CVM Alums Tend to Santa’s Flock

For recent NC State College of Veterinary Medicine alumnae Ginger Hobgood and Danielle Mzyk, the reality of reindeer exists on two levels — the medical level and the jingle bells level. One part Rangifer tarandus, and one part Rudolph.

As associate veterinarians working for the Animal Hospital of Waterford, Pennsylvania, medical science comes first for the Class of 2017’s Hobgood and the Class of 2019’s Mzyk. A noteworthy client of the practice is Apthorp Farms, Inc., and that’s where the visions-of-sugar-plums-part of the story comes in. Apthorp Farms is a reindeer farm, and the connection between the farm and the veterinary practice is a close one.

Hobgood said each of the four veterinarians at the clinic is trained to work with the reindeer.  Since starting with the practice in 2017, Hobgood has taken over most of the herd work, which goes on all year long. That involves vaccinations, regular parasite screening, physical exams, figuring out reproductive options and ensuring the health of the new calves. Some of those duties have fallen to Mzyk since she joined the practice earlier this year.

A baby and mother reindeer bond during the summer.

A baby and mother reindeer bond during the summer.

Reindeer have no shortage of health issues. They are vulnerable to the same medical concerns as other ruminants and deer. Some health challenges include the serious neurological disorders chronic wasting disease, mad cow disease and scrapie. The farm is in a region that’s a hotspot for a number of tick-borne diseases.  

Both Hobgood and Mzyk learned about managing the health of large animals like these during their years at the CVM, so they were well prepared for the challenges they face with clients like Apthorp Farms, and with other clients, as well.

From preventative medicine to treating illness and injury to caring for newborn reindeer calves and their mothers, Hobgood and Mzyk have plenty to do. That’s not the whole story at a full-service animal hospital, where they see plenty of dogs and cats and more exotic animals.  “If you want any stories on skunk surgeries, alpaca attacks, or elk exams, let me know. We’ve seen it all!” said Hobgood. 

It’s an intriguing offer, but ’tis the season, so we’ll stick to reindeer for now. Tending to the reindeer is a year-round task for the vets at the Animal Hospital of Waterford.

Here’s a non-scientific fact: A reindeer farm exists mostly for fun, or at least that’s the case at Apthorp Farms. Predominantly, the reindeer are used as pets in a hobby farm, but during the Christmas season they are hired for educational and photographic opportunities, said Hobgood. 

“Deb [Apthorp], one of the owners, likes to describe them as dogs with antlers,” she said.

During the holidays, the reindeer are available for special events, there are tours of the farm and Santa’s workshop on site and the chance for photos with the animals. The reindeer have even appeared in TV commercials and there have been informal discussions about including them in a future Netflix program.

Reindeer eating

A snack fit for a reindeer. Photo courtesy Danielle Mzyk.

Adults and children enjoy the chance to meet and have photos taken with Santa and his reindeer, with the kids often asking questions like if the reindeer really fly once a year and if they eat cookies and candy canes.

Hobgood and Mzyk get to share in the fun, too. “Working with reindeer, and specifically the wonderful clients at Apthorp Farms, has shown me just how simple things can bring joy,” Mzyk said. “Whether it be a newly minted veterinarian doing her first blood transfusion trying to save a reindeer calf, all the way to seeing kids meet for the first time a real reindeer named Sven, the unbridled joy that these animals share with everyone around them is a true blessing.” 

Hobgood agreed. “Though it sounds cliché, it truly is magical to know that you are helping others enjoy the holidays,” she said. “One of my favorite days of the year is when I get to take pictures of one of our vets examining the reindeer, so we can update the community that Santa’s reindeer are cleared to fly.” 

Best of all, these special animals manage to bring joy to others even when the holidays are over. Deb Apthorp is a former first-responder who has post-traumatic stress disorder. She says that caring for and building relationships with the reindeer, who have distinctive individual personalities, is a source of emotional support and comfort. She also treasures the relationships she has developed with her veterinarians. 

I love that Ginger and Danielle are our vets,” she said. “They are awesome. We think of them as family.”

For both Hobgood and Mzyk, working at Apthorp Farms and with clients at the practice, is validation of why they went into veterinary medicine in the first place.  

The wonderful thing about being a mixed animal veterinarian is that it is that we get to be a small part of our patients’ and clients’ lives,” said Mzyk. “Your profession is what you’re put here on Earth to do, with such passion and such intensity that it becomes a spiritual calling.”

~Steve Volstad/ NC State Veterinary Medicine