Dr. Dee Thornell Dee and Musseta Dee and Tilikum

Dr. Dee Thornell

1. When and how did you come to work at your practice?

I came to Fairbanks to deliver a horse in 1982 and never left. I started my adventurous business in a pick-up truck driving from Cantwell to Circle City to Delta Junction. Some of my first surgery tables were the Anderson Lion’s Club pool table and a church pew in Circle next to the wood stove with a kerosene lamp as a surgery light. Amazingly enough all the patients recovered just fine. 36,000 spays and neuters later I have climbed my way to the avenues of high tech; I have built one of the most advanced veterinary clinics in Alaska. The journey has been a challenging one. My first clinic was a remodelled apartment above the now destroyed Kobuk Fuel and Feed that was located within ½ mile of my current location. Funds were limited which meant I learned how to pound nails and lay linoleum. The down side; it was on the second floor so most of my canine patients got training in stair climbing as a perk to their veterinary visit. One of the qualities that the dogs did enjoy was the aroma of freshly made dog food that saturated the clinic from the feed store. Nothing like a strong smell of cooked barley and salmon to start your day! From 1984 until 1995 Kobuk Feed and Fuel was not only home to my business but in 1993 home to my son and myself while I went through a divorce. The feed store went bankrupt in 1993 so there was plenty of space to move into if you didn’t mind sharing it with a few mice. The house cats enjoyed it.

In 1995 I bought the existing building on Peger Rd. It was home to Airport Equipment Rental; it housed some CAT’s- the D9 type. When I bought the building there was one bathroom and the only septic was a 55 gallon drum buried next to the building where the bathroom was located. The interior was completely open so there was ample space to store heavy equipment. The back (now boarding and Muttesori) was a huge drive through repair shop for everything from semi-trucks to excavators. Once again I became my own general contractor. The things they don’t teach you in veterinary school! Three years and $850,000 later the hospital, boarding and Muttesori were born. I lived in an apartment located in the clinic with my son, Jesse, and my husband, Ken, until 2005 when I was evicted so the living room could be remodelled into the new surgery suit complete with the CO2 laser. Damn landlord, the days of short morning commute were over.

2. WHY did you become a veterinarian / veterinary professional?

My older brother, Dickie, was the one in our family that wanted to be a veterinarian! I was born in an era that most girls were preparing for a career in raising a family. I was very close to my brother; I went through a life after death experience that left us both inspired by life and the magic around us. We found a new way to look at life and it always came with a sense of humor.

Dickie would walk to the veterinary clinic next door (3/4 of a mile away-rural Ohio) every day after school to help and observe. I wait like a tiger ready to spring from the wheat field that sat between our house and the clinic in an attempt to scare him. It never worked but we would walk home and he would tell me all about what he had seen and fill me in of the things he did that day. Unfortunately he was awful at school. He was a football star and an algebra nightmare. In the second grade, groomed by my older women’s libber sister, I could do his algebra better than he could! The sixties were not a good time for young men coming of age. A thing called the ‘draft’ was forcing him down another path. My father being a proud WWII marine, encourage my brother to join the marines. It put him on the front line in Vietnam. I knew in my heart the day he died. He always kept his wallet in his front shirt pocket; the bullet went through his wallet and into his heart.

When I died as a little girl and my brother was near, I had a profound experience that involved him. There was something special that happened. After he died it was something unspeakable that pulled me to the field of veterinary medicine. And it’s been wonderful working with living creatures. The fact that my father would buy me any animal (including horses) if I continued to pursue the career his only son had once dreamed of, was a perk!!

3. Tell me a STORY about one specific animal or event related to animals that inspired you.

There was the time back in 1984 when the only domesticated musk ox herd was moved to a new area that flooded in the fall and coated all the young calves with a glacier mud that dried into concrete. When the cold weather set in the quivet (musk ox hair) might be the warmest substance in the world; unless it is coated in frozen mud. I organized operation “musk ox wash”. I placed an ad in the paper for musk ox washers and community came out in full strength. Only 8 of the 32 calves were still alive. With the help of the fairgrounds, Ft Wainwright, and several hair salon operators; we moved the hundred pound balls of wild frozen fluff to Fairbanks and over a two week period in the power plant on army base, we gently washed ¼ of each calf every 4 days so as not to over stimulate them. They all survived!

