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Guilderland Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, May 13, 2010

A Guilderland veterinarian looks back at a long and lively career
Brennan’s medicine combined art and science

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — John Brennan says his career as a veterinarian spanned the change from art to science.

He has just published a book, This Vet Has Tales, comprised of a series of vignettes largely culled from 40 years at the Guilderland Animal Hospital, a practice he founded in 1955.

“I started on Mary’s kitchen table,” he says, glancing at his wife.

“I’ve always loved animals,” says Mrs. Brennan, explaining she didn’t have any as a child since her father had allergies.

The couple bought a house with an old motel and remodeled the motel into kennels. Dr. Brennan writes in his book about the many wonderful people who worked at the Guilderland Animal Hospital over the years as it grew and prospered.

“Of course, my first helper was Mary, my wife,” he writes. “Picture in your mind a young woman, pregnant, holding a baby in one arm, telephone wedged between her other shoulder and ear, trying to talk into the pone and write down information about a sick cow and then the other telephone would ring.”

The Guilderland practice had to have one phone for Schenectady and another for Albany since, in the 1950s, it was a toll call to talk from one city to the other.

The Brennans had met at Cornell, where Mrs. Brennan got a bachelor of science degree in home economics; she went on to work at the Cornell cooperative extension. Dr. Brennan earned his veterinary degree there in 1952.

The Brennans raised three children — Peter, John, and Mary Ann — and many of Dr. Brennan’s stories are intertwined with his role as father.

“I guess you could say my ‘tiny’ animal practice in Guilderland started the day I rescued a very tiny box turtle from the mouth of John, my almost 2-year-old son,” he writes.

He also writes about being a hero to his daughter as he helps her friend’s iguana return to good health.

Dr. Brennan says his children, now grown, encouraged him to write the book. Over the course of three years, he wrote the stories out in longhand, and then had them typed. He couldn’t find a publisher and was told he needed an agent, which turned into a Catch-22 since agents were looking for only published authors.

“I don’t like being told I can’t do something,” said Dr. Brennan, who then took on publishing the book himself.

Some of his stories revolve around the times he wasn’t with his family because ailing animals demanded his attentions instead.

He writes, for example, of one holiday his children dubbed “Porcupine Christmas.”  As he was locking up his office to head home on Christmas Eve, receptionist Ellie McClelland commented prophetically, “Whew! What a busy day. Merry Christmas, Doc. You’re on call; all you need to complete your day is a porcupine tonight.”

The doctor replied, “Not to worry. The porcupines are all snuggled up for the season.”

“Thirty minutes later,” Brennan writes, “I heard the dreaded telephone ring.” Mr. Flutie’s dog had tangled with a porcupine, his wife said. Mr. Flutie was already en route to the animal hospital.

Brennan describes the Fluties’ boxer as looking like a pincushion and details the procedure to remove the quills. With the job finally complete, Mr. Flutie declared it a miracle.

“I cleaned up,” writes Brennan, “and was heading for the door when our inside private telephone rang. As I put the receiver to my ear I heard Mary, my wife, say, “You’re not going to believe it but you’ve got another porcupine case coming in! Elsie must be clairvoyant!”

Sometimes, Brennan was called away to treat the pet’s owner more than the pet. He describes an elderly widow with her beloved cat who called him one Thanksgiving early in his career. Mrs. Dickey didn’t drive, so Dr. Brennan left his family to go to her house on Thanksgiving Day.

Her cat, regally enthroned in her own room, was wary. But after edging his way in to pet her, the vet was finally able to determine she suffered from tooth and gum problems and so wasn’t eating. He agreed to take her to the animal hospital the next day to clean the cat’s teeth, and did so.

Mrs. Dickey called again on Christmas Eve, saying her cat wasn’t well. Dr. Brennan drove to her house again and was greeted with tea for two.

“Most of me wanted to be home with my family,” he wrote, “but a little bit of me wanted to stay awhile with this nice little old lady who craved human companionship. We chatted about her early life on a Schoharie farm, her marriage to a neighbor boy…It was like breaking chains to rise up and start to leave.”

