Paul Wagner ’92 P’23
Most days for Paul Wagner ’92 P’23, a veterinarian and partner at Harleysville Veterinary Hospital, involve the type of animal care you might expect: wellness and sick appointments, dental procedures, surgeries, vaccinations, allergy and skin issues, and behavior problems. “It’s 70% dogs and cats,” he said.
The other 30% is where things can get especially interesting.
One Saturday when he was on call, Wagner was contacted by a farmer who typically visits the practice with his dogs. “He called and told me his ostrich had a problem,” said Wagner. “I said, ‘What’s the problem?’ The farmer said, ‘I think he got bit in the neck by a coyote.’ I asked, ‘What makes you say that?’ The farmer said, ‘Well, when he eats his food, it falls out of the side of his neck.’”
Wagner drove out to the farm. “The whole scene was like out of James Herriot book.” [Herriot was a veterinary surgeon known for his autobiographical books, which were the basis for the BBC show All Creatures Great and Small.]
The farmer and his wife used a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood to hold the ostrich up against some bars as Wagner used what he expected would be an appropriate amount of anesthetic solution to sedate the ostrich. “After two attempts, I finally got it sedated enough and the bird went down,” said Wagner. “The farmer was holding its body and the wife was holding its head on a cinderblock as I was cleaning and sewing up the neck. That was the craziest story … I went back the next day and the ostrich was eating with no food falling out of its neck, so it was a success.”
“My interest and background with wildlife began in veterinary school when my wife (Jackie Harner Wagner ’90 P’23) and I were engaged and she gave me a ferret,” he said. “So I developed some skills working with ferrets, and now I see a lot of exotic animals, such as rabbits, guinea pigs, snakes, turtles, and birds—especially with so many backyard chicken flocks nowadays. One woman brought me a chicken that she had pulled out of a fox’s mouth … The chicken had gashes on its chest, but what always amazed me when I was working at the wildlife center was if you do just the most basic care and put these animals in a situation to heal, they heal up.”
That wildlife center was Aark Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Newtown, Pa., (the center moved to Chalfont in 2008). His summer as a volunteer there before his junior year provided the first taste of a career he hadn’t even planned for when he first came to Ursinus as a pre-med major looking to become an orthopedic surgeon. But he soon switched to biology, and a “Comparative Anatomy” course is what led him to the veterinary field.
“I was kind of born to see and touch things,” said Wagner. “I loved that class. We dissected shark, frogs, and cats. I love the anatomy part.” Plus, two students in the class were planning to attend veterinary school. “That wasn’t even on my radar, and it was kind of out of the blue, but that got me interested in veterinary medicine as a possibility.”
He applied to only one veterinary school: the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, he practiced for three years just outside of Philadelphia, in Hollywood, Pa., before joining the Harleysville practice.
In 2022, an animal behavior minor was added to the Ursinus curriculum. The interdisciplinary minor, which was created to help meet student demand, lies at the intersection of biology, psychology, and neuroscience. As a student, Wagner took “Ethology” (the study of animal behavior), in which James Sidie, a professor of biology at the time, taught with articles from Scientific American and other journals because there was no textbook. “I remember the waggle dance that bees do to communicate with each other, and schools of fish that connect through their lateral line system to avoid crashing into each other,” said Wagner, noting that an understanding of animal behavior has become increasingly important to his work. “With COVID-19, isolation has led to a lot of dogs with more anxiety, especially separation anxiety.” Understanding how dogs communicate and react informs Wagner’s approach to treating them. “An animal behavior minor would be beneficial for students considering a career in any parts of the animal field.”
Each year, Wagner makes it a priority to host Ursinus students for winter-break externships, as well as interns throughout the year. He sees it as a combination of paying it forward and paying it back.
“I like giving back to Ursinus. When I was a student, I didn’t have any idea about veterinary medicine, but now one of the students can hang out and walk around with me for a week,” said Wagner. Some have gone on to work for him as technicians, and he hopes that some who are currently in veterinary school will return to his practice.
One thing he emphasizes to the students he works with is the importance of human interaction. “You can get into this field because you love animals, and that’s great, but ultimately it’s the people who you’re talking to, you’re listening to, you’re interacting with. As much as I love helping animals, I’ve actually grown to appreciate helping the people and connecting with them almost equally as much.”