Then there was the time the circus came to town! I got a call on a Friday night just after the big cats were fed. I could tell by the way the cat was acting it had its stomach flipped. The problem was explaining this to the trainer who did not speak a word of English and who insisted the cat was choking. Between a gullible veterinarian friend of mine and me we were able to get the cat to surgery. Our prize: a 5 gallon bucket of horse meat, one leopard spleen and one very lucky, grumpy cat. We continued to monitor the cat and keep it on fluids, the trainer insisted the cat stay at the circus – I didn’t argue. Within 36 hours the cat wanted to eat me and that’s when I decided he didn’t need medical assistance any further!!

Being in a remote wilderness we do get our share of orphaned wildlife, My favorite was our first orphaned moose we named “Musseta” (latin for Music). She earned her name because of the musical cooing sound she made when “Jesse” my son, or myself were out of sight. It meant I turned my newly remodelled isolation ward into a moose apartment furnished with a newly purchased futon mattress we (all three of us) would sleep on. Unfortunately when Musseta got up in the morning, she had to ‘go’ and ‘go’ she did! Nothing like the warm sensation and smell of ode to moose urine as a wake-up call! She was a joy to have for four days, and then she left in our favorite afghan, inside a wooden crate, to Washington where she was involved in a moose diet study. I kept up for her for a couple years…

There have been so many broken legs I have fixed, so many cancer ridden spleens removed, oh and the puppies and kittens delivered via c-section over the years. It seems like I remember the animals and more often these days the owners have passed. But …I see their kids here with their new puppies and kittens and the next generation of pet parents crawling around the exam room.

4. HOW did you become a veterinarian / veterinary professional?

I went to Michigan State College of Veterinary Medicine; I am a Spartan Woman! I completed undergrad and vet school in 5 years. I met up with an emergency room doctor going through his residency in Lansing and decided to work a year in Lansing at the Waverly Animal Hospital while he completed his residency. I lived at the clinic and took in emergencies through the night as well as work during the day. It was a bit exhausting. When my emergency room boyfriend purchased the Emergency Room practice in Fairbanks, Alaska and asked if I wanted to go along it was a welcome break from 24/7 medicine for 6 years. I had a quarter horse stallion I was promoting at the time; so I loaded my boy up in the trailer with my Dad as a co-pilot and North to Alaska we went. We arrived in 1982. The boyfriend hated it here and left-I stayed. I started doing a house call type practice with my pick-up truck; The Enterprise. I had NCC-1700 on the front of it- I was one better than the TV version. I went places with that truck that D-9’s had to come pull me out!! “All Critter’s Welcome” was the motto; everyday held a surprise. Reindeer, goats, horses, sheep, cows, moose, beaver, ground hogs, llamas, mules, cats, dogs and multitudes of pocket pets and birds. I’ve worked with pack horses, mushing dogs, cats that come in every shape and size, and elephants (the circus was always exciting to me when it came to town). And practice was good until winter hit; -40 and dark -ouch. Mineral oil does not go down a tube after -10 very well. My hands got frost bitten a couple times and that is when I decided to find a warm place to work out of; that is when I found my destiny as a general contractor fixing up the apartment above the feed store.

The Kobuk Fuel and Feed was in the industrial part of town, but it sold animal feed; a natural drawing card for any blossoming new vet clinic. In the winter the heavy equipment shop owner next door showed me how to run a loader-he let me clean out my own parking lot!! What a hoot. Unfortunately the clinic was on the second floor – the handicap parking position came with a car visit so I was with in code for handicap accessible!

I met my first husband soon after opening up my clinic; somebody paid their bill by giving me a horse. I needed a place to keep my investment and Chuck my first husband had a ranch. Oh, I should back up – I went out to work on his horses and he was hitting on me pretty hard for a date. I said no but he showed up at my clinic with his favorite dog in static epilepticus. I never knew what caused him to go into seizures. I kept ol’ Chester sedated for two days. 48 hours later he woke up ate a big meal and never had another seizure after that? So, Chuck had a big bill, he had a ranch, I needed a place for my horse to stay; yes another wonderful trade-out.

