Blackfeet veterinarian: One of two vets to cover reservation

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BLACKFOOT, Mont. - Ethel Johnson says she's known since the fifth grade that she'd be a veterinarian.

Growing up on a ranch on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, Johnson was always surrounded by animals, so caring for them was a natural part of being a kid.

"The inspectors would come out and check for brucellosis and I was fascinated by that," she recalls. The disease, dreaded by cattlemen throughout the West, can cause cows to prematurely abort their fetuses.

While it took awhile, Johnson's interest in animals parlayed into a career that often keeps her on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Time off is infrequent, she says, and it's always hard to plan events because she never knows when a client will need her.

"Longer hours than I ever thought," she says of the biggest surprise of her profession. "You got things planned for the weekend and people call. But I enjoy it 95 percent of the time."

Johnson, a member of the Blackfeet Tribe, also worked hard while going to public schools in Browning, 17 miles west of her family's ranch, and her efforts paid off when she was accepted at Montana State University in Bozeman in 1981. After earning an undergraduate degree in animal sciences, she transferred to Colorado State University, where she completed four years of veterinary school.

"It was tough," she says. "I put in long hours, usually eight hours a day of classes. Then I had to study."

On graduation day, Johnson says her grandmother talked her into wearing a buckskin dress under her black gown as a way of honoring her Indian culture. When her name was called, Johnson tore off the gown and went to the podium in only her traditional garb.

"They gave me a standing ovation, I guess," Johnson says. "I didn't know they did it because I was so nervous."

After graduation, Johnson took a job with a private clinic in Bozeman and spent four more years sharpening her skills and preparing to return to the reservation.

"One reason I chose the career I did was so I could come back home," she says. "I always planned to come back."

With help from her dad and the local bank in nearby Cut Bank, Johnson opened her Grass Winds Veterinary Clinic near the tiny town of Blackfoot in 1993. She's still only one of two vets on the sprawling 1.6-million-acre reservation and spends a good part of her time traveling to farms and ranches within a 60-mile radius of her home.

"I started small and started working from there," she says of her business, which is still growing steadily. The clinic's motto is: "We have Warm Hearts for Cold Noses."

Despite the hassles and uncertainties, Johnson, 36, seems well-suited for the job. She's cheery with customers, cares deeply about what she does, and provides a much-needed service.

"My favorite part is working with people," Johnson says, admitting that it's a bit ironic that she didn't become a physician instead. "A lot of people tell me they're glad I'm here."

Johnson also says she enjoys traveling around, especially in the spring. Her 20-month-old daughter, Paige, goes with her on some calls, but mostly she's on her own when she's on the road. Her husband spends much of his time going to school at Northern Montana University in Havre.

"This time of year is fun," she says. "You get to see all the baby animals."

Back at the clinic, Charlene Beuerman, Johnson's sister, works full time during the school year, and students - including two who want to be veterinarians - help out during the summer months.

But keeping a busy practice going takes a lot of effort, Johnson says, and there's always equipment to fix and related chores to be done. She'd like to expand the clinic, perhaps hire another vet, and improve the outside facilities to make room for more animals, but those plans are on hold for at least a few years while improvements are being planned on nearby U.S. Highway 2. If state engineers decide to widen the roadway too far, Johnson could be forced to move her business.

While Johnson says helping others makes her feel good, she sometimes must deal with tragedy, especially when it comes to animals getting hurt or killed. Johnson helps conduct free rabies clinics each year around the area, and in past years she's also helped with controversial spay and neuter programs designed to reduce the number of feral dogs on the reservation.

"We put down a lot of animals," she says. "It was hard. But it's better than seeing them starve to death." She adds that even after nearly a dozen years in the business, she still amazed at how much some people will do to save an animal.

For her part, Johnson usually has a steady supply of cats and dogs at her clinic that are in need of a home. Helping farm out orphans, she figures, is just another part of her calling.

"I don't have any regrets," she says. "I enjoy my work."