Fall 2020 / Features

Work on the Wild Side

By Darrach Dolan

An alumna finds more than a career at the Pittsburgh Zoo

Libby Burns ’01 meets us at the staff entrance to the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium. Although she is wearing a protective mask, I can see the warmth of her smile in her eyes. She unlocks the gate and welcomes us — Kendra Tidd, the magazine’s designer and photographer, and I have traveled here to learn about Burns’ journey from Wilson College graduate to head veterinary technician at the zoo.

Libby Burns ’01 with Seahawk, the zoo’s male sea lion.

We are wearing protective masks and greet one another from a safe social distance. Not only are we abiding by the appropriate COVID-19 protocols for our own safety and the safety of others, but we’re doing so for the safety of the animals as well. Burns explains that no one knows for sure which species may be susceptible to the virus, so they are taking extra precautions to prevent the transmission of the virus from humans to the zoo animals. Naturally, the staff are particularly concerned about the primates because of their close genetic kinship with humans. However, lions and tigers at the Bronx Zoo developed the disease, and thousands of farmed mink across Europe have become infected. So the strategy is to assume every species is susceptible until science says otherwise.

Burns holds up a hemocytometer coverslip in the lab

Burns takes us on a tour of the veterinary and quarantine center. It is a large building with surgery, examination, and treatment suites as well as a mini-laboratory, pharmacy, and large quarantine areas. It’s immaculately clean and, surprising to me, empty. In fact, the only patient is a meerkat curled up asleep in a cat carrier.

It is there to have blood work done and will be returned to its enclosure before we finish the tour. When I tell Burns I was expecting to see more animals in the unit, she laughs. Unlike a general veterinary practice, they do not have a constant flow of animals coming through their center. Instead, they emphasize preventative care and try to keep the animals healthy and catch illness before it requires them to be moved from their enclosures.

“All our primates get vaccinated, including for the flu,” she says. “We just got some giant anteaters, and, lo and behold, they’re susceptible to the flu as well and need to get vaccinated. In the world of exotic animals, there’s always something new to learn or something new that comes up.”

The many sizes of intubation tubes reflect the range of animals the zoo vets treat.

Burns says that there are many other differences between being a veterinary technician – a vet tech, as everyone calls them — at a zoo and at a general practice. When you are dealing with everything from a tiny tree frog to an 18-foot giraffe, you need to equip yourself for all possibilities. She shows us the operating room. Along one wall, there is an enormous variety of intubation tubes — the plastic tubes inserted into the windpipe to keep a sedated patient’s airways unobstructed. They range in size from thread-like IV catheters they use on lizards to tubes you could roll a baseball through. Of course, some of the animals — the elephants, giraffes, and many of the larger herbivores — are too large to be treated in the center. For these creatures, the vets and vet techs travel to the patients and have a van equipped with many of the machines and equipment to perform procedures in the “field.”

 

“We do a lot of the CBCs (complete blood counts) and other workups by hand, just like I learned at Wilson,” she says as we tour the lab. “I’ve heard from a lot of tech students that this is something that isn’t taught much anymore because there are machines to do it. For your cats and dogs and horses, that might be easy, but for the variety of species that we have and with the different sizes and types of blood cells, we do it all by the old hemocytometer like the one I learned on at Wilson.”

 

She recalls, “At Wilson, we had to buy our own hemocytometer coverslips because they wanted us to take care of them and not break them. Then I started ordering them here and realized they weren’t that expensive. But it did teach me to take care of them.”

Blow-darting a Lioness
We enter a storage room where they have a dart gun rack. Darting animals to deliver medications, such as antibiotics, or to sedate them to examine them or treat them is another big difference between the zoo and general practices. Burns jokes that darting animals was one of the few things Wilson hadn’t prepared her for.

When she did an internship at the zoo, one of her first jobs was to draw a picture of an orangutan on a poster board and place the board against hay bales for staff to practice darting.

There are two types of dart guns — CO2 powered and blowguns. The latter are exactly what you would think — hollow pipes the vet tech or vet blows through to propel the darts into the animals. Blow-darting is often the preferred method because it is quieter and less stressful to the animal. Plus, the operator can adjust the power depending on how close or far away the target is. When Burns began at the zoo, she had to learn how to dart immediately. She remembers drawing different types of animals on poster board and practicing at every opportunity she could. These days the staff hone their skills on a 3D deer target.