I was married to Chuck for 7 years and in that time we had a wonderful son, Jesse!! In that time he taught me all about hunting and the outdoors. We went anywhere a horse could go in the wild. I learned how to call around mountain sides like Wild E Coyote, after Dall sheep – and I finally did catch one slacking!! He is mounted on my wall now. Shot a large bull moose, Boone and Crocket Caribou and a Grizzly bear that was stalking my horse and I. She is now muck-lucks. We ate everything we killed; that was the primary reason we hunted. I learned Horse Shoe crabs are harder to catch than nailing horse shoes on a cranky horse. Halibut is like pulling a barn door off the floor of the ocean with a kite string.

5. What do you enjoy most about your job and WHY?

I like it all. I am a surgeon at heart-when in doubt; cut it out. There isn’t an animal I will not do surgery on or any part of an animal I would snip and stitch. A good orthopedic case is almost as rewarding as a GI foreign body…. Hard to pick which one I like better. But I love the ‘treasure hunt’ atmosphere of a good medical case; especially since I have all the fun toys. Mmm, you guys are the editors- if you just read the above can you paraphrase all of that – I like it all but I find the business part and employees is the most challenging.

6. What are your personal origins? Where did you grow up, who was in your family, what were your interests and influences?

I was born in Ohio, the youngest of four kids. There was seven years between my sisters and I. My mom was a farmer and house wife. We grew and raise all of our food. My dad was a tool and die specialist for General Motors. He also played Santa Claus at all the employee functions; so I always wanted to give the presents, it was much more fun. He was transferred to Kalamazoo, Michigan when I was in the second grade, soon after is when my brother went to Vietnam. After his only son was killed he lost his vigor for the city life and he moved, mom, my sister Pam and myself to a small motel in Benzonia, Michigan we bought. My oldest liberated sister had already left the nest. I was now formally “pink motel trash” (yes the motel was pink) . After the move I just wasn’t a “girl” anymore; I was my father’s tomboy. I learned how to wrench, drive tractors, pound nails. We were back in a country atmosphere, fruit orchards surrounded the motel and it wasn’t long before the farmers found out my father could fix any broke part on their heavy equipment. I got to help! As long as I pursued the carrier my brother aspired, I got any animal I wanted; including horses. (My sisters were a bit POed about that.) So started my horse racing career. Secretariat was my idle! I would race along the beaches of Lake Michigan and in my childish adventure; I beat him every time on my little Morgan horse “Tuffy”. Racing horses was my new secret dream job, unfortunately there were no race tracks in our area or I might not be writing this biography! But there was barrel racing. Now there was an adrenaline rush! Yep I even won the title of Benzie Saddle Club queen.

Now I grew and the small 13 hand Morgan didn’t, so Dad and I went horse hunting for a taller horse, which took us to the quarter horse race track. There I found Coyote- and the track. Long story short, I did get my jockey’s license at the ripe age of 13. Against my mother’s pleas I raced on the quarter horse track. It would have been a lot more enticing if I had a faster horse and it didn’t rain as much that summer. I had fun, but I realized the dangers were high and the safety standards were low. I saw a lot of hurt horses, I heard a lot of gun shots behind a cloth barrier and my appetite for racing on the tract faded quickly.

I continued to barrel race, I started my own dog grooming business in my room, yeah – I lived in room number one of the motel- remember I am Pink Motel Trash… I made great money, and had dog hair in places I didn’t know dog hair could go. I was always loved school (I still hold the highest grade point at Benzie Central High School, I was in the top .05 % of the ACT and SAT – got a full ride scholarship for the first four years of college on that!) and so High School brought on new challenges. I became student council president when the council was officially bankrupt. By the end of the school year I had started the first school store bought carpet for the library and money in the treasury for the next homecoming! I set records in track and basketball. Still with my sights on vet school! One thing I did not count on was; my high school counselor. You would think that a counselor should be a bit positive for academic oriented students, but mine had a daughter that had failed to get into veterinary school at Michigan State five times in a row. There was no way in Hell I was going to get in if her daughter couldn’t!! I heard it almost daily as she passed me in the halls… she continually suggested I have another career choice. I started to have aspirations to go into heavy equipment operator just to shut her up. I really believed her; I thought there was no way I would get into vet school. I But with an attitude that would make Norman Vincent Peale look like a pessimist, I decided I would apply once; and guess what …I got accepted the first time, second youngest in the class graduated at the old age of 22. Oh..do you know who was in my class; her daughter!!