Concerned when Mrs. Dickey didn’t call on later holidays, Dr. Brennan discovered she had died.

“Have you ever felt alone?” he asks in his book, which is as much about people as pets “I mean alone through your whole being? Loneliness is a condition abhorrent to almost all of humanity. Man will seek another being to share even the smallest portion of his joy. Solitary confinement is one of society’s ultimate punishments. When we find ourselves alone, deprived of human companionship, many turn to domestic animals for anthropomorphic solace.”

All kinds of tales

“There are stories that are funny, stories that are poignant, stories that are heart-wrenching,” Brennan says of his book.

Many of the stories are grounded in local lore. One is about an ailing elephant at the Altamont Fair. Another is about the current site of the Just Cats veterinary practice on Western Avenue in Guilderland, which once was the property of a woman who ran a cat haven. With contributions from other cat lovers, she cared for eighty abandoned, unwanted cats, Brennan writes, “Seven days each week, she fed, watered, cleaned and cared for the abandoned felines.” He lowered his fees to help her.

Brennan also writes of stopping on the edge of the Helderberg escarpment to take in the view and revitalize himself as he made trips to Hilltown farms.

In the winter of 1959, he was flown into the Helderbergs to tend to ailing cows. The roads were closed with 10-foot snowdrifts when Fred Drumm’s best cow got sick. At Drumm’s direction, Git Wilbur flew his Cessna, equipped with skis to land on the empty acreage behind the Guilderland Animal Hospital.

“As we rose, I was treated to a wonderful sight, so much like a Christmas card scene,” writes Brennan, who later became a pilot himself. “We went over Altamont up toward the hill farms. It was strange, no people, no cars, no movement. The huge snow storm had made time stand still.”

While Brennan tended to the cow, Git Wilbur flew out enough milk to pay his fee. Word of the “flying doc” got out and Brennan was flown that winter to help another sick cow and to help with calving.

Brennan also writes of boarding a poodle that languished as her owners were on a long visit to their homeland, Germany. Greta refused to eat and lost a third of her body weight. Many in town offered suggestions, and finally a newcomer, a war bride from Germany, Wilhelmina, hit on a solution.

“From Willie’s hand as she cooed in the language of Mozart and Beethoven, listless Greta began to nibble and nibble and finally eat. Hallelujah, Greta’s eating!” writes Brennan. “It seems like our whole town felt better….After 29 days of not eating, Greta more than made up for her self-imposed fast in the next 31. She regained her weight, her perky appearance and her playful spirit. She and Willie became great friends.”

Heights and depths

Dr. Brennan’s book traces his history with animals back to his great-grandfather, the son of Irish immigrants who migrated to Greenwich Village in New York City in the mid-1800s and set up a livery stable. Brennan’s father, who had wanted to be a veterinarian himself, but instead became a policeman, guided his son, his only child, to that profession.

Brennan describes in his book a difficult interview for admission to Cornell. One of the veterinary school professors, slouched in his chair, said, “Brennan, you’re Irish; why don’t you become a cop like your old man?”

“I’m sure I reddened,” writes Brennan, “but kept my composure and answered, ‘Sir, because I want to be a veterinarian as he did but did not have the opportunity.’”

When Brennan was admitted to Cornell, he felt like one of the chosen.

“In the fall of 1947, before the deadline of 30 November,” he begins his book, “one thousand-one-hundred-and-sixty-three individuals submitted their applications to the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine. They were hoping to be one of the fortunate few that would be selected to enroll in the class of 1952, one of the lucky 50 students of the class. I was and still am a member of that class.”

Brennan has remained close to his classmates throughout his life, and several of his stories include them. One of the saddest stories is about John Kuhn, a classmate who served as Brennan’s best man at his wedding.

Dr. Kuhn practiced in a small farm town north of Utica. There, he diagnosed a cow with rabies, and, after it died, sent the cow’s brain to the state’s Griffin Laboratory in Guilderland for confirmation.