The first animal she darted was Sheba, an African lion — the lioness had a mild infection and needed a course of antibiotics delivered through darts. “I lined up my shot and I knew I could do it because I had practiced so much. She was lying down and not moving. I took a deep breath and took the shot. As soon as it discharged and hit her, Sheba came flying down towards the front of the mesh. I swear my hair went flying back, and my mouth was hanging open,” Burns says. “Cathy, the lead carnivore keeper, was standing beside me and, as Sheba came roaring down, she said, ‘Libby, shut your mouth because sometimes when they come roaring at us, they spray urine.’ So, I shut my mouth. She came down so quickly, and with such force, my chin just dropped. I don’t think Sheba ever forgave me.”

Finding Wilson and A Dream Internship

When we finish the tour of the facility, we sit in the conference room, masks still on. Burns has always loved animals and wanted a career involving them from an early age. Throughout high school, she worked at a local vet’s office in Penn Hills, a suburb of Pittsburgh. When it came time to go to college, she was looking for a program that would allow her to get certified as a vet tech upon graduation. A program in Pittsburgh had been her first choice. But the institution lost its accreditation and was no longer an option.

“I was at a job fair with my parents when I walked by a table for Wilson and saw pictures of a veterinary suite,” Burns says. “I realized that there I could get a bachelor’s degree as well as work towards a career I was really interested in.” The decision to go to Wilson is one she is glad she made. “The extra schooling I got there helped me mature as a person. Some of the techs we see who have an associate degree, it’s like they’re right out of high school. They aren’t as mature as Wilson grads and aren’t even sure what they’re getting into. Whereas having a longer and more varied experience and, you know, talking with professors and having professors with different backgrounds, you can be more sure that this is what you want to do.”

When it came time to do an internship — required for graduation by the College — Burns decided she wanted to do hers at her hometown zoo. “We were encouraged to take the initiative by the College. I knew a student a few years ahead of me who’d done an internship at the Louisville zoo and had a wonderful experience.” At the time, the Pittsburgh Zoo didn’t have a formal internship pro-gram, and there was no application process. Burns was undeterred. “I printed out my resume and cover letter and went to the zoo, paid admission, and decided to drop it off. I saw an employee come from the office, and the employee took it from me and said they’d get it to the vet.”

Burns had no idea if her material would get to the right person and worried that she had wasted her time. Luckily, the employee was as good as her word, and Burns got a call from the zoo. She explained the hours she would need to get the credits for the internship and the zoo agreed. “I learned so much just by watching. They didn’t let me touch the animals much. I was allowed to draw blood a couple of times, but unlike a lot of Wilson students at regular practices who got a lot of practice drawing blood and things like that, I didn’t get as much hands-on experience.”

What Burns did get was certainty — the experience working with the team confirmed that she wanted to be on the zoo track, and she was determined to do whatever it took to make that happen. Given there are a finite number of zoos in the country and a lot of people eager to work at them, the competition for jobs is fierce.

The vet Burns had interned with advised her to first hone her basic vet tech skills at a general practice, then work at a practice that sees a lot of exotic pets, then work with an emergency care practice. If she built a resume that included these three types of practices, she would be prepared for the ever-changing patients and situations a zoo tech encounters regularly.

A Dream Job Opens, Closes, and Opens Again

After graduating from Wilson, Burns found work as a board-certified vet tech at an emergency care clinic in Pittsburgh. While there, “I got a call from the zoo. They were hiring, and they remembered me and said, ‘Hey, we know you’re not out of school long, but what do you think about applying?’” Burns thought her dreams had come true only to have them dashed almost immediately.

“After I applied, I got another call, and they said, ‘Actually, we’re thinking of making it a head tech position, and we don’t think you qualify for that.’” Burns, once again, was undeterred. “I said, ‘You’re right, I don’t qualify. But what if I could come in and do a practice interview, and you can see how far I’ve come along?’ This was 2002, only one year out of college, but I persuaded them to let me come in to do a practice interview because I figured I’d need to do one eventually.”

She did the interview and got to meet the new vet and new vet tech — the ones she had interned with had left in the interim. “Much later, they called and said they didn’t find anyone they liked for the head tech position, so they were going to make it an associate vet tech position, and would I be interested. I was absolutely!” And, simple as that, she landed her dream job.

Burns is self-effacing and puts getting the job down to good luck and being in the right place at the right time. I point out that she took the initiative to apply for the internship in the first place and, later, persuaded them to give her a practice interview for a job she wasn’t qualified to do. I suggest she created her own “good luck.”

Burns considers this. She nods but is not inclined to take full credit. Somebody, she doesn’t know who, but it must have been someone she met while interning there, had recommended her to the new veterinary team when the job was first announced. That was the key piece of luck that got her the original call.

“This is what I tell my students,” Burns says, speaking about the vet and vet tech students who do internships at the zoo these days. “You never know what an internship can lead to. It can be a foot in the door. You don’t want to be just here and not taking it seriously. You want to make a good impression on everyone and not just the vets, but even the zookeepers who will be helping you with a procedure. And the other technicians and support staff. You can make an impression, and you never know who will remember you when an opportunity comes up.”