7. Who is in your family now and what are their interests (including pets)?

In 2005 I needed the drain in the kennel room worked on and this wonderful man came to my rescue. I’ll never forget how he would wink at me as he worked under the bathtub-wrenching away while I gave some unsuspecting constipated cat an enema, or cleaned up diarrhea in a kennel. He finally came by after hours while I was cleaning the horse pasture with the loader and asked me out. There is something about women driving loaders that lure a guy in. He’s been helping me feed horses, goats, donkeys and steers ever since!! He has an incredible sense of humor and loves the outdoors. Two things you need to live in Alaska with a veterinarian! Plus he was the first man in my life my Dad liked!!! He was a keeper.

Meanwhile my 23 year old son (named Jesse James because he steals my train of thought) has his own life. If it involves oil and gas he likes it. He is an incredible motocross racer but gave that up before he broke too many bones. Now he is pursuing a career in auto-body repair with aspirations to open his own shop in the next couple years in Anchorage, Alaska.

We have a beautiful log home up in the hills surrounding Fairbanks (it is 10-20 degrees warmer in the winter in the hills-my retirement home in a warmer climate). Ken and I built it together; we were still together when it was over in 2006. We thought if we could make it through the home building project we could make it through life together. We moved Jesse and our furry family members into the new house in 2006 and got married on the back deck in 2007. Currently we have one miniature Donkey, Gus. He is a rescue. He has been in our local Golden Days parade for 13 years led by our local patron gold minor hero “Felix Pedro”. He had a wire grown into his fetlock that I had to remove and the folks never picked him up. I have one paint /arab mare that is 31,”Shendo” that was a good girl friend / technician friend of mine. She unfortunately succumbed to breast cancer and willed ‘Shendo’ to me. I have one pasafino/arab mare that I raised from a baby, “Celest” She has a blaze that looks like a ghost on her face. I have two gorgeous Friesians that came from Holland originally, Bart and Thor.

Ken, my husband, has always wanted to fly so he has pursued a flying career in the last 5 years. The hours he is off from working as head of maintenance for several building owned by the State of Alaska, he is out flying in the remote areas of Alaska in one of our planes. He feels if I have 5 horses he should be able to have two planes. Did I mention we do not have a savings account? He has both his instrument rating and commercial pilot’s license and convinced me I should learn how to fly so I took my first solo flight on December 7 of 2013!!

Our indoor animals include one rescued dachshund, “Spuds” ()better known as “ankle biter”- he is the first dog kicked out of Muttesori for biting the trainer) ; my step-dog (Ken’s original daughter) who is pit bull mastiff cross “Lavern”- she is the ball chasing champion of Muttesori; our newest addition a Doberman “Jinx”(he only thinks he is the boss) and of course the real rulers of the house the three cats; “Skippy” and “Ginger” the highland lynx points and “Bug” the manx Siamese.

8. What are your personal interests and achievements?

Raised a wonderful Son!!

Boone and Crocket Caribou; I shot a caribou for the dinner table that just happened to score 414 on Boon and Crocket scale. I was the envy of every man I know in town.

62 inch moose; I shot a moose for the dinner tablet that just happened to be over 60inches- it was very tasty too. I was the envy of every man I know in town.

36 inch dall sheep; I shot a full curl ram-chased them all over a mountain side for 7 days. Sneaking up to stalk them for hours at a time; laying in moss during the pouring rain, just to have the wind change and they would catch my sent and would sprint over the mountain tops. Got lucky one day or I should say the sheep was unlucky. It was very tasty too!

6 point elk; I went to Mongolia to catch an elk-there were hundreds of them because the Mongolians will not eat wild game (but give them a horse and they go wild) the unfortunate thing was they absolutely would not let us have any of the meat? Just against their religion because there was nothing wrong with the elk.

