Long-standing partnership advances student learning and animal health

By Sarah Boudreau

For years, Bernie and Lynn Cosell’s home and passion project — Fantasy Farm in Pearisburg, Virginia — has been a destination for experiential learning for the veterinary college’s students.

And on a cloudy day this past spring, the farm was bustling with activity.

Bundled in winter coats, fourth-year DVM students in a production management medicine class worked alongside Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences clinicians and the Cosells themselves to examine the farm's 100-odd sheep, give them each a hoof trim, and move them on to their shearing. Rolling mountain peaks behind them, freshly shorn sheep trotted away, freed of their fleece’s burden in anticipation of the warmer weather to come.

The Cosells’ interest in farming was ignited during a trip to New Zealand, where they fell in love with idyllic scenes of sheep dotting gently curving green hills. Wanting to re-create those vistas, the couple moved to Pearisburg after careers on the cutting edge of computer science, transitioning from harsh Boston winters to the more agreeable climate of Giles County.

On Valentine’s Day in 1992, they purchased 82 acres of farmland and filled them with merino sheep, a breed known for its high-quality fleece. In light of Lynn’s passion for weaving and fiber arts, the decision was an easy one.

A merino sheep with long horns looks at the camera.
Bernie and Lynn Cosell own a flock of some 100 merino sheep, known for their soft wool.
Bernie Cosell moves an armful of sheared wool while veterinary students watch.
Bernie Cosell and DVM students gather sheared wool.

Although the Cosells initially aspired to run a working farm, nowadays the sheep are kept mostly as pets. And the proximity of the veterinary college and its large animal service has proven to be a godsend.

“Discovering that we were in Virginia Tech’s area was a wonderful thing,” said Bernie. “It’s amazing to have trouble at two o’clock in the morning and be able to get a vet.” 

When the Cosells first settled in at Fantasy Farm, one of their ewes had a medical emergency on a Saturday. Unable to find a local veterinarian who would make a farm visit on the weekend, they ended up losing the ewe. Now, to ensure around-the-clock, quality care for their flock, they depend on the Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s large animal service, which offers 24/7 emergency support.

“That sold us. We slept a whole lot better after that,” said Lynn. “And it’s been a great friendship, really — the vets are wonderful people. It’s always been a positive experience, and we’ve learned a lot from them, and we’ve helped them learn from us.” 

Not only do the Cosells view the college’s faculty and clinicians as true partners, their relationship with the veterinary school has benefited all involved. The couple’s flock recieves medical care, both at the hospital and on the farm, and the college’s veterinary students gain experience in the field on their yearly visits. 

“Most of the sheep on the Cosells’ farm die on the farm, resulting in a very geriatric population of sheep. This situation provides the students occasion to observe clinical conditions, such as arthritis, a variety of tumors, congestive heart failure, and dental issues, not normally encountered because the sheep on most farms are sent to market prior to development of these conditions,” said Kevin Pelzer, professor of production management medicine and epidemiology in the Department of Large Animal Clinical Sciences (DLACS).

Pelzer, who has worked with the Cosells for many years, knows that this hands-on experience is crucial for students preparing to practice veterinary medicine. 

“Although a clinician is always present on a farm visit, the students get to be the ‘vet’ and ask the Cosells all the questions. Lynn is really good at providing information, but also asks the students a lot of questions, and she is never critical of the students’ answers,” Pelzer said. 

“Also, once a plan of treatment is made, the students perform the actual treatments 95 percent of the time, and the Cosells are very comfortable with that,” he said. “On some farms, clients are very hesitant or resistant to let students actually perform the treatments and only let the clinician perform the various tasks at hand. This is invaluable for student learning, as it allows the student to develop confidence, as well as technical skills.” 

Professor of theriogenology Sherrie Clark ’92, DVM ’96, DLACS interim head, fully agrees. “As a practicing food animal veterinarian, I believe it is critical for students to gain hands-on experiences before and during veterinary school. Our jobs rely on knowing how to observe, examine, and treat animals appropriately. These experiences allow students to gain these skills while being in a farm setting, which many students also need to encounter.” 

The mutual advantages afforded by the partnership run deep. The Cosells believe that their work with the college’s veterinarians and students has resulted in more-personalized care. “The vets get to know our sheep, so when we call with a problem, we can say which sheep it is. They know our abilities, so they can tell us what we can try to do,” Bernie said. 

“The college benefits from working with our local clientele and their unique goals for owning animals,” said Clark. “Many of our clients have been working with the college for over 20 years and have built strong relationships with our clinicians and the veterinary school community.”

For their part, the Cosells and their flock have given the college’s veterinary students valuable experience with sheep handling, hoof trimming, and examinations, equipping future veterinarians with the skills they need to provide the best medical care.

A shining example of the power of collaboration, the Cosells have moved their support of future veterinarians beyond just field training: Their gift of nearly a half-million dollars to the college will create an endowed scholarship benefiting large animal veterinary students for years to come.

— Sarah Boudreau M.F.A. ’21 is a writer with VA-MD Vet Med.