Family Planning for Elephants and Hand-rearing a Gorilla

There are so many highlights of her time at the zoo that she struggles to list them. She remembers the births of her first two elephants vividly. She explains that family planning for elephants can be a challenge for a zoo. “Female elephants have two hormonal surges. The first one does not cause them to ovulate, but the second one does. The theory is that in the wild, the males pick up on the hormones in the environment and start following the herd more closely. The second hormonal surge happens a few weeks after the first, and by that time, the bulls are there, and they can breed.” The problem with elephants in captivity is that you want the male to be with the females for the second surge, not the first.

An elephant in the zoo’s successful breeding program enjoys the late fall sunshine.

The zoo had two females cycling very closely to one another. Burns and the team had to take blood from them and monitor their hormonal levels. After they recorded the first hormonal surge, they had to take regular samples and send them out to a special lab and await the results. The fear was they would miss the second surge and miss the opportunity to breed the elephants. It turns out they have since learned that canine tests work on elephants, and they could have monitored the samples themselves using them. But at the time, they were dependent on the outside lab and hoped they could time it perfectly.

As an elephant matchmaker, Burns was a success on her first try — the zookeepers introduced the male after each female’s second hormonal surge, and both females got pregnant. The team continued monitoring them throughout their 18-month pregnancies. Burns followed the growth of the fetuses through ultrasounds and blood work. She felt an intimate connection with both mothers and babies.

Towards the end of the gestation period, Burns was taking blood daily because progesterone levels change dramatically when elephants are about to give birth. “I don’t know how many nights I spent here because I was not going to miss this,” she says. “I got to see these two babies born, and that was a highlight for me. They turned 12 this year — two females, Angeline and Zuri.”

Ivan, the young lowland gorilla, plays near his father.

Another highlight was the birth of a lowland gorilla named Ivan. Shortly after his birth, his mother developed mastitis and couldn’t feed him. So, the staff had to hand-rear him and took turns sleeping overnight on a cot with the baby gorilla. Burns, who was “very pregnant” at the time, enjoyed the opportunity to hone her parenting skills with this newborn. Ivan thrived, and they were able to return him to his mother. The mother gorilla, still unable to feed her baby herself, learned to go to the staff for his bottle of formula and they fed him with that.

Burns takes us on a tour of the zoo, and we see Ivan, now a healthy and rambunctious seven-year-old, playing with his younger brother in the gorilla enclosure.

The Pup Who Kept Coming Back

We accompany Burns to the sea lion pool. There she meets the head vet and Director of Animal Health Ginger Sturgeon, DVM. One of the zookeepers has alerted them to a problem with a female sea lion — she appears to have injured a front flipper and is avoiding putting weight on it. They examine and observe the sea lion as the zookeepers feed the females and pups. They conclude that the injury is probably not too serious but will require monitoring.

Burns has a female sea lion show her flipper.

Feeding time for sea lions is made into a game that stimulates and exercises them. “The sea lions are almost like golden retrievers — they love to retrieve and play. That sort of interaction with animals is something you miss from a regular domestic animal practice. Not that I snuggle with sea lions or anything,” Burns says.

After the females and pups are fed, it’s time to bring out the male. His name is Seahawk, and he is enormous — a gentle giant, he kisses Burns through her protective mask. “Seahawk is an interesting story,” she tells us. “He came here in 2006 but was born in the wild. As a pup, he was a repeat strander. The first time he was dehydrated and underweight. So [the rescuers] rehydrated him and fed him well and then took him out and released him to a pod of sea lions. But within a few days, he came back even though he seemed physically okay. I think they give them three chances. The third time they took him out to another, larger pod, really far out in the ocean, and said, ‘Now go find your people.’ They joked that he nearly beat them back to shore.”

Burns examines Seahawk.

After that, they realized he did not want to return to the wild, and they would have to find him a new home. “When he came here in 2006, he was this little nugget, and now he’s enormous and has fathered many pups,” Burns says.

More Than a Job

As we leave the sea lion area, we bump into Dr. Sturgeon. I ask her to tell me about Burns and what she brings to the zoo. “Libby is one of the most skilled, knowledgeable, and all-around fantastic technicians I have known in my whole life,” she says. “It is an honor to be her right-hand person as the head veterinarian. She makes the place run, she is approachable to staff, and she is overall really, really good at what she does. She is good with the animals, the public, and the staff.”

Dr. Sturgeon adds, “I can trust her with confidential information. I can trust her to give me parenting advice. I can trust her to be a sounding board and help me be a better person in real life or as a manager. There are few people in this world I trust as much as Libby.”

