The sweet life

The sweet life

Neither fame nor Wonka's chocolate fortune can match the riches of rural life and practice
Jan 01, 2006

There's still something very James Herriot-like about jumping in your truck and visiting farms every day," he says with palpable satisfaction. The analogy isn't too far off. Dr. Peter Ostrum relishes the lifestyle as much as the medicine, and he thrives on the bonds he creates with his clients and the close-knit community he serves.

"Over time, the relationships you build with your clients keep you going," he says. "The longer you've been in practice, you think it will become boring, but it doesn't. It becomes more satisfying."

He and the legendary English author might share something else in common: international adoration. Ostrum was introduced to the world as Charlie Bucket in "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory" 35 years ago, and countless children have continued their fascination with the pure imagination of his only feature film. Today, however, his most adoring fans are Lewis County's No. 1 businessmen: dairy producers.

Dr. Peter Ostrum dehorns a young bull.
Cows still outnumber people in New York's Lewis County, where population has stagnated at about 27,000 for the past 15 years. Not quite 4,000 live in the county seat of Lowville, where Ostrum is a partner at the Countryside Animal Clinic.

"These guys live and die by these animals," he says after an unscheduled stop to examine a cow he operated on two days prior.

It's that blend of economics and empathy that helps solidify the decades-old connection the mixed animal practice has with the community.

The 70-year-old Countryside Animal Clinic built a new facility 20 years ago to house its expanding business and includes a function room, which the practice loans out for community events. It's complete with two trophy bucks, but Ostrum didn't bag them. He gave up the sport after a couple missed shots years ago, but if his clients hunt, then you can bet that he still knows the best areas to spot deer in autumn rut.

Dr. Peter Ostrum uses ultrasound to get a more definitive result from his palpation.
He knows how their kids are doing in school, too, and what new toys they might be riding on the slopes of Tug Hill come snowfall.

The rapport translates into trust, and for the mostly one-family operations he serves, Ostrum, like many farm docs, is their closest adviser. Herd health and nutrition top the list of inquiries, but he fields increasing more questions about business, operations and equipment, too.

"It would help my clients and practice if we were given more business training," he says. "It's the next big challenge."

But it's not his only challenge. Rural life and the rigor of dairy practice have many practices in dire straits for manpower, so to speak.

"Mixed animal is dying. I graduated with a class of 80, and at least 25 to 30 were going to do mixed animal," he says. "Now, there are three to five that want to do dairy. We are fortunate because we have a couple, but they are diamonds in the rough."

With so many practices competing for fewer large animal practitioners, Ostrum says it's important to engage young minds and young veterinarians. He does both, and he's got a pretty good pitch for the grade-school and junior-high crowd given that at some point in their lives, they wanted to be his silver-screen persona: the lucky boy who found Willy Wonka's last golden ticket.

Like much of his audience, Ostrum was 13 when he was plucked from Cleveland Playhouse productions to play the winner of an eccentric candymaker's competition. Although he grew disillusioned of the monotony and tediousness of shooting scenes and later turned down a multi-movie contract, he says he never tired of living abroad or the camaraderie of the cast.