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First, do no harm

Wisconsin veterinarian uses every platform she can to change the world for animals

From Animal Sheltering magazine May/June 2013

Veterinarian Susan Krebsbach, with Eddie, one of her pets, is a part-time consultant for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, and runs her own veterinary behavior consulting business.Krebsbach enjoys a moment in the sun with Roz, one of her dogs.

Susan Krebsbach’s path to becoming a veterinarian wasn’t a linear one.

She started out sensibly, graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in engineering. “I had to put myself through school, and so I was very worried about getting a job, and in the ’80s women in engineering were pretty much guaranteed a job,” she recalls.

Her first job out of college was working as a systems engineer at IBM. She began climbing the ladder, but she felt something pulling her away from the corporate world. “I knew that animals were my passion, and I’d always thought about going to vet school. … Anyway, I decided, ‘I don’t want to be 40 years old, and ask myself, what if?’ And so I went ahead and applied.”

Krebsbach started at Ohio State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in 1991, where a small group of students in her class pioneered an alternative program in which no animals would be harmed for the express sake of their education. The program sourced cadavers for anatomy classes from animals who had either died or been euthanized due to illness, and surgery procedures were performed only on pets who had been euthanized due to shelter overpopulation.

The passion for animals that led her to become a veterinarian continues to inspire her, as she advocates for more humane treatment of all animals. Today, in addition to her veterinary behavior consulting service, Creature Counseling, Krebsbach is a part-time veterinary consultant for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association (HSVMA), where she works with the organization’s Public Advocacy & Education division to expand advocacy outreach and public education efforts with veterinarians, veterinary students, and the public.

In 2001, Krebsbach co-founded a feral cat rescue group, Dane County Friends of Ferals, and established a monthly clinic to provide spay/neuter surgeries for feral and free-roaming cats in the community, in which many veterinary students from the University of Wisconsin, and veterinary tech students from local technical schools, have volunteered. The rescue is having a noticeable impact—Krebsbach says it’s becoming harder and harder to find cats in Dane County to come into their monthly TNR programs. “So what that says to me is that we’re making a dent.”Krebsbach and her 14-year-old son, Spencer, live on 35 acres in the country near Madison, Wis., with their cats Eddie, Gabe, and CC, and dogs Roz and Sissy. Her son “is the apple of my eye. He just learned how to express CC’s bladder,” she says, laughing. The spay/neuter clinics have become a family affair—not only Spencer but Krebsbach’s mom, sister, and nieces sometimes come along to check people in.

In the edited interview that follows, she tells Animal Sheltering staff writer Jim Baker about her work with HSVMA, the passion that motivates her efforts on behalf of animals, and the rewards of making the world a more humane place.

Animal Sheltering: What is your role with HSVMA, and what projects have you worked on?

Susan Krebsbach: The first area of priority for HSVMA Public Advocacy is legislative advocacy. We have three focus areas there: the confinement issues of farm animals, particularly things like gestation crates, crates for veal calves, cages for egg-laying hens. The second is puppy mills. I just finished a document that we’re calling the HSVMA Veterinary Report on Puppy Mills, where we’re providing the scientific data that explains that this is not OK. These are all the reasons from a medical standpoint, as well as ethical, that we should be opposing puppy mills. And then the third area would be overpopulation and shelter issues. One of our presentations for the veterinary schools actually has to do with TNR and why that’s important.

The second priority area is continuing education and animal welfare resources. So we offer webinars, we also provide resources, like we just finished the Wildlife Care Basics for Veterinary Hospitals handbook, which is really popular, and pet behavior tip sheets, so those types of things are going to be available.

Are those for a mainstream audience, or just for vets and vet techs?

They’re really for a mainstream audience. We will be getting them to our veterinarians and veterinary technicians, and they can actually put their logo on it, and give it to clients. Now, how do we get that kind of information out to people, outside of just going to the veterinarian? How do we work on this whole idea of providing information and how to deal with behavior problems, and what’s the best way of reaching that audience? That’s for the future, but I’m working on it.

What are the issues you’ve been most engaged with?

I was always interested in behavior, but I really decided to delve into it when I understood the impact of it—how many animals were losing their lives because they were surrendered to shelters, or because the guardian would have them euthanized by the veterinarian because of behavior problems. I would say in probably 98 percent of the cases, these are problems that we can deal with. How can we provide the individuals that are really struggling with behavior issues, how can we provide them with the information so that they can actually deal with it, and then the dog or the cat stays in the home environment. So that’s a big thing in the back of my mind that I want to work on. But the reason was, as I was getting older, I’m like, ‘OK, I’m running out of time.’ I feel like my life’s work is really for the animals, so how can I make the biggest impact, and I thought where I could do that was in working specifically in behavior.

What aspect of your work is the greatest challenge for you?

The hardest part is all the animal cruelty and harm that goes on. I’m working with Humane Society International on putting together a report on the pain and distress that bulls go through in bullfighting. So I’m evaluating videos from 28 different bullfights, from the beginning to the end. I’ve been watching them, and I can’t believe that this kind of stuff is going on, and it’s considered a sport. That’s the hardest part for me, when I see that, or I hear about some of the alerts that come from The HSUS.

I was always interested in behavior, but I really decided to delve into it when I understood the impact of it—how many animals were losing their lives because they were surrendered to shelters.

What made you start Dane County Friends of Ferals?

I was the president of the Dane County Veterinary Medical Association, and we had received a grant from Maddie’s Fund to sterilize feral cats, and so I was becoming educated about it. Well, at that time I was doing volunteer work for the Dane County Humane Society, and a friend that used to work there came out, and she had all these little kittens, and everyone was oohing and ahhing over the kittens, and she goes, “Well, she came from a feral mom.” And I looked at her, I said, “What’s going to happen to the mom?” and she just said, “Well, she’ll be put down,” and I’m like, “No!” We were so lucky to get this grant from Maddie’s Fund to sterilize these feral cats, and now this mom, at no fault of her own, was going to be put down just because she was quote, unquote “feral”? So it was at that point, when I looked at those kittens, and I was thinking about this mom, and I thought, “There’s got to be a better way.”

What are some of your biggest satisfactions about the work?

I’ll give you a small example. Just last night, I was talking to the Dane County Friends of Ferals, and there’s a Boy Scout troop in Rock County, and there is an area where they were finding all these sick and dead kittens, and then they realized that there was this feral colony. And so this Boy Scout troop wants to do something about it, and so they’ve asked us to come in, and give them a presentation on TNR and why that should be the solution to the issue that they’re dealing with, and the Boy Scouts, they will probably be the ones that are involved with the trap-neuter-return. And so it’s small things like that—to be able to be in a position where I can educate others, in my community, and it just goes to show you that all of us can make a difference, it’s just a matter of doing it.

About the Author

Jim Baker is a former staff writer for the Humane Society of the United States.