When I ask Burns, who has worked her way from associate veterinary technician to becoming the head veterinary technician, how she would sum up her career at the zoo so far, she says, “Not only did I find a career, but I’ve found my family.”

Advice for Wilson Students

Burns accompanies us back to where we are parked. She says that Wilson College’s four-year veterinary technician program was perfect for her. “I feel like for myself, I wanted to have at least a BA as well. If I found I didn’t want to pursue the [vet tech] career, I would have that to fall back on. And there were also vet tech students who, after year two, realized it wasn’t for them and chose a different path. Having the extra time to figure it out is really helpful.”

Before we say goodbye, Burns has some advice for Wilson students. “When you do an internship, put your best foot forward because you never know where it will lead. I’ve had students who have realized that after the internship here, yes, this is what I want to do. And others who have realized it’s not for them. Either way, you learn something important through these shadowing and interning experiences.”


Hellbenders and Rattlesnakes

The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium is known for supporting the conservation of wild animals around the world. What is less known is that the zoo and its staff support conservation efforts closer to home.

Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake (Sistrurus catenatus catenatus)

“You hear of zoo vets or techs traveling to exotic places to work with mountain gorillas,” Libby Burns ’01 says. “But one of the cool things we got to do was work with the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) on eastern massasauga rattlesnakes.”

These indigenous snakes have been in decline in Pennsylvania — most likely due to habitat loss. Smaller and more docile than the eastern timber rattlesnake, massasaugas need the combination of access to wetlands where they overwinter and natural prairie where they bask and hunt. DCNR researchers wanted to track the snakes to learn more about them to better preserve or improve the few habitats where breeding populations still exist. The researchers caught snakes, the zoo team anesthetized them and placed trackers in them, and the researchers released them back where they had originally found them.

“We got to go into the field and help them track, which was really fun,” Burns says. “We placed trackers in some pregnant females. The researchers got to track them and see where they gave birth, and if the offspring did well. That was cool to participate in wild research in our own backyard.”

Burns also worked with eastern hellbenders — a large aquatic salamander that can grow up to 29 inches long. The females lay strings of eggs in nest cavities the males have dug in riverbeds. The females leave, while the males remain to brood and guard the eggs in the underwater nests until they hatch. Also known as “snot otters,” they were once widespread throughout the Appalachian region.

“In the 1800s, people killed them because they thought they ate trout eggs,” Burns says. Today the wild populations have been declining due to habitat loss, pollution, and disease.

Burns got to “go out and do creek research.” She found that where streams and rivers had been restored, and the water quality was good, hellbenders were surviving. The future of the species is unclear. However, in Pennsylvania, where many old dams are being demolished and waterways allowed to flow more freely, there is some hope of local recovery. The hellbender has been named the state’s official amphibian in an effort to draw attention to its conservation.

RELATED: Racehorse Rescue and Rehabilitation Letter from the President Student Stories

Racehorse Rescue and Rehabilitation

By Jonathan Bergmueller

Photos by Kendra Tidd

An alumna gives back to the animals that have given so much to her

Hedy, a bay Thoroughbred from an impressive racing lineage, entered the world on March 18, 2010, at Adena Springs Stallions in Paris, Ky. Two years later, Kacie Oberholzer Bachman ’12 graduated from Wilson College with a double major in veterinary medical technology and equestrian studies. This is the story of how a racehorse at the end of her racing career was given a new start by an alumna with a passion for all things equine.

Kaydence-Mae Selvey puts Hedy through her paces.

The Life of a Racehorse

As a foal, Hedy was destined for greatness. Her father, Touch Gold, was the winner of the Classic Belmont Stakes, while her mother, Salvadoria, was the offspring of Macho Uno, winner of the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Owners and breeders pin much of their hopes on good genes, so foals born from great bloodlines, such as Hedy’s, are expected to grow up to compete in races where millions of dollars could be on the line. Because of the finances involved, the pressure on breeders and trainers to produce successful horses is enormous. What many don’t consider is there is a lot of pressure on the horse too. A racehorse spends years training, exercising, building muscle and stamina, and eating a controlled diet. This exacting regimen is all for one goal — to race against competitors equally well-trained and prepared.

When Hedy reached her first birthday, her bloodline earned a bid of $40,000 at auction. After a further year of training, Hedy was auctioned off a second time for twice that. To put this in context, casual riding or companion horses are sold for a few hundred dollars at that age. As Hedy approached her third birthday, it was time for her to live up to the legacy of her parents.

However, on the racetrack, Hedy trotted along. She started six races, but from those, she only earned around $3,000. Imagine the disappointment of the investor who had paid $80,000 for her — not to mention the additional costs of training, boarding, and feeding her? Hedy’s owner permanently benched her.

