Since she was a young child, Dr. Keri Riddick has felt a bond with animals large and small. The connection developed through her years as an Air Force brat near and far, and from time spent volunteering at an animal hospital, helping in a kennel and watching exams and surgeries.
The experience culminated with Riddick's decision after high school to become a veterinarian. Initially, she set her sights on becoming an equine specialist because of her passion for horses.
But Riddick, 37, now a resident of Cataula, Ga., just north of Columbus, knew her impact could be even greater working with smaller animals and pets. Thus, the Auburn University graduate ventured in that direction, taking a path that had her treating animals at an emergency clinic in Birmingham, Ala., before making the decision with her husband, Don -- a corporate attorney and veterinary technician himself -- to purchase Benning Animal Hospital in 2008.
The hospital, located on Fort Benning Road, has been a mainstay in south Columbus since 1958. Even after buying the facility, Dr. Lena Harris, its previous owner, remained and continues to help Riddick care for and treat families' pets, some of whom have used the hospital's services for decades.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited Riddick at Benning Animal Hospital recently -- dogs barking in the background -- to discuss her job, why she enjoys it and the aspect of being a doctor and owner at the same time. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have a specialty in treating goats and pigs?
I have a soft spot in my heart for them. I love pigmy goats and pot-bellied pigs. When I was an undergrad, I worked on a hog farm at Auburn. It was their swine unit. I was able to start from the whole breeding program, to the farrowing house where the pigs would have the little piglets, to getting them to the feed lot. I didn't eat pork for quite a while afterwards, but it was a good experience as far as learning that part of pigs' lives. But now I like the fun pigs, the little Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs that make pretty pets.
Is there anything exotic people have brought to you, such as a boa constrictor?
Dr. Harris sees boa constrictors and reptiles. I'm frightened of them. But I see rats and ferrets and some chinchillas. We've seen some leopard turtles. There's some exotic animals that we're not allowed to see and we have to turn over to the wildlife center. If somebody brings in birds or squirrels we have to call the wildlife center and let them have them ... The squirrels are very common.
As an Air Force brat, you traveled the world. So how did you land here?
We were at Maxwell (Air Force Base) for five years in Montgomery (Ala.), and that's where I first kind of became an Auburn Tiger. We also had lived in Gainesville, Fla. So both schools having veterinary schools grabbed my interest. Then we were stationed in Europe; all my high school was in The Netherlands. And we came back here and I knew I wanted to go to vet school, and then I went to Birmingham. My husband and I eventually met and we wanted to look at purchasing a veterinary hospital. It just so happened that Dr. Harris, who works here fulltime, had her practice for sale and we both had the same broker who paired the two of us together.
That got Dr. Harris out of the management?
Right. But she's still here fulltime and helps us with some of the management stuff. It's been great having her here. I would be lost without her.
Do you like managing the business, or would you rather be working with animals?
Managing's not my thing so much. But my husband's helped me out greatly. He's an attorney with IBM ... he actually works on the West Coast and does contracts and negotiations. But he's been very key in helping over the last couple of years getting me more up to speed on the business management side of the practice.
Some people knock south Columbus and its demographics and the perception it's a high-crime area. Did that concern you when buying the place?
I was hesitant initially of not knowing the area, not knowing anybody in Columbus. But moving back to near a military installation, I was excited about that because growing up military I really enjoyed the lifestyle and constantly moving around and changing. It's nice to be able to come here and help the soldiers and their families.
I used to work at the emergency clinic in Birmingham at 2 or 3 in the morning. The (downtown) area there itself didn't bother me as far as being concerned. And I really have to say I have been extremely impressed by the loyalty and the devotion of our clients to their pets. I've seen so many people that will go without something for themselves to put their animals' needs first.
How much of your clientele is military?
About 35 percent. We knew they were talking about having base closures throughout the United States. That was one of the things that we looked at before purchasing, was making sure that Fort Benning wasn't going anywhere. This was before the economy tanked and having Fort Benning close down would have put things in a bind for sure.
Has the economy affected you at all?