“We don’t know how, but in the amputation process, Jim contaminated himself with some of the cow’s fluid,” writes Brennan.  Kuhn underwent a series of painful abdominal injections and he and his family thought he had beaten the rabies.

Several weeks later, after a day’s work, he was at his kitchen table as his wife prepared supper, having already put their three young children to bed, when he collapsed to the floor.

“Jim’s heart had given out. Jim was gone,” writes Brennan, deducing the extreme treatment had taken its toll.

“We lost a very good friend. Veterinary medicine lost a capable practitioner but the tragedy that was immeasurable is that a young woman was left as widow with three children under four years of age,” writes Brennan. “That is human tragedy to the utmost.”

Brennan says that classmates always remember Jim Kuhn when they gather, and they tell a story he frequently related, which seems sad, too.

Kuhn often told of a farmer’s dog, Spots, a beagle, that he diagnosed with a rare malady. Spots needed expensive surgery to survive. Kuhn arranged to have the surgery done for free at Cornell as a teaching case for students.

The dog survived and prospered, and always greeted Kuhn exuberantly when he visited the farm.

One time when he stopped by, about a year after the surgery, Kuhn wasn’t greeted by his canine friend.  He called for Spots to no avail, then went down to the barn to ask the farmer, George Stanton, where he was.

“With no emotion whatsoever, Stanton replied, ‘Oh, we shot him; he couldn’t hunt worth a damn! Wasn’t any use to us.’

“Jim said, ‘My knees went weak. I recovered and had the urge to flatten George Stanton, but that wouldn’t do anything but provoke trouble. It wouldn’t bring back my buddy Spots. I think I just said “oh,” turned and walked back to my car, shedding tears. Thankfully, it was months later before Stanton called for me to treat one of his cows again.’”

Art and science

As Brennan, who retired in 1995, looks back on his career he sees many changes. The practice itself grew to include seven veterinarians and 30 support staff members.

“When we started,” he said, “office visits for small animals were three dollars and farm calls were five dollars.”

Most of the animals seen at the clinic now are house pets. The technology has progressed, and the prices have gone up.

“People have come to regard their pets as members of the family,” said Brennan.

In the early days of his practice, Brennan said, when a pet had a difficult condition, “Half of the time, the owner would say, ‘Put him to sleep. I don’t have the money.’ Today, veterinarians wouldn’t even suggest euthanasia.”

He reiterated, “People think of their small animal pets as being a member of the family and they truly are.”

In a philosophical chapter, Brennan writes about euthanasia. “As I reflect on my career in veterinary medicine, I am at once confused, ashamed, sorrow filled, regretful, but also justified accepting my role and duty as a veterinarian who has dealt with the question of one form of animal death. Euthanasia….

“As a young veterinarian, I hardly gave a thought to administering a lethal injection to an animal. To the aged, the maimed, the incorrigible, I felt euthanasia was totally justified. But I hardly questioned or felt guilt when I euthanized for economics or convenience. For this I am sorry…

“Societies in some parts of our world value some animal species differently…But many other animal species are an acceptable part of our food chain…

“There is no universal correct answer for all. There is only a need for tolerance and understanding.”

“I’m between the art of veterinary medicine and the science,” Brennan said of his four decades in the business.

He writes in his book about the transitional years for his profession. “The art of veterinary medicine, all medicine,” he writes, “is using one’s powers of observation combined with experience to arrive at a diagnosis. The diagnosis and treatments of disease and injury up to the early part of the 20th Century were very primitive compared to today’s standards.

“The extensive use of medical research that has provided modern machines, chemical diagnostic tests and treatments has propelled medicine into a wonderful scientific era, but the best medicine is still a combination of both art and science.”


John Brennan will be signing and selling his book, a 276-page paperback which costs $20, at a book fair on Saturday, May 15, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Albany Academy for Girls, his wife’s alma mater, at 135 Academy Road in Albany. And on Saturday, May 22, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., he’ll have The Vet Has Tales at the Guilderland Animal Hospital at 4963 Western Turnpike in Guilderland.

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