Peninsula vet brings medicine to farms

Ranch Dressing

Posted: Sunday, January 12, 2003

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, because he's a great person to call for large animal medicine.

"This is my dead time of year," said Nybakken.

Maybe someone should tell his clients that. His phone was ringing off the hook with people calling in a variety of animal ailments. He gave 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" meaning his veterinary practice is a mobile one. He makes house or ranch calls and brings the medicine and equipment along with him.

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

"Initially, I thought there wouldn't be many exotics up here," Nybakken said. "But, I've run across a fair number of people with that type of pet and that are willing to provide the environment these pets need."

Many species of birds, along with reptiles like snakes and lizards, require high temperatures and humidity levels. Keeping these types of animals healthy is a real challenge since these two conditions rarely occur together for extended periods of time in Alaska.

Nybakken's casual appearance and making ranch calls aren't the only things that set him apart from many veterinarians. Nybakken himself knows that as well as anyone.

"I'm a little bit different than a lot of people in this field," he said.

Many people who realize they want to practice veterinary medicine will immediately follow high school with six years or more of college. Not Nybakken, though.

He knew from way back that he had a love for animals and thought about working with them as a career even in high school. But, he admitted that he, like many wide-eyed teen-agers right out of school and often green to the working world, was not confident in his abilities.

"At 16 and 17 years old you don't really know where you're going," Nybakken said. "There's a lot of things you think you can do, but it's whether you're willing to put the effort into doing it."

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.


Dr. Jerry Nybakken

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"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 split up his work week between two facilities, the Freemont Veter-inary Clinic in St. Anthony and the Eastside Veterinary Clinic in Idaho Falls.

In 1998 he came to Alaska.

"I came for a change more than anything else," he said.

"A job opened up in Big Lake and I thought, 'Well, I'll take a look.'"

He drove up, interviewed and got the job. He stayed for about eight months, but it was strictly a small animal clinic and Nybakken wanted more than that. He wanted to work with large animals.

A position opened up 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.

"I was doing small animal stuff during the day and during the evening and on weekends I would go do the large animal stuff," he said.

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 and he continues to do well despite the challenge of providing mobile services.


Dr. Jerry Nybakken checks bandages on a horse that ran into a fence last fall.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"It's not a big practice," he confessed. "There's not a lot of large animals up here, but the owners of these animals have really been receptive."

He covers the entire peninsula from Seward to Homer, so there are only so many calls that he can handle.

"The effort of maintaining a solo practice combined with the time spent on the road can be fatiguing," Nybakken said. "It's always you that goes during emergency calls. I spend as many as 12 hours a day on the road sometimes."

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.

"I enjoy cruising around to the different farms and seeing the different animals," he said. "One of my favorite things about veterinary medicine is the variability. It's rarely the same day to day and I enjoy seeing the broad spectrum of animals."

When things do slow down at his practice, he always finds ways to stay busy. He enjoys caribou hunting by horseback and hopes to one day ski the network of glaciers from Seward to Homer.

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. He's seen the dogs of many famous mushers including Paul Gebhardt, and Tim and Dean Osmar. He enjoys working with the dogs and finds their care particularly interesting.

"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."

But the real reason he volunteers one month a year of his time to the Iditarod is for the experience itself. Like many people, Nybakken has never lost his sense of awe for the fantastic and unique places, people and animals that make up the "Last Great Race."

"Sitting around when these guys come in off the trail at 2 in the morning, and talking with them over a cup of coffee after you've checked their dogs in can be really interesting," he said. "It's rewarding to talk with the mushers and the villagers. That's why I do it."

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 cast the leg of one baby to set its break, which was one of the more memorable experiences in his career.

"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."

However, not every day can be a good one. There are two sides to every coin and Nybakken knows it all too well.

"When you've done everything you can and you still can't win, it can be hard," he said. "But you have to accept it."

The reality of not being able to save them all is hard on Dr. Nybakken, but he accepts the unpleasant part as just that -- part of the job. He won't let it keep him down and he sure won't be leaving Alaska anytime soon.


With help from Cody Honrud, at left, Dr. Jerry Nybakken nudges one of Nita Young's alpacas into a pen so that he could remove a cast from its leg last week.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

"I'm permanent," he said when asked if he thought about returning to the Lower 48 one day. He leaves once a year for continuing education and travels every two to three years to visit family, but the remaining time off he gets is spent in Alaska.

"It's a big, beautiful country here -- fantastic country, " Nybakken said. "I'll need another lifetime to see it all."

For now he will continue to provide his mobile veterinary care and enjoy all that comes his way.

"It's more about this place, the animals and the people, than it is about me," he said. "I just bring them all together sometimes."

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