Large-animal vet finds home in AK

Posted: Sunday, January 19, 2003

KENAI - With his red Alaska Farmers and Stock Growers hat, a worn-in rugby shirt and faded blue jeans, work boots and his coarse calloused hands, Jerry Nybakken may look to most people like more of rancher than a doctor of veterinary medicine.

But don't be fooled by the missing white lab coat or the lack of a stethoscope dangling from his neck. He's a great person to call for large-animal medicine.

Nybakken gives advice on everything from a goat in heat to a bird with diarrhea.

"I do a lot of ambulatory work, going to people's places and looking at their large animals," he said. "But this time of year things slow down. Animals are in pens and corrals so there's less emergency cases because they're not out there getting damaged."

"Ambulatory" means he makes house calls..

The large animals he typically looks at include horses, cows, goats, sheep, llamas and pigs. He stays busy also by specializing in exotic animals, which include reptiles, amphibians, birds and other small mammals.

Nybakken didn't head toward veterinary medicine right out of high school. He knew back then that he had a love for animals and thought about working with them as a career but he wasn't confident in his abilities.

Instead of college, he enlisted in the military and served several years in the Navy. After that, he farmed with his folks on their family land in North Dakota.

"Our farm was about half cattle and half crops," he said. "Mostly wheat, barley and oats."

He farmed with them until he was 35 years old. It wasn't until his dad decided to sell the farm that he opted to pursue undergraduate school.

"The choice was either try and raise enough money to stay in farming, which was too expensive, or work for someone else, or go back to school," he said.

So at age 42 he enrolled at Colorado State University.

"In my class at the start of it, the youngest person was 19 - a real genius that had shortcut the whole undergraduate program," Nybakken said. "I was the oldest, but I still had a good time."

He was 46 when he graduated and found his first employment as a veterinarian in Idaho. He worked at two facilities before moving to Alaska in 1998 and a job at a clinic in Big Lake.

He stayed for about eight months, but it was strictly a small-animal clinic and Nybakken wanted to work with large animals. Later, a position opened at Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic in Soldotna. It was mentioned there would be some occasional large-animal work involved, and this was enough to persuade him to give it a try.

Nybakken quickly found out that the demand for a large-animal vet was high and growing higher.

"It got to be to the point that I was on the road so much that I wasn't getting any time at home," he said. "So I just broke off and went on my own with my own practice."

That was two years ago.

He covers the entire peninsula from Seward to Homer, so there are only so many calls that he can handle. The demands of his practice keep him away from his significant other and their menagerie more than he would like. They have four dogs, two cats, nine llamas, three horses and three sheep. Fortunately, he maintains a very upbeat and optimistic outlook on it all.

He has been involved in the Iditarod as a race veterinarian for the last five years, and also has assisted with the Tustumena 200, both of which he greatly enjoys.

"The dogs are athletes and are treated like athletes," he said. "Diet, exercise programs, drug treatments and genetics all deal with the end product of an athletic individual. It's amazing."

In addition to the dog racing, another perk of his career has been assisting at the Moose Research Center near Sterling. Two seasons ago he helped workers there when their herd of moose calves came down with the scours, which is a term used when animals with hooves have diarrhea. He also put a cast on the broken leg of a baby moose.

"When I cut the cast of that little moose, and it stood up and looked at me, and a week later was running around the pasture - it was a good feeling and that's what it's all about."

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