For 40 years, Roberto Margo has been the only veterinarian in the border town of Rio Grande City, which not long ago had more cattle than people.
Margo enjoys his work. But there is enormous physical labor involved in a rural veterinarian’s duties, and he estimates he has palpated — or stuck his hand inside — thousands of cows to determine if they were pregnant.
“I finally tore up my shoulder muscles,” said Margo, 69, who has had shoulder, back and arm surgery and was found to have rheumatoid arthritis in 2008. “My body’s worn out, my shoulders are worn out, and I have arthritis and pain all over.”
These days he works mostly with small animals and hopes to retire soon. But until recently, he had no one to take over his practice. If he had retired, it could have threatened the livelihoods of his rancher clients, who would not have access to vital veterinary care for their cattle and horses.
Margo’s circumstances are emblematic of a larger problem in Texas, where a shortage of rural veterinarians persists and grows worse each year. The shortages can greatly hinder the careers of ranchers, whose numbers have already dwindled because of drought and an industry-wide profitability drop in the last 30 years. Many long-time rural veterinarians have no successors. And because most veterinary graduates want to practice in urban areas on small animals, the prospects for solving the problem are grim.
Margo said if he halted his practice without a replacement, ranchers would have nowhere to go. “My clinic is right in front of my home,” he said. “They’d be banging on my door, saying: ‘What do you mean you’re retired? Get over here.’”
Tommy Guerra, whose ranch sits on the Zapata-Starr Counties line, used to see Margo when a cow needed medical attention. Now, with the closest veterinarian 100 miles away in McAllen, he tries to solve problems on his own. “I don’t make the drive unless I’ve got a really sick horse,” he said.
The dearth of rural veterinarians is a nationwide problem. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is trying to address the scarcity with a relatively new program, through which the agency repays the student loans of veterinary school graduates if they work in designated locations with veterinarian shortages. The program repays up to $75,000 in loans for each participant. The USDA selects the participants, and the Texas Animal Health Commission nominates the state locations to be designated as having shortages.
In 2011, Texas had eight shortage areas — which can span up to five counties — and the department gave awards to five veterinarians
Dr. Holly Poremski, director of laboratories and a staff veterinarian at the health commission, gathers information to determine areas with shortages. She said she believes that because several regions remain underserved for years at a time, the incentive remains insufficient to overcome the perceived disadvantages of rural practice.
Fewer veterinarians head to rural areas after graduating because many believe it is more difficult to make a living in a rural area than in an urban one. “Vets are retiring and say nobody wants to take the risk to come out here, hang up their shingle and try to run a business out here because it’s tough to make a living,” Poremski said.
Another factor is the demographics of incoming classes. The Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine, the state’s only veterinary school, has an outsize influence on who becomes a veterinarian.
These days, many veterinary students have grown up in urban or suburban neighborhoods. Their relationship to animals is rooted in the afternoons they volunteered in animal shelters rather than working with cattle, and most plan to practice in cities. Plus, the attraction in metropolitan areas of a predictable schedule, the opportunity to make more money and the appeal of big-city life are draws for those without ties to rural areas.
Dr. Dan Posey, director of special programs at Texas A&M’s veterinary school, said its admissions policy seeks out students with varied backgrounds and values applicants who convey the importance of their background to their career goals. He warns against looking for speedy solutions to the rural veterinarian shortage.
“I wish you could get to the root of it; that would be helpful,” he said, “but there’s so much personal reason why people choose what they do.”
One noticeable change at previously male-dominated veterinary schools has been the increase in the number of female students, which started in the 1980s.
But is that a factor in the rural vet shortage? Posey said no. “There’s an inference that when you’re female you go into small animal practice, and when you’re male you do large, and I don’t see that,” he said.
Kaki Nicotre, a veterinary student at A&M, was raised around cattle in the Panhandle town of Sunray. She wants to return there to work with large animals.
She also disagrees that the increasing numbers of female veterinarians is tied to the rural veterinarian shortage. “Just because the rooster crows every day at dawn doesn’t mean the rooster causes the sun to rise,” she said.
In Rio Grande City, Margo has found a replacement. Noe Ramirez, 28, plans to work in Margo’s practice after he graduates from Mississippi State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in April. He grew up outside Rio Grande City and worked with cattle on a feedlot alongside his father during summers when he was in high school and college.
In veterinary school, Ramirez became interested in food animals. “That’s what excites me about working with cattle,” he said. “You’re literally handling somebody’s steak, hamburger. They don’t even know it. You’ve got your hands in the food chain,” he said, adding, “I feel like I’m keeping the food chain safe.”
Ramirez wants to return to Rio Grande City. His family is there, and he sees an opportunity others may not. “I feel like that’s my home,” he said, “and I feel like I can make a living there.”
Texas A&M University is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune.