Kevin Pelzer influences many lives during 36 years at veterinary college
January 23, 2024
Kevin Pelzer’s 36-year teaching and clinical background at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine is primarily in large animal medicine and epidemiology, but one of his most memorable experiences involved something much different.
“What in the world is a food animal veterinarian doing, going out to spay 180 dogs in Arizona?” said Pelzer, professor of production management medicine and epidemiology, who is retiring.
But the spay-and-neuter clinic mission on an Indian Reservation, to curb Rocky Mountain spotted fever spread by limiting the population of tick-hosting dogs, underscored both how former students in the professional world and his students who will become future veterinarians respond to his expertise and approach to education.
A former student of his at the Centers for Disease Control facilitated his involvement.
“She called me up and floated the project,” Pelzer recalled. “I said, ‘Don’t you want a small animal surgeon?’ She says, ‘No, I want you.’ And I ask, ‘Why?’ And she says it’s because ‘I know you’ll figure out how to get it done under those circumstances.’”
One student on the Arizona trip suffered from a lack of confidence in her abilities, Pelzer said. He used the uncomfortable opportunity to help her build that confidence.
“The students rotated to different positions – anesthesia, primary surgeon, secondary surgeon, and I just stood back and watched,” Pelzer said. “I had one student who said ‘I can’t do this, I’ve only done one.’ I said that’s OK. I encouraged this woman do these things. And now she’s doing really well out in practice.”
"That’s why I'm in academia, to train the next group of veterinary doctors. We’re taking clay and then making something out of clay. And then, one day, that clump of clay is like, ‘Wow, I’m a pot,” and the light goes off with the student. And then we take them to the clinics and they get a fancy glaze and they get a handle. We’re building people.”
Inspiring students to become excellent clinicians and human beings is what has motivated Pelzer most over his career.
“That’s why I'm in academia, to train the next group of veterinary doctors,” Pelzer said. “We’re taking clay and then making something out of clay. And then, one day, that clump of clay is like, ‘Wow, I’m a pot,” and the light goes off with the student. And then we take them to the clinics and they get a fancy glaze and they get a handle. We’re building people.”
Pelzer’s educational acumen has been recognized many times, including the Student American Veterinary Medical Association’s National Teaching Excellence Award in Clinical Sciences for teaching excellence in veterinary clinical sciences in 2006; election to the Academy of Teaching Excellence at Virginia Tech in 2006; and the University W.E. Wine Award for a history of teaching excellence in 2006.
“More than 3 ½ decades of veterinary alumni from this college have fond and vivid memories of time spent in the classroom, in the truck, or on farms with Dr. Kevin Pelzer,” said M. Daniel Givens, dean of the veterinary college. “He has put his heart into caring for animals and students at this college for many years and for that, we owe him a huge debt of gratitude.”
Students aren’t the only ones who feel they have been motivated by Pelzer.
“You've always challenged us to be better and to have the best interests of the clients and animals and the students at heart,” Chris Byron, head of the Department of Large Anima Clincial Sciences, said to Pelzer at a retirement reception. “And I think your footprint on this institution will continue, and last many, many years.”
“Theodore Roosevelt said people don't care how much you know, unless they know how much you care,” said Sierra Guynn, clinical assistant professor of production management medicine, who has been both a student and a colleague of Pelzer’s. “And care is what Dr. Pelzer does. He cares for students and his colleagues. He cares about the veterinary college, and he cares about clients and their animals. Sometimes he cared so much that it was hard to contain himself.”
Byron said Pelzer had taught 50 different courses and given over 150 different public talks to cattle producers and others with agriculture interests. Pelzer has also authored 37 peer reviewed articles and 13 book chapters.
But Pelzer finds greater joy in treating animals in their daily environment than in research or publication.
“One reason I like working with food animals is that you get to be outside,” Pelzer said. “You get to go someplace different and see the beauty of the world.
“There’s a lot of MacGyver that goes on in food animal medicine,” Pelzer said, referring to a 1980s TV show featuring a crafty secret agent. “You’ve got a problem, you’ve got a cow that’s in the middle of a field. How are you going to catch her and what can you do to treat her?”
Pelzer said his ability to cross over and work with small animals, such as in the Arizona clinic, has helped increase the respect students have for him, as most graduating veterinarians work in small animal clinics.
“For me the comparative nature of veterinary medicine is what makes it exciting,” Pelzer said. “Obviously, a cow’s physiology is very different than a dog or a horse, but there are interrelated things. If you can get people to see, ‘This works here with this one animal, I wonder if will work like this in another,’ that’s really the basis of research.”
Pelzer will have more time now for gardening and fly fishing, as well as taking care of his dogs, horses, sheep and chickens, but his wife, Jacquelyn Pelzer, assistant dean of student support and admissions at the veterinary college, said his connections with veterinary students are still what drives him.
“I think this will be hard for Kevin because everyone keeps saying to us that Kevin will now have the time to do the things he loves,” said Jacquelyn Pelzer. “But his passion is teaching. He loves the students. He loves his colleagues and he loves watching students develop into individuals who are ready for practice. Nothing brings him more joy.”