Peggy Larson, DVM and Doctor -of-Law: Committed, compassionate, qualified to castrate or sue

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1993:

BURLINGTON, VERMONT––Among the
heroes and heroines of animal protection are ex-vivisectors
turned animal rights advocate, veterinarians who do low-
cost neutering, whistleblowers who challenge the meat
industry, articulate writers and speakers, and attorneys who
secure better humane enforcement.
Tough, skeptical, and able to debate any subject
she addresses, Peggy Larson is all the above and more. Her
37 years of professional research, activism, and advocacy
began with two years of neurophysiologic experiments on
cats at the University of Minnesota in 1956-1957, as one of
the first women to break into an overwhelmingly male-dom-
inated field. This work, she recalls, “was horrible. Succinyl
choline was commonly used at that time, which paralyzes
the cat but does not anesthetize him.”

Two years followed as chief technician at the
rabies diagnostic laboratory in Grand Forks, North Dakota;
then came seven years of neurological studies and sleep
research on cats and dogs at the Bowman Gray School of
Medicine, 1958-1960, and Ohio State University 1961-
1965, where she earned her veterinary doctorate.
Research in the same field by John Orem of Texas
Tech and Adrian Morrison of the University of Pennsylvania
has attracted the destructive attention of the Animal
Liberation Front, becoming a national cause celebre.
Larson says she is unfamiliar with their work, which began
long after she moved on. “The research I did on normal
sleep patterns in cats and kittens was non-invasive,” she
explains. “The electrodes were glued to their heads in a
manner identical with human EEG procedures. The cats
were adopted by students.”
Still, she had doubts. “I left medical research
because of the way the animals were treated,” she states.
“Recently and reluctantly, I serve on the Institutional
Animal Care and Use Committee for the research facility at
the Veterans Administration hospital at White River
Junction. Things have changed for the better, but as long as
animals are used for research, I will always be uncomfort-
able.”
Out of the frying pan into the fire
For more than a decade, 1967-1978, Larson prac-
ticed veterinary medicine, dividing time between California
and North Dakota. Moving to Vermont as a veterinary med-
ical officer for the USDA in November 1979, she broad-
ened her credentials with a stint as pathology specialist for
the federal Marine Mammal Task Force in 1982. Then in
1983-1984, as one of the worst outbreaks of avian influenza
that ever hit the U.S. poultry industry occurred around
Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the versatile Larson helped fight
it as a computer specialist. “Grain haulers, inspectors, visi-
tors––anyone who may have been in an infected chicken
facility can easily infect a clean chicken house,” Larsen
notes. “The USDA was called in basically to slaughter all
exposed chickens and potentially exposed chickens. If one
chicken died of a virulent strain as shown by a blood test,
the entire house was destroyed. Often as many as 30,000
chickens were killed and disposed of in landfills.”
That was bad enough, but the high and low point
of her years with the USDA came in June 1984. “I saw
overwhelming corruption,” Larson explains, “which could
not be changed because the abuses were at the supervisory
level. My supervisor embezzled over $100,000 on his travel
vouchers; his supervisor, the regional director, covered it
up.” When Larson raised the issue, “the supervisory hierar-
chy turned on me. At the same time,” Larson continues,
“the state of Vermont was in great trouble with their meat
inspection program, and Governor Richard Snelling
requested that the USDA temporarily assign me to the state
to clean up the mess.” Snelling wanted Larson not only for
her veterinary skills, but also for her reputation as a take-
no-nonsense personality. She lived up to it, coming on like
a sheriff running the riff-raff out of a Wild West saloon.
The Vermont situation, Larson explains,
involved “a great deal of coziness between the commission-
er of agriculture and the state veterinarian with the slaughter
plant operators. Neither would back the inspectors assigned
to the plants. The plant operators began breaking the law
by processing unfit meat. One plant operator picked up
dying animals from the farms. Some farmers even paid him
to take their animals. These were being processed. Then
one day this plant operator delivered some carcasses in a
truck used for downed, diseased, dying, or dead animals.
The inspector at the retail store refused to allow the carcass-
es into the store’s cooler. The state veterinarian ordered him
to put the contaminated carcasses into the cooler.
Reluctantly he conformed to the order. He then called the
Vermont State Employees Association to cover himself for
breaking the law. The VSEA called the attorney general’s
office, who dispatched the state police to investigate. All
hell broke loose. Governor Snelling launched an investiga-
tion. The state veterinarian and the deputy agriculture com-
missioner were fired. The ensuing investigation uncovered
major flaws in the meat inspection program, one of which
was a total absence of poultry regulations and outdated
meat regulations. Another was abusive and threatening
behavior by the meat plant owners toward the state inspec-
tors assigned to their slaughterhouses.”
Larson herself was stalked and threatened by one
operator, who learned the hard way that she’s not someone
to intimidate.
“I cannot possibly explain to you all that happened
during those crazy four months,” she says, “because it
