Interview by Claire Tucker, College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences Office of Advancement
Robert Miller, D.V.M. ‘56
“Even though I never set out to study veterinary medicine, it all worked out beautifully. Just as I planned it.”
Dr. Robert Miller is a world-renowned veterinarian, equine behaviorist, and cartoonist. He founded the Conejo Valley Veterinary Hospital in Southern California, and retired from his practice in 1987 to devote his time to teaching equine behavior. He spoke to us from his home in Thousand Oaks, Calif., about his path, legacy, and memories made along the way. He will be honored by the 50-Year Club at a luncheon during the 2017 CSU Homecoming.
Sketching out a career
“I have always been interested in animals. I have been drawing pictures of animals as far back as I can remember, even in the high chair. As a young boy, I devoured books on animals, walking miles to the libraries to find new ones I could read over and over again. But it never remotely occurred to me to study veterinary medicine. I grew up during the Great Depression. We had dogs but never took them to a veterinarian. There just wasn’t money for that.
“I first became attracted to veterinary medicine when I lived in Tucson, Ariz. After the war I attended the University of Arizona with a major in animal husbandry. I still absolutely wanted to work with animals. One of my freshman courses was an Introduction to Veterinary Science. About the second week of class, the professor (a veterinarian himself) began to reminisce about his time in practice. These stories were like bombshells to me. I found myself thinking that being a veterinarian was what I ought to do.”
Falling in love with medicine
“It took me a few years to get into veterinary school, but I finally was accepted into the Colorado State University D.V.M. Class of 1956. Our veterinary class was unique in that there were only two women in it. Only a handful of schools allowed them in at this time. I was also unique in my class because I was a bachelor. Most of my classmates had families and many were older, having spent their younger years as soldiers in World War II, as I did. Many more in the class of 1957 were a younger group. It is to their 60-year reunion that I return this fall.
“I planned to be a large animal practitioner after veterinary school, capitalizing on my interest in animal husbandry. But when I got into my junior year of veterinary school, I fell in love with the practice of medicine. The diagnostic challenge and problem-solving, especially in small-animal medicine, fascinated me. I decided then that I would do a mixed practice. I started in my dream practice, a small mixed-animal location just to the east of Tucson, while the owner took a vacation to prospect for minerals. But I realized a one-doctor practice would interfere with raising a family. I needed a group practice.”
Cattle, horses, pets, and a zoo
“My wife and I traveled to California, just after getting married, to find such a group practice. We zigzagged the state looking for the right one. I joined one, but the large animal practice folded within the year. I was quite depressed about my situation, until my wife suggested I start my own group practice in the Conejo Valley where we lived, an extremely rural part of California at that time. But there were thousands of beef cattle, dozens of horse facilities, a few boarding kennels, and a zoo. More than enough to keep a veterinarian occupied. The practice I left referred all their large animal cases, and I was busy from day one. The practice grew immensely from three to six to 10 doctors, including an internship.”
From many species to one
“During the first half of my career, I worked on all species, including zoo animals. I got calls to work on everything from whales to chickens. I had two client circuses. I worked at the naval base, treating dolphins that were tasked with placing explosives in the ocean. I was a veterinarian and instructor at the local college.
“Then, at the midpoint of my career, the equine part of my practice was growing rapidly as our community of the Conejo Valley became more suburban. I agreed to specialize in horses, and in just one month, my life became so simplified. I never realized how much effort it takes to keep up on the newest literature for so many species. I was much happier here where I could specialize and hone my skills. I loved the diagnostic challenges and the problem-solving aspect of the practice.”
More humane horse handling
“I had a great interest in behavior, dating back to my pre-veterinary days, working on farms and ranches. In 1948, I had a job on a ranch, a family operation with a half-dozen colts. We were working to break the colts through a very crude method of blindfolding and trying to ride them. Most of the horses were forgiving, but something told me that there had to be another way.
“When I returned to school that fall, I began to research more humane handling methods I found in old books that I found in the library, igniting a passion that has never left me. At first, as I was testing methods, I would not let anyone watch me because I was afraid it would not look macho. But over time, I became more confident in my gentler technique and wanted to share it with other equine people. I brought that skill into my practice.
“In 1959 I discovered that newborn foals can be trained during their immediate postpartum imprinting period. Early gentle handling helped a horse to be docile at an older age for almost any procedure. Our clients at first were skeptical, but a few allowed us to work with their foals. Once other clients saw our success, the method took off. It took over half a century, but now the method is in use all over the world, in all breeds, and all disciplines.
“I retired from practice at age 60, after attending a colleague’s funeral and hearing the ticking clock for the first time. I ventured into full-time lecturing and writing about equine behavior. My training methods have been used by practitioners all over the world
and I lecture dozens of times a year. I’m still doing that more than 30 years later.”
Keeping the humor in veterinary medicine
“I have been a cartoonist since the high chair, and have never stopped. I used to draw cartoons in college about the professors. Although none were put off, some found them hilarious and hung them framed on the walls of their offices. I did it mostly because I enjoyed it. I like to make people laugh. I eventually sold cartoons to veterinary publications and grouped them into my own books and calendars. The cartoons come from everyday veterinary experience because absurd things happen all the time in a practice.”
Advice for the next generations
“I recommend that every new graduate get a job in a mixed practice for at least a year. Practice, and only practice, will help you to hone your interests. Many of my classmates did not find their passion in veterinary school, but while testing their skills out in the field. They became Army veterinarians, industry representatives, teachers, etc. You’ve got to get out there. I also recommend that we all take better care of each other. Veterinary medicine is starting to have problems with mental health and suicide, and it breaks my heart. We came into this profession for a reason, and many of us would make that exact same decision again. I hope we learn to heal together.
“We are blessed to be members of a vital learned profession that combines the art and science of medicine with animal husbandry. We help to control disease and further the welfare of the animals that we humans are involved with. Like me, all veterinarians should be grateful and satisfied with the career we have chosen.”