AUGUSTA, Maine — Since he became Maine’s top veterinarian, Don Hoenig has worked to keep cows healthy, decided whether circus elephants could come to Maine and warned that too few dog owners ensure their dogs had rabies vaccines.
Hoenig officially retired Aug. 31. The new state veterinarian is Christine Fraser.
Hoenig said he’ll especially miss the farmers he worked with across the state.
“I have the greatest respect for farmers in Maine. They’re among the hardest working people I know,” he said.
Hoenig, 61, of Belfast, was a hobby farmer himself. When his family was younger he and his wife raised much of their food. “We had all sorts of different animals, goats, turkeys, pigs. Now we’re down to 25 laying hens.”
A graduate of Bowdoin College, Hoenig once said his family named the animals they’d have to kill after politicians they didn’t like, including a pig named Nixon. Today “we do not name the chickens,” he said.
According to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, Heonig service since 1995 makes him the second longest-serving state veterinarian in the country. He worked for the department since 1986.
One of the biggest changes he’s seen was the outbreak of diseases to animal stocks, the Avian influenza, and the foot and mouth cattle outbreak in England.
In 2001 “I worked for a month in England,” Hoenig said. “That was a real wake-up call to the livestock industry. After what happened in England we realized we weren’t prepared.”
The outbreak galvanized emergency responders and farmers to do more to prevent diseases. Farmers became more careful about who and what they allowed on their farms, he said.
Since the 1980s, Maine lost a lot of dairy farms. “We probably had 1,000 to 1,200. We’re down to 300 now,” he said. Milk production is not down, he said, because the remaining farms have more cows.
With domestic pets, one change has been a big increase with the number of southern dogs adopted by Mainers, especially since Hurricane Katrina.
Hoenig estimated Maine has between 285,000 to 300,000 dogs, and this year 700 to 800 dogs came from the South.
Mainers are compassionate to dogs, and the state has excellent spay and neuter programs. “The southern states are behind us,” he said. Maine’s spay and neuter programs are publicly and privately funded through things like pet food sales and motor vehicle adoption license plates.
Another change Hoenig’s seen is the comeback of rabies. “Rabies were almost nonexistent when I started,” Hoenig said. “Today rabies is a fact of life now for Maine pet owners and people.”
A rabies strain in raccoons brought rabies back to Maine in the 1990s. That’s made it important to keep pets up-to-date on shots, Hoenig said, but only about half of Maine dog owners have done that.
Another trend is more insect-borne diseases, Lyme, eastern equine encephalitis and West Nile. (West Nile is not a problem for cats and dogs.) Most diseases can be avoided with vaccines, he said.
The worst part of his job has been condemning animals to be put down, including a flock of ducks in Warren which had to be destroyed because of Avian influenza.
“It’s for the greater good, but those decisions are absolutely tough,” he said.
He’s seen horses die from Easter Equine Encephalitis. “It’s a sad situation to see an animal deteriorate from something that was fairly preventable.”
Hoenig said rewarding parts of his job were working with the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention to keep people healthy and being a resource for the public.
When someone called with a sick chicken or sick pig, he could offer some knowledge.
Hoenig is now one of three veterinarians in the country serving a one-year Congressional fellowship sponsored by the American Veterinarian Medical Association. He won’t be lobbying, Hoenig said, but will offer his experience as a resource.