would be too extensive, but I solved the problems by
rewriting the state meat and poultry regulations, retraining
the inspectors, getting the slaughterhouse operators to com-
ply with the law, and splitting the state’s livestock and meat
inspection departments into two separate departments, each
headed by a specialist.”
All the while the USDA situation smouldered in
the background. Allegations that Larson was paranoid,
insane, and a closet animal rights activist were whispered to
the media. Reporters conferred, compared notes, and
decided that so many influential people were out to get her
that if she wasn’t paranoid, she should have been.
Larson’s characteristic response was a counterof-
fensive. “After I returned to the USDA,” she continues, “I
filed a lawsuit over the personal abuse I endured subsequent
to my acquiring the evidence of embezzlement. The USDA
promptly abolished my position in Vermont and shipped me
to Iowa,” where she served as acting chief of avian, equine
and bovine diagnostic virology at the National Animal
Disease Laboratory. But Larson didn’t stay out of either
Vermont or trouble. “I stayed there for four months,” she
recounts, “and then returned home. My lawyers advised
me not to quit, but to force the USDA to fire me. Four
months later I was fired, but not before both supervisors
lost their jobs.”
Vindicated, Larson dropped her suit, and “decid-
ed to enter law school. At that time it seemed that my entire
working world was corrupt and abusive. Legal knowledge
would have given me the expertise to handle problems more
effectively.” Larson earned her doctorate in law from the
Vermont Law School in May 1988, after serving an intern-
ship working on consumer fraud cases, performed the
duties of a deputy state’s attorney for five months, and got
back to veterinary work in August 1990, when she and her
companion Roger Prior became the volunteer staff veteri-
narians for the Green Mountain Animal Defenders’ neuter-
ing clinic in Burlington.
Neutering program
Despite her background in the biomedical research
and meat industries, “I have always been a softie when it
comes to animals,” Larson states, admitting much of her
occupational history was like serving a stretch in hell.
“After I joined People for Animal Rights,” the Burlington
activist group that evolved into Green Mountain Animal
Defenders, “some of the other members asked me about
doing spays and neuters to help alleviate the stray cat popu-
lation. At first I didn’t see how it could be done without
money. But I started doing a few cats at my house on the
kitchen table. They didn’t have any complications, and it
was pretty easy, so I did more and more and more. We
finally got too big for the house and in January 1993, we
moved into a three-room commercial facility in
Colchester,” a Burlington suburb. “My brother donated an
anesthesia machine, we bought used instruments at a hospi-
tal auction, and scrounged around for various other equip-
ment and supplies. We also started asking for a $20 dona-
tion for each cat. For $20 we performed the surgery and
vaccinated the cat for rabies and distemper. We began to be
self-supporting, as most people can pay $20. We limit our
program to limited income families. My husband,” fellow
veterinarian Roger Prior, “retired from Brown Animal
Hospital and joined our program in 1992.”
Performing 50 to 80 neutering surgeries per week,
Larson and Prior have now fixed more than 5,000 cats.
“The really wonderful outcome of all this,” Larson
explains, “is that the Burlington Humane Society has liter-
ally no kittens to place. And we have very few on our bul-
letin board. Our biggest problem continues to be the local
veterinarians who mistakenly think we are taking business
from them.”
In addition to doing neutering at the Burlington
facility, Larson holds neutering clinics at pounds and shel-
ters around the state. Opposition from veterinarians in some
areas is so strong that one shelter director told A N I M A L
PEOPLE, “It would be all my job is worth to have her in.
I’d never be able to get it past the board.” Gradually,
though, concern over “competition” from Larson has sub-
sided. She acknowledges that the complaints she hears now
are few compared to those she heard two years ago. Some
other veterinarians do wonder about the quality of care the
GMAD team provides, but as usual, Larson has the num-
bers on her side.
“To date,” she says, “we have had no major
infections in cats that we have done outside of our facility,”
in the shelter clinics that are most often criticized. “And we
have had very few superficial stitch infections. We had a
total of 11 deaths out of our first 4,000 cats. Two had
leukemia on autopsy. Two were allergic to the anesthetic
and one was allergic to rabies vaccine. Several were in ill
health and in an advanced stage of pregnancy and were too
weak to survive. Two had clotting disorders. Since our
patients are not always the best risks surgically, I think our
survival record is outstanding. I think any veterinarian who
states that mobile clinics provide inferior care fails to under-
stand the procedure. M*A*S*H* units have saved thou-
sands of young fighting men. Surgery in those units could
not be any cleaner or more sterile than our mobile clinics.
Granted, a mobile unit is not a full service veterinary hospi-
tal, but we are not providing full service veterinary care.
We are providing limited surgical care, and we have all the
necessary emergency supplies to do this except oxygen.
Since we do not use gas anesthesia, oxygen is of limited
value. We do have oxygen in the Colchester clinic, and
have never had to use it.”
Her summation for the jury: “Spay and neuter
programs work!”
––Merritt Clifton
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