Best Veterinarian

Ed Migneco

The Rottweiler is massive, which makes moving his tortured body impossible. He is also aggressive, apparently trained as an attack dog, so any attempt to get near him is met with low growls of warning.

Ed Migneco, D.V.M., looks down into the cage where the animal lies, and he sighs.

"He's in a lot of pain," the vet says.

The dog was found on the street earlier in the week with four broken legs, a cut throat and sliced ears. He was brought here, to the building of a local animal-rescue operation, where he spent the last 24 hours hunched forward on his shoulders in an attempt to take weight off his broken back. Every move the Rottweiler makes, though, even his terrified glances up at the vet, cause him to scream in pain.

It is late afternoon, and this is Migneco's last task of the day. His wife, Mary, and their three daughters expected him home for dinner, but if he gets enough sedative and painkiller into the Rottweiler, he can transport the dog to his clinic, City Animal Hospital, where the damage can be better surveyed. Broken backs can be fixed, but this poor creature, with his hind end pushed up into the air and his head pressed against the floor, is in pretty bad shape.

"We'll have to get a muzzle on him," Migneco says, as the first trickle of sweat makes its way down the side of his face.

The dog has already bitten several people in the rescue group, so the vet folds a nylon lead into a small noose, slowly opens the cage door and, in a motion carefully choreographed to avoid the dog's violent reach, steps in. Immediately, the Rottweiler's head comes up, but a shot of pain sends it yelping back to the floor.

For the next 20 minutes, Migneco tries maneuvering the noose around the Rottweiler's muzzle, but the dog, despite his pain, thwarts each attempt. And with each small escape, Migneco increases his praise of the animal. "You're smart. You're a good dog. You're brave." Finally, with his sweat dripping down onto the Rottweiler's face, Migneco manages to slip the noose around the dog's nose. Gently, he pulls up, and it tightens. "Thatta boy."

The rest is easier. He's done this sort of thing countless times before on similar animals -- stray, scared, severely injured animals who made up a good portion of his practice over the years. Since taking over City Animal Hospital from Dr. Norbert Schmelzer in 1986, Migneco has made a point of treating those animals that a lot of other vets avoid when possible.

Fran Vinnacombe, for instance, started trapping feral cats in St. Louis city years ago but couldn't find any local vets to spay or neuter them. "He deals with feral animals, whereas a lot of other vets won't," Vinnacombe says. "He's wonderful. He's my hero."

Others, such as Michael Mullen, founder of Pets Are Wonderful Support (PAWS), say they couldn't work their own wonders without Migneco's help. PAWS is an organization that provides, in part, vet care for the pets of people who have HIV or the AIDS virus. PAWS now handles about 300 pets, but 10 years ago, when the group was created and Mullen solicited vets for discounted care, Migneco came forward immediately.

"He's devoted so much of his time and energy, it's unbelievable," Mullen says. "He gives us heavy discounts, he donates two full days a year for free vaccinations, and he'll take animals in the middle of the night. He's just done everything he possibly can."

Migneco also offers discounted or free rates to other not-for-profit groups that help animals, including Pound Pals, Feline Friends and a duck-rescue operation.

"My business has been very good to me," Migneco explains, "and I need to give something back. I have a whole file of unpaid bills, but I'd rather give away the care and know I did something good."

Besides, he adds, he didn't go into veterinary care to get rich. It was just always something he knew he would do. The son of a high-school principal, Migneco helped take care of the mice, rats and snakes his father brought home from the school science lab during summer breaks. One day, when Migneco was a high-school student himself, he walked into the neighborhood vet clinic, owned by Norbert Schmelzer, and asked for a part-time job. After the teen explained to Dr. Schmelzer his dream of going to veterinary school one day, Schmelzer told him to start work on Saturday. From that point on, he never looked back.

All through the years Migneco attended the University of Missouri, Schmelzer promised to keep the clinic open until the vet student graduated. Even though he was well into his 70s, Schmelzer kept his promise. In 1986, after Migneco graduated, he bought City Animal Hospital.

From the beginning of his professional career, Migneco saw how desperately nonprofit groups needed help. "I just couldn't say no."

By far his biggest charity client these days is Stray Rescue of St. Louis, which has dropped off hundreds of dogs -- mangy, parasite-infected, starving strays -- at City Animal Hospital over the years.

"He allows me to turn his clinic into a MASH unit," says Randy Grim, executive director of Stray Rescue. "But he'll come to my home; he'll come to our building. He always says yes. He has saved hundreds of dogs' lives, and without him, we wouldn't be able to give these dogs a second chance."

Grim's organization rescued the Rottweiler that Migneco rushes to the clinic later that evening. He and Grim carry the heavily sedated giant into the building, where the vet immediately takes X-rays of his spinal cord. They don't look good. Some of the discs are compressed; others have spaces between them that shouldn't be there. Migneco has never seen this sort of damage before, so he pulls out Radiographic Interpretation for the Small Animal Clinician and begins poring over the pages.

This is a part of his job that Migneco hates -- the panic and dread of not knowing. In 1992, six years after graduating from the University of Missouri, his fear of not knowing pushed him to spend two years studying for special certification with the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. But even earning the highly esteemed title of board-certified diplomate in small-animal practice didn't quell his need to know more, so every year Migneco voluntarily takes at least 50 hours of continuing education. "I don't want to miss that next case just because I didn't go to a seminar where I might have learned about it," he says.

And it doesn't matter if the animal is a stray, though at least then Migneco doesn't have to deal with the other difficult part of his job -- helping owners of pets grapple with emotionally wrenching news. If, for instance, a dog has advanced cancer, Migneco's job includes helping the owners decide whether to have this member of their family euthanized. "It has to be their decision," Migneco says. "And no matter what they decide, even if I disagree, I have to make them feel they are doing the right thing."

In the Rottweiler's case, though, the tables are slightly turned. Migneco explains to Grim that the dog probably has a rare condition called wobbler's disease, which would require specialized surgery with no guarantee of success, a long recovery and an even longer period of physical therapy. Because the dog has a history of attacking people, though, physical therapy may not be possible. The dog could never be trusted not to attack.

But Grim doesn't know what to do. Of the hundreds of dogs his organizations has rescued, not one has ever been euthanized. "It's not the dog's fault," Grim says, tears welling up in his eyes. "He's a really sweet dog. It's just pain and fear that makes him aggressive."

Migneco nods his head slowly as Grim weighs his options and paces back and forth across the room, saying, "I don't want to do the wrong thing. I can't make a decision like this. I just can't."

Grim leaves the examination room to stand by the Rottweiler, still sedated on the X-ray table in the back of the clinic. Migneco walks over to the illuminated pictures of the dog's fractured spine and shakes his head. If only he knew more.

No, it's not the dog's fault that he was beaten and tortured and then dumped on the street. And he understand's Grim's devotion to animals just like this. But the odds of a successful surgery are slim, and such an aggressive dog cannot be physically rehabilitated. It would be painfully crippled for the rest of its life, and if it attacked someone, especially a child, sometime in the future, who would be to blame?

From the back of the clinic, Migneco hears Grim crying. The vet looks down at the floor, then up at the ceiling, then down to the floor again.

"I need to make this decision for him," he finally says. "I need to take this off his shoulders."

So he leaves the room and heads toward the back of the clinic, the end of another long day.

-- Melinda Roth

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