Hedy’s involvement in the world of racing, however, did not end there. Her racing bloodline once again made her stand out from other horses that had not performed too well on the track. In 2014, Renee D. Nodine, VMD, purchased her as a broodmare — a female horse primarily used for breeding. Nodine kept her at Horseshoe Valley Equine Center in Annville, Pa., where she bore two foals: one in 2015 and another in 2016. When they tried to breed her again, fate had different plans. Hedy did become pregnant but miscarried. Nodine ran multiple diagnostic tests on her. Unfortunately, she couldn’t determine the cause of the miscarriage and decided it was best and safest for Hedy not to continue breeding her.

Kacie Bachman with Thoroughbred broodmare boarder, Annette’s Jet, on her farm in Jonestown, Pa.

“It was time to find her a new home,” said Bachman, who works for Nodine as a veterinary technician.

Bachman also owns her own business, Bachman Equine, LLC, specializing in boarding mares in foal and rehabilitating horses — especially racehorses — and transitioning them from stressful careers on the racetrack to new ones. She decided to rehabilitate the horse and acquired her in 2018 when Hedy was about eight years old — less than a third of a typical horse’s lifespan.

Kacie with her personal quarter horse, Baylee, in their recently renovated 19th century stable.

Hedy’s final pregnancy had taken its toll on her. Bachman described her as having less muscle mass and fat than she should have had and said the horse was experiencing the equivalent of postpartum depression.

“I had to work on rebuilding some of her muscle mass and fat stores,” Bachman said. “[And] build her back to good condition.”

Hedy lived with Bachman at her farm for a year and a half, where she could rest, relax, and be pampered. The goal was to let her decompress and enjoy life as a horse with absolutely no job or expectations. Bachman groomed Hedy by brushing out her mane and picking dirt out of her feet daily and made her more comfortable with affectionate human contact to prepare her for a new owner.

Kaydence-Mae Selvey puts Hedy through her paces.

In August of 2020, Emily Selvey of Prairie Fire Farms, Grantville, Pa., stopped by and decided to give Hedy a third, and hopefully final, job.

Selvey trains rehabilitated horses for different occupations depending on their temperament and physical condition. She keeps a horse for between two and six months before determining the best future for each animal. Some are adopted by families and spend their retirement as companion horses. Others start new lives as showjumpers, and some are trained to work with children, people with disabilities, or even veterans. Horses that are not suitable to be ridden again — because they have sustained injuries or are psychologically unsuited — Selvey offers them a retirement as part of a herd on her property with no expectations other than to be horses.

In addition to preparing retired racehorses for new homes, Selvey operates Reclaiming the Reins, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterans suffering with PTSD or traumatic brain injury (TBI). Through equine-assisted activities, the organization works to empower veterans to take charge of their futures by improving communication, self-awareness, trust, and interpersonal relationships.

Hedy has adapted well and is such a gentle and kind horse that she has begun a new career — she has been sponsored by a 12-year-old girl on a Winnie’s Way Scholarship. The girl will get to look after and ride Hedy on Selvey’s farm for the next year. Congratulations to both!

From Wilson to Horse Rescue and Rehabilitation

Hedy’s transformation from a racehorse to a companion horse ridden by a child is just one of Bachman’s many rehabilitation success stories. Today she is an enthusiastic rehabilitator and dedicated to continuing this important work because she sees horses as more familial creatures than just work animals or pets.

“These animals are our children,” Bachman said. “I look into their eyes. They have these big, brown liquidy eyes. They provide peace, and they trust you, and you can build this bond. They have their own personalities. I learn something from these animals every single day. They can communicate to us — [they are] a mirror to me, a mirror to my soul.”

Bachman’s journey to the world of racehorse rescue began on a small family farm in Greencastle, Pa. — 20 minutes south of Wilson College. There, her family raised horses, beef cattle, and other livestock. Her father was a self-employed auto mechanic, while her mother was a housewife who helped with the family business.

Bachman realized at an early age that her passion lay with animals — horses in particular. At the age of ten, Bachman attended the Roads Grove Horse Camp, a summer program where campers ride horseback into the mountains of the Cumberland Valley, from Michaux State Forest to Caledonia State Park. She recounted how they would ride horseback for days at a time and how much she loved the program — so much that she had to volunteer. She helped staff the camp all the way throughout high school. Additionally, late in high school, Bachman began working at the Greencastle Veterinary Hospital, which she continued throughout her education at Wilson College.

Bachman entered Wilson College with an appetite for anything related to caring for animals. Although she chose to major in veterinary medical technology, she soon decided she wanted to major in equestrian studies as well. She approached her academic advisor, Deb Austin, about her ambition.