Ms. Alaska 1996 and couples champion 1995 for body building; I was going through a divorce-what can I say. It took two years to get my body where it needed to be then it took 16 weeks of intense dieting before the shows; right over Valentine chocolates and Easter peeps. The first thing I ate after I won; a whole box of marshmallow peeps!!

Won first place in the Parada Del Sol parade in Scottsdale AZ with Bart and Thor. My equine dentist set me up with these two beautiful animals. I asked her to keep her eyes open for A Friesian (one) because I had lost my beloved Pretty Boy and I always wanted a Holland bred Friesian. They have the bigger foot so I was hoping they would handle the Alaska trails better when hunting. She found me two that came with a carriage! Oh and they were in Arizona. So that meant a road trip and a purchase of a 32 ft trailer to haul my investments around in. Even though they came with a carriage they were not trained. My equine dentist friend had a life-long dream to have a team of Friesians pull a chariot in the Parada Del Sol as an amazon woman. It took two years of travelling from Arizona to Alaska every spring and back again in the fall for training but Bart, Thor and myself to become proficient and prepared for my equine dentist’s dream parade. It was all worth it in the end. But…instead of hunting with my “Cupcake” and “Foofoo” they get bathed, measured for expensive harness and toted around for horse beauty pageants.

Solo in the Airplane. On December 7, 2013 I took off with an airplane and landed it all alone three times!! The pilot bug hit me 30 years ago when I arrived in Alaska. I took ground school and passed then but never had the money to complete the flying. I still don’t have the money but my instructors have a lot of dogs and like to trade out!! So this fall I started my lifelong aspiration to act like a bird. I am still a few hours away from my pilots license but I can fly!!!

Grew the hottest pepper known to mankind. I love to grow a garden and flowers!!! It took me two winters (you have to start the peppers in January to get them to be producing peppers in the summer months) to get the plants to produce, then it took several beers to get my husband to try them. Yikes they looked hot. All the bars in town like them because it only takes a couple to turn 2 gallons of vodka into a bloody mary you’ll never forget.

9. Can you share any fun stories about your life or work?

My ex husband would sleep in -20 degrees under a tarp after walking 20 miles to hunt a dall sheep; but don’t let him see a snake or he’s worse than a little girl. I had a 5 ft python that died after the house it was in lost heat for 3 days. They brought the snake to me -thinking somehow I would thaw it back to life…but it was dead. The pet parent did not want the body. So I had it in the pillow case they brought it in. I brought it home and left it on some hay bales in the back of the barn thinking there was some project for a kid it could be involved with-kind-of forgot about it until spring. Then, I heard my ex screaming like a girl and throwing that pillow case around the barn…yeah I got him good. I almost peed my pants I was laughing so hard. He put his hand in the pillow case to see what was in there. This snake was well preserved from freeze drying. Yep …that is probably one reason of many he is my ex.

When I would go out to do the health certificates on the horses owned by Master Guide Lynn Castle so they could go to Idaho, I would fly to his lodge out in the Alaska Range. When I got there one fall there was a moose calf following everyone around. It loved my apple I brought with me for lunch. The wranglers had saved the calf from the river nearby earlier in the spring. The cow never came for it so it followed them home. I went out the first time to draw blood for EIA’s and then would go back a month later when the horses were back at camp for the health certificates. When I went back I brought a paper bag of apples for the 400 pounds of cuteness. It recognized me when I landed and was following me around like a lab puppy waiting for an apple treat. I took a few then gave the bag to the wrangler who was helping me. He took the bag and stored them in a wall tent nearby for further treating over the next week. We went about our horse drawing duties, the calf wandered off, until we heard a heck of a noise and saw the nearby wall tent begin to sway back and forth, back and forth; lodge poles snapping like twigs canvas jumping around like it was possessed. Horses were going nuts and running through fences, wranglers and hunters where hitting the deck like we were being bombed. When the tent came to a fallen rest, the only thing standing was the silhouette of that silly moose. He ever so gently worked his way from under what was left of the tent. The paper bag the apples had been stored in had the bottom pushed out and was now wrapped like a donut around the moose’s nose. The moose just stepped out through what used to be the door to the tent and walked away, bag still attached, like he had nothing to do with the tents demise.