WINTER 1997 Montanan - Volume 14, Number 2
From Country Vet to City Vet
by Marnie Prange
Veterinarian Bob Brophy arrives at work before dawn to do surgery before the rush of traffic on Highway 93 interrupts the day. Not so long ago, his Bitterroot Veterinary Clinic lay on the outskirts of Hamilton across from his house. The livestock market was nearby. Now the clinic sits in a sea of pavement, surrounded by strip shopping centers. The house is gone. And there is nowhere to congregate. "The auction was the social event of the week," Brophy says. "When we lost the market, the farmers and ranchers didn't have a place to visit anymore."
Over the past twenty-five years, Brophy has seen an agricultural economy based on neighbor helping neighbor transformed into a bedroom community where neighbors rarely know each others' names. Newcomers don't understand water rights, Brophy says. They make up brands (an illegal activity), then brand everything in their possession. They run parallel fence lines along shared boundaries, then hang the barbed wire with no trespassing signs.
As a veterinarian, Brophy's vantage point is unique. When he opened his practice in 1968, his patients were 75 percent farm animals, 25 percent companion animals. Today, those numbers have reversed.
"Twenty-five years ago," Brophy says, "if I was going out on a call, I would probably be going to a small, grade B family dairy or a diversified farm that had sugar beets, grain, cattle and sheep. Today I'd be going to a strictly livestock ranch, or to see a horse, or to see a dairy cow that belongs to a factory¬she's one of a hundred and everything is mechanized as opposed to being one of twelve cows milked by hand, each with a name."
When Brophy visited a farm, he stayed for breakfast. He found jugs of cider, sacks of apples, eggs and summer produce on the seat of his truck. He was paid once a year, when the calves were sold. Carrying accounts was the practice among friends.
That is what Brophy misses the most: "the personal touch, the old friends who've quit the business, or retired, or moved so they can ranch a different way."
Today, the large ranches have absentee owners, and Brophy deals with ranch foremen who come and go. Although he still gets calving emergencies in the middle of the night, wake-up calls have changed, too. Often the caller is "somebody who's had too much to drink and wants to know how much it costs to spay a dog or something," Brophy says and bursts into laughter.
His days are different-he's spaying dogs instead of treating dairy cows-but they aren't necessarily easier. "I work half days, like my grandfather," Brophy quips, "twelve hours out of twenty-four."
Many clients are "flashlight farmers." In the past, these were "fellows who worked in the logging industry and had a little farm on the side and came home and never saw the farm in the daylight." Now they are schoolteachers or business people, who enjoy the farm they never see in the daylight.
Dobermans and Rottweilers have replaced ranch dogs. And the backyard horse has replaced the working horse. "They used to joke and laugh, 'Starve the kids to buy the horse,' but now they starve the horse, too," Brophy laments. "They don't even provide drinking water, thinking a horse can eat snow. We don't have a lot of snow here in the valley." Even the cowboys remaining in the valley have exchanged horses for four wheelers, he adds.
Brophy's three children used to go on farm calls with him. "If you'd asked them, 'What does your daddy do?' I'm sure they would have said, 'He works on cows,'"' Brophy says. "Now they'd say, 'He works on dogs and cats.'" Or, more likely, he works on increasing numbers of fad animals or "Gucci" pets: pot-bellied pigs, miniature horses and goats. He hasn't seen a hedgehog, but he knows it's coming.
Although Brophy maintains a sense of humor about what he has lost, he is reminded of the enormous changes that have swept the valley when, at the end of each day, he leaves his office and traffic is so heavy he waits ten minutes to make a left turn. "Twenty-five years ago I never looked right or left," he says. "I just pulled onto the highway. Nobody was ever coming."
Marnie Prange writes from the Bitterroot Valley.