor of science degree, I applied to be a zookeeper. I was told that I was well-qualified.
“When can I start work?” I asked happily.
“Oh, not for a long time,” was the reply. “There are 62 qualified applicants ahead of you.”
I was crushed. Of course, I hadn’t mentioned that I was a veterinary school applicant and would quit the moment I was accepted to school.
“Gosh,” I said. “I’m so disappointed. I’d do anything to work with animals.”
“Well,” the interviewer responded, “we do have one animal job, but you wouldn’t be interested in it.”
I asked why not.
“It’s working for the country veterinarian Dr. Anderson at the dog pound.”
I said I’d take it.
“It only pays $247 a month,” he cautioned.
I confirmed I’d still take it.
“It’s a dog-catching job!” he warned.
I told him I still wanted the position.
“Fine with me, if that’s what you want!” the interviewer finally conceded.
For the next year I worked as a dog catcher in Denver. The city had just suffered a rabies epidemic and Dr. R.K. Anderson, who became my lifelong mentor, colleague and friend, had instituted a landmark program of stray dog control and mandatory rabies vaccination.
I set a record for the largest number of stray dogs captured in a single day in Denver (28). The Denver Post featured a two-page spread on me titled “Denver’s Roping Dog Catcher.” Yes, I used my cowboy roping skills to capture strays.
Near the end of the year Dr. Anderson had me address county officials to plead for a higher wage for dog catchers. I did so, arguing that the risks and skills were equal to those policemen and firefighters experienced, so dog catchers ought to start at the same $400 monthly salary. It was declined, but I did get a $100 increase to benefit future pound personnel.
I had always loved dogs, trained them successfully and got along with them very well, but during that year with Dr. Anderson, a future professor and canine behaviorist, I learned so much more.
I adopted a collie-shepherd mix from the pound and named him Red. He was one of the best dogs I’d ever had and I trained him to help me catch strays.
Dr. Anderson wrote a letter of recommendation for me, which I never saw, and sent it to the veterinary school at Fort Collins. When I was finally accepted, I was told I was at the top of 700 qualified applicants.
I received my letter of admittance and, as I told Dr. Anderson I would, quit my dog-catching job and went back to my beloved Rocky Mountains to work horseback for my last summer before starting veterinary school.