“That’s gonna be a lot,” Austin told Bachman. “You’re probably going to do it in five years,” Austin warned. The typical B.A. takes four years.

Austin was right about one thing: It was a lot, according to Bachman. She took four to six classes a semester while continuing her job as a veterinary assistant from high school. Meanwhile, she stayed active in her church, completed riding lessons, and ended her college education in the standard four years with three minors to boot.

“I like to be busy,” Bachman exclaimed.

Wilson gave Bachman the opportunity to expand her husbandry skills. She spent most of her childhood learning about backyard horsemanship — preparing hay, doing physical labor, and taking care of the horses — from her mother, books, and YouTube videos. Typically, Bachman rode horseback in a bareback or western style.

However, at Wilson, she said there was a much more formalized education around horses, which truly expanded her horizons and diversified her range as a professional. She learned about veterinary care, how to ride in English style, and even participated in the dressage, drill, and eventing teams.

Bachman never participated in competitive horsemanship because horse shows often took place on Sundays. “We went to church on Sundays,” Bachman said. However, at Wilson, Bachman had a unique opportunity to expand that part of her professional talent. She would go on to travel to and ride horses at Cornell and Centenary schools, while she helped host shows at Wilson. These fundamental experiences were the basis for the core skillset Bachman would go on to use in her career.

Bachman attended the College when it was still a school for women. So, Bachman said she did not meet many men in her classes until her best friend introduced her to her brother. Stephanie Bachman (now Fleck) dragged her brother, Brad, down to Wilson to meet Bachman. They hit it off immediately and began a long-distance relationship.

Bachman would go on to graduate from Wilson College in 2012 with both majors and within four years, exceeding her advisor’s expectations. Additionally, she left the school with minors in history, Latin, and religion, and having completed a 240-hour internship with a British veterinary association while studying abroad.

“I really enjoyed my time at Wilson College. I’ve been really blessed,” Bachman said.

Wilson has a tradition where students assign “roles” to seniors, which are then posted across the campus’ cafeteria. “I was dubbed ‘the dreamer’ — the most likely to have her head up in the clouds,” Bachman explained. “I’m always the ‘go big or go home; I’m going to make this happen’ personality.”

And that’s what she did.

Up until around her junior year, Bachman planned to go on to become a veterinarian. She enjoyed the part-time job as a veterinary technician at Greencastle Veterinary Hospital. What she did not enjoy was having the responsibility of a veterinarian and making the “tough” decisions. She much preferred the hands-on care of animal patients. So, she decided she would be content being a veterinary technician and pursue her dream of keeping horses on the side.

She was fully aware that the biggest obstacle to owning horses was the expense. They live 20-30 years and need to be fed, vaccinated, shod, and more. It’s a huge commitment, and it is one that costs money. But horse husbandry was part of Bachman’s dream, so she had to figure out how to get there.

She crunched the numbers, did her homework, and passed the boards that certified her as a Certified Veterinary Technician. After college, she clinched a job at the veterinary practice, where she had been working throughout her schooling. On the side, she started boarding horses at her family’s farm in Greencastle.

“That was my first time in a horse business of my own, where I was bringing in money to pay for a hobby I loved. If I could make my hobby pay for itself, that would be awesome,” Bachman said. “Money isn’t the goal, but I need a bigger shovel to be able to dig myself out of the financial hole that horses could put me in.”

In the meantime, Brad proposed to Bachman in 2014. However, he had a job in Lancaster, and that was too long a commute from Greencastle. This meant Bachman had to give.

“In my life,” Bachman asked herself once more, “what do I want to do? How much money do I need to do the things I want to do?”

In 2014, Bachman earned an online master’s in business. She left her job as a veterinary technician to work at the Naval Depot in Mechanicsburg — a good deal closer to Brad’s workplace. Later she got a full-time position with the government, which allowed her to work four ten-hour days a week while living in Lebanon. This work flexibility allowed her to become involved in the equine world once more.

In 2015, Bachman started working, part-time, at Horseshoe Valley Equine — a horse-centered veterinary practice and a farm that boards mares in foal.

“It is very professional,” Bachman said of the practice. “I love working with them. We foal out about 18 mares every spring. Most will grow up to be racehorses and go to the Penn National Race Course or other racetracks across the country.” Some will go to Kentucky, while others will travel to Florida, New York, or Delaware.

“I never would have seen myself in the Thoroughbred world. You never know where life’s going to take you, and the opportunities are always endless,” Bachman said.

In 2016, Brad and Kacie Bachman bought several acres of land a few miles north of the racetrack with the idea of eventually boarding and breeding horses. Bachman renovated a barn and set up four stalls to house horses on the farm. In 2018, she opened her horse boarding business, and her first customers were owners of horses that came right off the track.

