North Dakota: Keller to retire from state vet position
Susan Keller is ready to spend more time with her family, cows and horses.
The long-time North Dakota state veterinarian will retire from the position the end of June.
As the state veterinarian for the N.D. State Agriculture Department and Board of Animal Health, she has served the state for nearly a quarter century, for two agriculture commissioners and many State Board of Animal Health members.
When her veterinary career started, she never thought she’d serve in a governmental capacity.
Growing up on the family dairy and beef farm near Kelly, Kansas, in the northeast corner of the state, she came to North Dakota after her junior year of college at Kansas State University for an externship at the Midway Veterinary Clinic in Bismarck.
She fell in love with the state and a North Dakota rancher, too.
So after graduation from Kansas State’s veterinary program in 1985, she took a job with a veterinary clinic in Bowman, N.D. When the Midway Veterinary Clinic, where she had done her externship, had an opening, she returned to Mandan to practice with them.
By this time, she’d married the rancher, Dwight Keller, whose family ranched (and still ranches) south of Mandan on the Keller Broken Heart Ranch.
It was a 35 minute drive, one-way, from the ranch to the vet clinic, so Keller decided to strike out on her own, doing mobile veterinary work.
But that involved a lot of driving, too, so the family built a vet clinic on the ranch.
Being a woman in what was then a predominantly man’s world at that time was not difficult, Keller said, because many neighbors and producers gave her a chance to work for them.
Clients “either they decided you were capable of doing what you were hired to do, or they moved on. Uterine prolapses were always a challenge and usually required a group effort. My grandmother used to say many hands make work light. To her that applied to kitchen work but it applies to prolapses too. I would ask anyone in the family who was free to help if they could hold a towel under the object, or get more salt and clean water, and we worked together to try and convince the enlarged mass to go back where it came from.”
Being the sole proprietor and only employee in her country practice became more than one person could handle. “I had a fold-up cot in the clinic to catch sleep,” she said. “I decided I couldn’t be a good vet or a good mom if I kept that pace up.”
Around that time, the job announcement for the deputy state veterinarian had come in the mail. She crumpled it up and threw it away.
The next day, after a short night because of veterinary work, she took it out of the waste basket and applied. “I thought, a government job would be easier,” she laughed. “Little did I know what the job would be like.”
She was hired as deputy state veterinarian in December of 1997 and was appointed state veterinarian in 2004. Dr. Keller shared that her predecessor, Dr. Larry Schuler, had left big shoes to fill, and she was grateful that he had taken the job as the Area Veterinarian in Charge for N.D. and was stationed in Bismarck. Continuing to coordinate with Dr. Schuler and having knowledgeable office administration helped make the transition easier.
Part of her duties as state veterinarian have been as an advocate for animal agriculture. “We set certain limits and boundaries which help protect everyone,” she said. “This is important for animal agriculture and I felt motivated to protect everyone who has animals. If one person ends up with a major disease (within their operation), it can impact our entire state.”
She and her office keep up with what’s going on in other states through communication with other state veterinarians and animal health officials, “to stay up on surrounding disease situations and get information back to our Board, the Commissioner and out to veterinarians and producers.” It’s especially important to keep N.D. veterinarians informed, she believes. “Our veterinarians need to know what to tell their clients. For example, what clinical signs for a certain disease should they be watching for?” she said.
Being a state veterinarian also requires keeping abreast of what’s happening in animal health around the world. The N.D. Board of Animal Health focuses on preventative medicine. “They have the ability to be nimble in regulations because diseases and animals can move quickly across state and international borders.”
The most unpleasant part of her job was sending out quarantine notices. “For the most part, producers in the state have always been understanding and support protecting their animals and their neighbor’s as well.”
She’s seen plenty of changes throughout her years and one of those changes has been the number and type of animal welfare related calls the state office receives. Calls used to be mainly about horses and cattle that appeared to be too thin and lacking adequate care, but there are more calls now regarding other species of animals as well. “We recognize that people are very concerned about the care of all animals,” she said.
Her office staff often works with producers to help inform them of disease risk situations. “We try to work with the producer, their local veterinarian and maybe even their employees (in disease situations.) We sometimes have to ask about their biosecurity practices and what their disease risks are, and then help them determine how they might address those risks so other animals and neighbors aren’t further impacted.”
One of the more memorable aspects of her career was feedback given one time from producers who had been through a very difficult disease investigation, and “the owners said thank you to the Animal Health Division staff, even after they had to move animals for euthanasia and testing. It means a great deal when they say thank you for helping us get through this. Those times are not easy for any of our staff.”
In retirement, she hopes to spend time with her family. “My family sacrificed a lot, and while I still have the ability, I’d like to give back to them.” She and Dwight have three children: Luke, married to Katy and expecting their first child; Jake, who keeps the ranch running, and daughter Tess, married to Thomas Osterbauer.
She and Dwight still live on the Broken Heart Ranch.
She has horses that need ridden, cattle to work with, landscaping to be done, and flowers to plant.
Plus, the first Keller grandbaby arrives in July, and she’s ready to spoil him or her.
“Between babysitting and being a rancher’s wife, I look forward to it.”
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