It definitely has. Dr. Harris ran this place very well and managed it very, very well. So, we had to just continue down the straight and narrow she had it on. We had to certainly put ourselves on a budget. We've had to tighten up on what we have as far as immediately available pharmacy. Our staff works very, very hard ... We've just had to really make sure that we tightened up on things.
We don't really see lots of growth in this area because as many new clients that we have come in, there are so many being moved because that's the Army's nature. So we haven't had a lot of growth, but we've survived. We made a promise to all of our employees when the economy started to go down, that for those who were our fulltime employees, we would do everything we could to keep them. And we've successfully done that.
This office has been open since 1958. That's some achievement?
We have had some generations of families. Every once in a while we'll see a chart number and it's like under 100 and that goes back awhile.
What's a typical day like for you?
Dr. Harris is the early person and I'm the late person. The first thing we do is evaluate sick animals. A lot of the owners, if they get up first thing in the morning -- or if it's in the middle of the night and their animal is sick and they choose to not go to the emergency clinic -- they'll bring them in first thing. So we evaluate sick animals and what we call drop-off appointments ... We check them out and do their physicals. Right now skin problems are huge just between fleas and flies, and there are yeast infections ...
How many pets do you treat or check out each day?
Probably, per doctor, I would say it's around 25 to 30 a day. We schedule four appointments per doctor an hour. And there are some appointments that come in that the assistants can do. Georgia state law requires that veterinarians only give rabies vaccines. We filter that in as well ...
Mondays are my surgery day. There's not too much we won't attempt. Spaying and neutering. We do (cosmetic) ear crops, which I disagreed with before moving here and then realized it was going to happen. I would rather have a veterinarian do it than a backyard job.
What's the strangest surgery you've done?
There are all kinds of things dogs can eat. They eat golf balls. I had a (labrador) one day eat three tennis balls. These are all things in Birmingham at the emergency clinic. I have seen a couple of dogs with arrows through them out hunting. The things that they ingest are usually things out of a trash can. If it's food, it's usually bones. Sometimes it's hygenic items.
This has to be a job of highs and lows, with moments of happiness and sadness?
Absolutely. There's nothing more fun than having an animal that has been really, really sick, and we've worked hard with the owner and we've gotten the animal better and well.
Then there was a client two weeks ago who had two dogs, both of them were geriatric, both of them had diagnosed cancers. She was treating one here and she was going to Auburn with the other one to the oncology department. For both of them it was about their quality of life, and it was time to euthanize, and she elected to euthanize both on one day. I know it was very difficult on her. But that type of thing also is very difficult on us. We're in the business of helping, and you never get used to that.
What's the toughest aspect about your job?
Two things. Some of the soldiers leave their animal with a family member or neighbor or friend, and they go on deployment and come back and their animal hasn't been cared for. That's really difficult because they thought they were doing everything right and they come back and it has heartworms or something ...
Then the other is been taking care of an animal for so long and becoming attached to them and their owners. Even though I've been at this practice only four years, I've gotten to know the clients so well and I've seen animals that do develop cancer at a young age. Having to deliver that bad news to an owner is hard. I lost an animal myself to stomach cancer and she was only eight years of age.
Why do we have so many local veterinarians who came out of Auburn University?
I'm certainly biased towards it because I graduated from there (laughs). Their program, to me, is very solid in that there are some vet schools that really teach a lot about the science of things. Any veterinarian can rattle off the physiology behind some things, the whole pharmacology behind the diagnosis. But some probably can't talk to the owner about it in layman's terms.
Auburn, I think, does a really good job of balancing the science that we need to understand what's going on in the body, but also being able to look at an owner and put things into really practical terms of what the diagnosis is and how we're going to take care of their animal and what the options are. The whole fourth year is spent doing just clinicals with clients and veterinarians within their hospital.
What qualities does someone need to be a good veterinarian?
Compassion, sympathy and certainly you have to be studious. There's not doubt you have to make good grades starting in high school and continuing through college ... It has to be more than you like petting animals and giving treats to them. You've got to be a little bit investigative because they can't talk back to you. You have to have an easy-going personality.
If you have a personality that the dog or cat doesn't like, they're not going to let you treat them, because they know.