It was around that time that Bachman made a connection with the New Start program, an organization linked to the Penn National Race Course. New Start was created in 2013, and its mission is to work with foster farms to find qualified homes for horses that have been retired from racing at Penn National Race Course.

Because Thoroughbred horses are a very versatile breed, they can be sold or rehomed and can become anything from family pets to professional showjumpers. When Bachman receives horses from the racecourse, she has to allow them time to decompress. She compared racehorses to full-time athletes, who work at high intensity and in a fast-paced, busy setting. Horses, however, are not uniform creatures; some will have enjoyed the racing life and are being retired due to age or an injury. Meanwhile, others are being phased out because they like to go at their own pace. Bachman has to acclimate all those horses to a slower, calmer, and more relaxed life off the track.

“They are very well cared for and maintained at the track. These are prime athletes on high carbohydrate and protein diets,” Bachman said, drawing a comparison to full-time human athletes. “With a big life change like that (retiring from racing), you have to figure out how to bounce back.”

Bachman gives a lot of individualized attention to the horses she boards to help recondition them to life off the track.

“These are horses that sometimes need a soft landing for a couple of weeks until they can be rehomed,” Bachman said. “Our goal is to provide a safe environment, nutritious feed, and a steady hand, whether they are our own personal horses or a client’s horse.”

Since 2016, Bachman has had nine separate boarders, and most have been Thoroughbreds. Because some horses have stayed for extended periods (more than a year and a half), she has had to use her family farm down in Greencastle to host some and commutes between Greencastle and Lebanon to give the horses the care they need.

As ambitious as Bachman is for her career, she also places high importance on being a good citizen and maintaining a civic duty in whatever community she is part of. Advocacy for the humane treatment of horses is part of Bachman’s great passions. She is an active member of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau and the Middle Creek Mounted Search and Rescue Team. She hopes to use the influence attained by growing her business to give back to horses — as she does through her rehabilitation work.

“I have the responsibility to give back and show good stewardship,” Bachman said. “As humans, we are called to be stewards over this earth and all the animals that dwell upon it, and we have a great responsibility to take care of that.”

Bachman hopes to continue giving back to the equine world, one horse at a time.


A New Start for Racehorses

Most racehorses end their careers on the track while still relatively young in horse terms — typically between five and nine. Some, especially the successful ones and those from prized bloodlines, may spend their retirements producing the next generation of racehorses. For many, however, retirement means finding a new career.

The aptly named New Start program is designed to help horses from the Hollywood Casino at Penn National Race Course make this transition.

New Start, created by the Pennsylvania Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (PA HBPA) in 2013, is a rehoming program designed to pair ex-racehorses with new careers. Horses are donated to New Start, which first rehabilitates them to the slower pace of life outside the race track. Then, New Start pairs the horse with trainers to prepare them for showing, combined training, jumping, dressage, or being a companion horse.

“New Start’s mission is to place our racehorses, who have been retired from Penn National Race Course, with trusted foster farms who will then adopt out the horses to caring, knowledgeable horse people who can provide safe, enduring homes with suitable care, shelter and paddock space,” the program’s website reads.

According to Kacie Bachman ’12, who helps rehabilitate horses for New Start, the program is designed to give horses soft landings after the hustle-and-bustle of the Penn National Race Track. Bachman co-owns Bachman Farms, which is a foster farm for the New Start program.

To be eligible for the New Start program, the horse’s trainer must have made 50 percent or more of all North American starts at Hollywood Casino at the Penn National Race Course. Or, for horses with less than three-lifetime starts, they must have trained at Penn National with a minimum of three published works and must have received their gate card at Penn National. Horses with three to ten-lifetime starts must have made 70 percent or more of their lifetime starts at Penn National, while horses with more than ten-lifetime starts must have made a minimum of seven of their last ten starts at Penn National.

For more information about the New Start program, visit newstartforhorses.com.


Kill Pens: Horses Exported for Slaughter

Not all horses in this country have the soft landing Bachman provides when their work lives end. There is a dark side to horse ownership in this country too — horses exported to Mexico or Canada for slaughter.

Of the 9.2 million horses in the United States, the American Veterinary Medical Association says anywhere from 90,000- 130,000 are slaughtered each year. Rescue and rehabilitation facilities similar to Bachman’s do their part to save them, but nationally speaking, rescue facilities do not have enough capacity or resources to accommodate every unwanted horse. According to the Unwanted Horse Coalition, in 2009, 39% of rescue facilities were at maximum capacity and were, on average, turning away 38% of horses.

Many things can place a horse into the unwanted category and vulnerable to being sold to meat buyers. Many are old and sick or have been severely injured and cannot work anymore. Others become too expensive for their owners to keep, and these owners may unknowingly sell them to these buyers.

