Creature Comforts

Lucky are the animals that find themselves in this vet’s custody

by Holly Hungerford

Veterinarian Stephen Barningham, the owner of Mount Mansfield Animal Hospital in Jericho, tried banking before following his heart.

The road to veterinary school was anything but straight for Steve Barningham, the owner of Mount Mansfield Animal Hospital in Jericho. The Connecticut native grew up with Taffy, a cocker spaniel, and knew early on that he wanted to be a vet. He didn’t follow that dream right away; he first spent five years working in the banking industry. 

“I took it easy through high school,” he says, “and was told I couldn’t get the grades to become a vet.” He attended Hartwick College in Oneonta, N.Y., where he earned a bachelor’s degree in economics. After graduation, he took a job with Central National Bank of Canajoharie, N.Y.,  “because that’s where the job was,” he says with a grin. 

By the time he became branch manager, he knew that he was not happy in banking. He moved back to Connecticut and worked for a ski company as assistant credit manager for about nine months. “I realized it was time to make a decision: Do I get an MBA or do I do what I always wanted?”

He decided, at the age of 27, to leave the world of finance behind — as well as his bachelor’s in economics — and follow his heart. He returned to school at the University of Connecticut, where it took him two years to complete his bachelor of animal science. Then it was off to the University of Pennsylvania, where he earned his VMD. (The University of Pennsylvania awards a VMD, he says, instead of the more usual DVM.) He was in his early 30s when he graduated.

Out of school, Barningham went to work for a clinic in Elkins, N.H., where he stayed for almost five years. Then, wanting to open his own clinic, he saw an article in the Journal of the American Veterinary Association for a business in northwestern Vermont. “I drove up, liked the area — it had pretty much what I was looking for — so I made an offer,” he says. He calls buying Mount Mansfield Animal Hospital from Jim Stephenson 17 years ago the best decision he’s made in his professional life. 

Barningham has worked with both large and small animals, but his practice in Jericho treats small animals only. “I enjoy small animals the most, and I’m better at it,” he says. “It’s hard to specialize in everything.” Several near-death experiences with horses during his years as a vet in Elkins also helped persuade him to specialize in small animals. 

He is well-respected by his colleagues here in Vermont. “I’m never afraid to send somebody up there,” says his good friend and fellow vet Dan Hament of the Richmond Animal Hospital. “I know he’ll take good care of my patients.” 

Barningham’s team is made up of four certified vet techs, one of whom, Lynn Collins, has been with the practice for 23 years — longer than Barningham has been there. “She’s the best employee anybody could ask for,” he says. 

As does their boss, veterinary technicians must earn a certain number of continuing education credits each year to stay current. From left are vet techs Lynn Collins and Nikki Kellaway; Renée Bittner, receptionist; and vet techs Elise Baslow and Jen Franzen.

As is Barningham, the vet techs are required to earn a certain number of continuing education credits each year to stay current. He budgets accordingly. Ruth, his wife of 26 years, does the books for the business in addition to volunteering at the northern Vermont chapter of the American Red Cross — where she works with the senior director of administration and emergency services — and tending to her day job at Stock Associates, an education consulting firm. Renée Bittner, the part-time receptionist, also serves as the cleaner.

Barningham’s days are full — and organized. He arrives at the practice at 7:30 each morning and checks on his overnight patients. The next three hours are spent performing surgeries, which range from spay and neuter procedures to removing masses and doing amputations and dental work. The next two hours are spent in patient visits, after which he finally takes a break. Office hours begin again at 3 and, depending on the day, last until 5:30 or 7:30. Only then does he drive the three miles home, where he and Ruth share a house with two dogs — a collie and a Bernese mountain dog — three cats, and a cockatiel named Bobby. The animals also include two elderly horses.

Clients know that over the years he has taken in unwanted cats that were headed to the Humane Society and adopted them for the office. “Right now, I have two,” he says. “We decided to give them homes here instead.”

He has treated many animals during his career. The feral cat is the most dangerous,” he says. “They’re all teeth and claws — nine pounds of fury.” They are, fortunately, rare visitors to the practice. Barningham credits that with the fact that people in this part of the world take care of their pets. 

In one of the examination rooms, Steve Barningham shares a laugh with client Angela Halstead and Disney, her 4-month-old goldendoodle.

One of his most unusual patients was Clive, the pet turkey — as in house turkey. Clive had been attacked by a neighbor’s dog and required three or four surgeries to reverse the damage. “He lived another two years,” Barningham recalls with a smile. 

Then there was Happy, the house chicken. At 12 years old, Happy didn’t fare as well after several surgeries, but there was no doubt his owner loved him dearly. 

“My profession depends on the human-animal bond,” he says. In the last 30 years, he’s seen a change in people’s view of their pets, he says, adding that they are willing to do more for their pets than a few decades ago.

That doesn’t, however, mean that owners always make the wisest decisions. One dog owner’s decision not to take water on a summer hike resulted in Barningham’s strangest house call. One evening, he received a call that the dog, a 165-pound Newfoundland, had collapsed on Mount Kearsage. Barningham loaded up fluids and drugs and climbed a mile up the mountain in the dark to treat the dog. The dog made it, he says, and it’s unlikely his owners ever forgot water again.

One of the best parts of coming to Jericho, he recalls, was the reception he received from other vets in the area: They were friendly, welcoming, and willing to help. Vermont is unique in this way, he continues. Here, community takes precedence over competition. 

“One of my best friends owns Richmond Animal Hospital, eight miles down the road,” he says. He notes that general practitioners refer to specialists, vets consult with one another on difficult cases, they meet regularly as a group to socialize and learn from one another, and, until recently, they shared emergency on-call duties. Now those duties are primarily covered by Burlington Emergency Veterinary Services in Williston, to which Barningham turns over his practice every evening and weekend after he finishes his Saturday morning office hours.

This new arrangement for emergency coverage is just one change that’s occurred over the years. Vets have become more specialized — think oncologists, ophthalmologists, and surgeons — and the diagnostic tools available are far more advanced. Ultrasounds are read by radiologists these days. 

The advent of the Internet has made information for vets and clients alike easily accessible. Of course, this can be a mixed blessing, as only reputable veterinary medicine sites provide accurate information, but overall Barningham sees it as a good thing.

One of the challenges of running a veterinary practice is the business side of it, he says. “We were taught medicine, not management skills or personnel.” Marketing, advertising, selling — all this is challenging, he says. He sees the practice growing in the next five years and would like one day to add another vet, expand the building, increase hours, and provide a more varied service. This vet isn’t slowing down any time soon.

When Barningham is not tending his patients, he heads outdoors. Mountain biking, walking the dogs, playing tennis, and sailing his Cal 25 sloop rig occupy his summer; winters he can be found on the slopes. Mad River Glen is his favorite ski area. He has been skiing for 43 years, he says, and it was in the lodge at Killington that he met Ruth Moore, who later became his wife. 

“She said, ‘Give me your wallet,’ and she hasn’t given it back yet,” he jokes. He and Ruth were at Mad River as members of the United States Sports Club Connecticut chapter, and she was collecting season passes to get free concert tickets for friends. “That is where I would say 75 percent of my friends met their spouses,” he says with a laugh.

Whether in his Jericho practice or on a trail in the woods, Barningham likes his life. “Happy at work; happy at play,” he says, blue eyes twinkling.•

Editor's note: corrections posted 10/9/2008