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Bulgin to Retire after 33-year Veterinary Teaching, Research Career

Monday, June 21 2010

Written by Bill Loftus

CALDWELL – Dr. Marie Bulgin will retire from the University of Idaho Caine Veterinary Teaching Center at Caldwell this month as a member of an increasingly rare breed: a large animal veterinarian.

She has been with the University of Idaho 33 years, the last seven focused largely on her role as coordinator of Caine Center teaching programs for students in the Washington-Idaho veterinary education program.

In 1977, Bulgin was the second veterinary professor hired by the University of Idaho for Caldwell. Dr. Stuart Lincoln, who retired in 1996, was the first in 1976.  She is the last of the original Idaho faculty from the Washington, Oregon, Idaho veterinary medical education program to retire. Oregon has since left the partnership.

"Idaho had agreed to provide the food animal experience for fourth-year students," she said, among the three schools involved in the original three-state program, the University of Idaho, Washington State University and Oregon State University. The Caine Center was located at Caldwell because it was in the heart of beef, dairy and sheep country.

She became the sheep specialist because unlike the rest of the first faculty she had had some experience with goats, which led her to become the team's small ruminant specialist.

"I got the sheep thrown in because Stu (Lincoln) said sheep are just goats with wool," she said with a laugh.

"I've always liked working with ranchers," she said. "The uplifting thing about being a vet is walking in and being able to help people solve a problem with their animals. And in some cases we help people stay in business because some of these diseases are economically devastating."

Early on, her background in microbiology and as a medical technologist helped her identify and solve a major problem for sheep producers, epididymitis, a disease that reduces ram fertility.

She began testing rams and found a bacterium responsible for the infection that affected some 40 percent of range rams in Idaho. When she presented her findings at an Idaho Woolgrowers Association meeting, a prominent producer said his flock didn't have that problem and challenged her to prove otherwise.

Her tests showed 49 out of his 99 rams were infected. "He had a 15 percent increase in live lambs the next spring due to replacing the infected rams. That made him a believer. We got to be great friends, and he told every sheep producer in the state that we did good work. That was the beginning of my relationship with the Idaho Woolgrowers and their association," she said. Her support for and from the sheep industry led to her serving as the Idaho Woolgrowers Association's first female president from 2005 to 2008.

Her interest in domestic sheep and infectious disease expertise eventually led to her involvement in the bighorn sheep issues.

Environmental groups and other bighorn advocates were critical of her contention that there was no good peer-reviewed scientific evidence that linked domestic sheep to bighorn sheep die-offs in the wild.

Much of her career was spent with veterinary students, giving them hands-on experience diagnosing and treating livestock. "That's what I like about the job, teaching students and working with other food animal vets. We really are the food system's guardians in terms of safety because we keep a look out for exotic diseases and work to treat, prevent and eradicate diseases that are transmissible not only to other animals but to humans as well."

The veterinary profession has changed over the past three decades. Bulgin said, "More veterinarians used to be mixed animal practitioners treating both small and large animals, and now mixed animal practitioners are becoming fewer and fewer. Most are strictly focused on companion animals."

"It's hard work," she said of food animal veterinary medicine. "I have always loved it. It's a job you can be passionate about."

The same goes for teaching. "I love teaching students and there is nothing more than rewarding than a good student who is eager to learn," she said.

Now 71, she said her enjoyment of the job has begun to be compromised by the reality of getting older. "This is a physical, strenuous job, and I’m at the point where I can't physically do it anymore without help," she said, “so it’s time to move on.”