Holistic veterinarian in Exeter also believes in acupuncture, herbal meds
Monday, January 10, 2011
Liz Hassinger’s respect for the earth and its living things began early. It was manifestly in evidence on Dec. 29, 1972, when she was a girl in suburban New Jersey. That was the date that Life magazine published an excerpt of her letter to the editor.
“Adults still look back on the beautiful past when they should be looking at the ugly present and future,” the young Hassinger wrote. “They grew up with America the beautiful, but we grow up with America the polluted.”
A veterinarian today, Hassinger, 49, shows a visitor a copy of the magazine in the kitchen of her home.
After initial interest in the stranger, her two dogs doze. One of her 6 cats prowls the room; outside, her 2 horses, 2 goats and 12 chickens take fresh air. Her two teenage daughters, Marina and Grasa, are at school and Hassinger has the day off from Wolf Rock Animal Heath Center, which she founded and owns. The center offers conventional treatments along with acupuncture, chiropractic, homeopathy and herbal medicine.
“I guess I really did have a feeling that people weren’t appreciating the earth and weren’t understanding the animals,” Hassinger says of her 1972 letter. It was the dawn of mainstream environmentalism — the early era of Earth Days and the evolving understanding that the planet and its people, animals and plants should be treasured, not threatened.
Daughter of an architect and a housewife who kept a vacation home on Block Island, Hassinger loved animals seemingly from birth. The family owned a cat and a dog, and Liz kept gerbils and turtles as pets; in high school, she got a horse. One of her earliest memories is playing farmer when she was 4 or 5 years old.
“This just goes to the very beginning of my life,” she says. “As a kid, I was just intrigued with animals. I probably had 50 stuffed animals because I couldn’t have enough real animals to keep me happy!”
Science fascinated her and she carried around a mini-biology text in her pocket. In seventh grade, she presented a school project on how to become a veterinarian. She was helped by one of her father’s friends, a veterinarian.
But the young Hassinger questioned whether she, herself, could become one.
“I don’t remember anyone specifically discouraging me,” she says, “but at the time, there weren’t many women veterinarians.” Even for men, admission to veterinary school was difficult. “I just didn’t think it would be something I’d be able to do.”
Hassinger enrolled at the University of Montana planning to become an animal-behavior scientist, studying wolves, bears and other wild carnivores. But that career path, she discovered, was equally, if not more, difficult. And the field work she wanted would have precluded the companionship of her beloved dog Agate, who went with her everywhere.
So she decided to pursue veterinary medicine after all.
She left Montana for pre-veterinary studies at the University of Rhode Island, and two years after receiving her undergraduate degree, she was accepted at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, New England’s only such school. She graduated in 1989 and began practicing in Rhode Island.
“There was no concept of holistic veterinary medicine back then,”
Hassinger says. The Chinese had practiced it for centuries, but not Americans.
Hassinger had been environmentally conscientious since her youth, but pregnant with her first child, in 1992, brought heightened awareness. Wary of the x-rays and chemicals that are staples of a conventional veterinary practice, she made sure to protect herself and her unborn child. Therein, she discerned a hypocrisy.
“Here I was being careful for myself, but my own patients were still getting exposed to these things.” Another factor was at work: her sense of futility with terminally sick animals that faced euthanasia after conventional treatments had been exhausted.
“So many times you’d get frustrated by a case and all you could do is say is ‘there’s nothing else I can do.’ You’d get to the point where there was nothing else you could do, literally.”
One day in the summer of 1995, Hassinger spied a brochure about a visiting holistic veterinarian that had been sent to the practice where she worked.
It had been thrown in the trash. The veterinarian’s presentation was open to owners, groomers, breeders and vets. Hassinger went. She was the only vet who did.
“There was very little out there at that time,” she says. “It was really a grass-roots movement within veterinarian circles.”
Impressed by the emphasis on diet, preventive health and alternative treatments that the speaker described, Hassinger enrolled in an animal acupuncture course in New Mexico. “Going to class the very first time, I was still like, ‘Gee, this is pretty weird.’ ”
She completed the course with new purpose.
“It really was life-changing,” she says.
On this past Friday afternoon, incense fills the waiting room at Wolf Rock Center, which Hassinger opened in 1997. Classical music from a playlist she created plays softly through a speaker. The lighting is subdued and natural. Potted plants abound. Clients are welcome to make themselves organic tea. Children can find amusement in the small play area.
Into this welcoming space walks Michael Haley with his Pekingese dog, Samantha. They come about every three weeks for acupuncture, chiropractic and, when needed, refills of herbal medicines. Samantha, almost eight, suffered a herniated disc at a young age, and surgery elsewhere was only partially successful. Leg pain and a degree of immobility lingered.
Haley, a Coventry resident and physical therapist, heard about Hassinger from a friend. With her continuing help, he says, Samantha is now restored to full health. The veterinarian’s herbal therapies also resolved a case of irritable bowel syndrome.
“Liz has a gift,” Haley says. “She, basically, saved our little girl.”
Animals at Wolf Rock are kept from contact with cold, hard surfaces, and when Haley is called into an examination room, he places Samantha on a quilt laid upon the table. Finished with hours of conventional surgery, Hassinger greets Haley and her patient.
“OK, let’s see your little legs, girlfriend,” she says.
She places her hands around the dog’s rear paws and advances, joint by joint, up Samantha’s legs to her spine. She is assessing mobility and if she finds anything awry, will thrust the bones back into proper position.
This is chiropractic. On up the spine to the skull the veterinarian continues. “She’s feeling fantastic,” Hassinger tells Haley when she is done. Nothing awry this visit.
Now the acupuncture. With Haley holding Samantha’s front legs, Hassinger places a series of 30 small needles through Samantha’s skin to specific nerve centers along the dog’s spine. She locates them by touch, her fingers gliding through the dog’s long combed hair. The dog does not object.
“After you’ve done this a while,” she says, “your hands really go to where the treatment is needed. You feel your way around the animal.”
The greeting on Hassinger’s home answering machine ends with one of her daughters wishing callers “peace, love and happiness!” It befits Hassinger’s professional and personal beliefs, which evoke Native American spirituality — and were expressed in the letter a young girl wrote to Life magazine four decades ago.
“The earth is sacred,” she says, “and all the animals and all the plants.
And its people, too. I love people just as much as I love animals and plants.”
Through Wolf Rock, the beneficiaries of this philosophy include dogs, cats, goats, horses, guinea pigs, rabbits, hamsters –– and, on last Friday, Samantha.
“It all starts with a love for animals. In my practice, I’m really able to love animals. My staff members love animals. I encourage them to actually talk to the animals: ‘Don’t just hold the animal, but talk to them, say it’s OK, we’re going to help you. We’re taking this blood test because we have to find out what’s going on.
“So, we actually treat them with the respect that you would if it were a person you were working with. A lot of people say they wish they had a doctor that did the kind of stuff we do.”
By G. Wayne Miller
Journal Staff Writer