“The pain point for everybody is the slaughter issue,” Bachman explained. “A lot of horses end up in what we call a ‘kill pen’ and get picked up by a meat buyer for $400-500.”

Animal rights activists successfully campaigned for legislation to end horse slaughter in the United States. However, their success had unforeseen consequences. The slaughter operations simply moved to Canada or Mexico, where killing horses for meat or other byproducts is legal. Now, the buyers purchase horses in the United States and house them at facilities known as kill pens before shipping them across the border.

Ashley Francese, a saddle fitter and riding instructor at Smart Saddle Fit, described these kill pens as cramped and grim places, where horses are crowded together and given little in the way of food and water. From there, horses are transported via cramped trailers to slaughterhouses in Canada or Mexico.

Francese says race tracks, such as Penn National, go to great lengths to prevent their horses from ending up in these conditions. Oftentimes they will give away horses for free; alternatively, they will send them to rehabilitation programs such as New Start. However, just because a horse is saved from a kill pen once does not mean it has escaped slaughter forever. Horses may be passed from one owner to another a few times before ending up in a kill pen.

Bachman weighed in and said these horses are in transit for around 24 hours at a time without breaks, food, or water. “A lot will stagger off the trailer with wounds and gashes,” she said. “It is really inhumane this loophole has developed. We have no control or regulation over that.”

“Rescue and rehoming is preferable to euthanasia,” Bachman said. “We need to make sure there are laws in place to prevent this, and we need to make sure when we can’t rehome or rescue or rehabilitate, that we have acceptable methods of euthanasia.”

RELATED: Work on the Wild Side Letter from the President Student Stories

Letter from the President

As I write this letter, our country is again experiencing a rapid increase in COVID-19 cases. Improvements in testing, contact tracing, and treatments are helping, and vaccines will soon be available. However, too many have been lost already, and even more have been affected by this terrible virus. I hope that you and those you care about are well. Our thoughts and prayers are with those directly impacted by this pandemic.

As you likely know, the lack of testing at the time and the ever-changing health emergency led us to deliver classes remotely this fall semester. The success of our virtual courses is a testament to the commitment and effort of our faculty, staff, and students. It has been trying, but everyone has worked diligently to support each other and ensure our students succeed. We plan to welcome students back to campus for some experiential courses in December and January. And we are hopeful that students will be on campus and classes held in person once again for our spring semester.

In addition to the devastating health impact of the pandemic, the entire world is facing severe financial consequences. Wilson College, like so many higher education institutions, feels that growing financial challenge acutely. The fiscal year that closed June 30 ended with a healthy operating gain. This was largely thanks to a 25 percent increase in the Wilson Fund (thank you!), a Payroll Protection Program loan that converted to a grant, and strong expense management that included difficult decisions affecting our faculty and staff.

Enrollment for the fall was a mixed bag. We are enjoying our second largest enrollment in the College’s history at 1535, but this is significantly down from 1618 last fall. This is largely due to new student numbers falling sharply. Overall, we are down five percent, with our traditional undergraduate enrollment declining three percent. Remarkably, retention of our first-year students to their second year increased from 67 percent to 68.2 percent.

Between the enrollment declines and the loss of room and board and other auxiliary revenues this fall, revenue is projected to be down by nearly $3 million.

We are fortunate that this projected decline is less than it would have been thanks to federal funding, a significant number of unrestricted bequests, and the decision to increase our endowment spend rate to seven percent. While things may change based on spring enrollment and the situation with the virus, we project an operating gain for the current year. But this gain is only possible due to the difficult decisions regarding employee compensation, furloughs, and layoffs.

I share this with you in the spirit of transparency. While our operating gains provide a moment of accomplishment, they are largely due to one-time funding sources and extensive expense management. And the decrease in first-year students will impact us financially for four years. Wilson, like so many other organizations, faces extreme challenges due to the pandemic. And yet, our community is responding. Our Strategic Action and Planning effort continues to find ways to increase revenue and decrease expenses while preserving the outstanding student experience for which we are known. I look forward to sharing more with you about this in the future.

As always, we count on your support. Wilson is the outstanding college that it is because of the support of our alumnae, alumni, and friends. We hope to pass the $1 million mark for the Wilson Fund again this year, but we can only do it with your help.

And, of course, if you would like to do more for the College now or in your estate plans, we would love to speak with you. And we truly appreciate your recommendation of students to help grow our enrollment. Together, as #OneWilson, we will help ensure that Wilson changes the lives of students for years to come. Thank you for your commitment to this remarkable institution. Stay safe!

Wesley R. Fugate

RELATED: Work on the Wild Side Racehorse Rescue and Rehabilitation Student Stories