All creatures great and small
Dr. Jim Felton’s second home is a medium-sized red building on the outskirts of Big Timber, just east of where Highway 10 begins to wind south along the rolling hills that border the Yellowstone River.
It’s an animal hospital — a place he’s dubbed All Creatures Veterinary Service after the famed James Herriot books that chronicle the adventures — and misadventures — of a budding vet in the English countryside.
Felton is not unlike the narrator himself — he too, is subject to the ups and downs of rural animal medicine. When it’s good, it’s very good.
There’s the variety of work, the occasional horse call and the close friendships he’s forged with clients over the years. But those moments of joy, the ones that remind him why he fell into this line of work, are tempered with the far less glamorous reality of late-night calls and all the lives even Felton’s experienced hands couldn’t save.
It’s been more than 30 years since Felton landed in Big Timber, but his journey is far from over.
He still loves the work, the animals and even their people.
So when the shrill ring of the telephone sounds, he’s out the door, racing toward the unknown.
— The early days —
Felton’s fascination for animals began the summer before his freshman year of high school. He was visiting a friend in South Dakota whose pig happened to be farrowing. The young Felton sat in awe, watching as each little piglet entered the world and latched on to its mother’s teats.
“It just hit me, and I guess I was never smart enough to change my mind or do anything else,” he said with a smile.
After a few years in his native state of South Dakota, Felton moved to Montana, drawn by family ties in the eastern part of the state. There was a job opening at a clinic in Big Timber and Felton took a chance. Four years later, in 1985, he bought out then-partner, Dr. John Alexander and added two more vets to the staff over the next 15 years.
Although animals are his passion, Felton chose Big Timber because of the people.
“They’re good people, honest people for the most part,” Felton said. “I had no inclination at all to be in a big town.”
— For the love of the work —
Together, Felton and his team operate a modest, but bustling clinic that caters to “everything but snakes and monkeys.”
Dr. Felton might perform surgery on a cat or dog in the morning and get called out to an emergency cesarean in the afternoon. During calving season, which runs from February through May, he’s lucky to sleep through the night.
“You do whatever the telephone dictates that you do,” Felton said. “Sometimes (there are) way more calls in the night than you want, but you just do it.”
When a cow is experiencing a difficult birth, that’s where Felton and his team comes in.
“Either the calf is too big, or a malpresentation where they’re coming with a head back or a leg back,” he said, “or coming breached with the tail first and the hind legs up underneath them.”
But it’s not all bad. In his 39-year career, he’s witnessed some pretty extraordinary sights, too.
Like the set of triplets he helped delivered — all of them alive, against all odds.
“I got it out and it was a real small calf,” he recalled, “and I thought, ‘Oh, there’s another one in there I’ll bet’ — and there was. And there was another one after that.”
It’s not just the anomalies that stick out in Felton’s mind — normal births are also treasured experiences for the vet.
“To be perfectly honest, it’s fascinating for me, and I don’t see many, but to see a normal birth where nobody has to help and the calf’s alive — it’s a miracle,” he said.
For Felton, it’s those live ones that help make up for the ones that don’t survive.
“You know and are fond of families and people; they get a puppy and 12 years later it’s old and you have to put it down and you’ve been kind of with them all along,” Felton said. “It’s really tough. But hopefully, within six months or a year, they’ll come back with another puppy that will also be special and that kind of makes it worthwhile.”
To read the full story, pick up the March 9 edition of the Pioneer or subscribe to our e-edition. Current subscribers are provided complimentary access to the e-edition with registration.
Story and photos by Mackenzie Reiss / Pioneer Editor
Dr. Jim Felton holds Rin while his staff cares for another canine the morning of March 7. Felton’s schedule can vary widely — from small animal surgeries to cow or horse calls.