As a child, Don Shields always had an affinity for two things – pets and medicine.
Years later, when it came time to pursue an area of study in college, becoming a veterinarian made perfect sense.
It’s been about six decades since Shields embarked on a path that would save the lives of countless animals. Now, at the age of 85, he has no plans to stop anytime soon.
Ahead of Shields’ birthday on June 14, The Times spoke with Shields and his wife Donna about highlights from his impressive career, the care that he currently specializes in, and how his line of work serendipitously brought them together.
After graduating from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1963, Shields established the Bethayres Veterinary Hospital in Huntingdon Valley, where he practiced until a little under 10 years ago.
Ever since, at the suggestion of Donna, Shields has been providing compassionate, end-of-life care to pets at the place they feel most comfortable.
“I realized how much better it is to do it in the home,” he said.
When a pet is too old and sick to go on, Shields travels to the owner’s house to perform the euthanization. This way, the pet can be surrounded by loved ones as it passes away.
Sometimes, Shields finds himself providing end-of-life care to animals he met over a decade ago during their very first visit to the veterinarian. Personalized sympathy cards and paw prints are given to each family.
On some occasions, Shields finds that the pet doesn’t need to be euthanized. A prime example of this was a 5-year-old golden retriever, whose owners said was extremely vicious and needed to be put down.
In Shields’ opinion, this description simply didn’t fit the temperament of the breed. Rather than immediately grant the request of the owner, he gathered some concerning information. The owners had grown tired of caring for the dog and kept him tethered in the yard. The Shields’ took the dog home and, with the help of Fox 29 reporter Dawn Timmeney, found him a better family.
“He doesn’t just go there to put them down like a robot,” said Donna.
Over the course of Shields’ vast career, he has enjoyed a number of memorable moments, including a tumor removal from the dog of The Silver Linings Playbook actor Bradley Cooper, a Philly-area native.
Other highlights include putting pacemakers in several furry patients who had severe heart problems; co-authoring an article about Myasthenia gravis – a chronic disease that causes weakness in the skeletal muscles – in dogs for Scientific American; and undergoing extensive training in orthopedic procedures.
In fact, the latter actually brought Shields and Donna, who are this month celebrating their 24th wedding anniversary, together. Donna, a native of Northeast Philadelphia, used to bring her cat Spencer to another area veterinarian. But in 1989, when Spencer desperately needed medical care and her current provider was unable to see him, she was directed to Shields’ nearby practice.
“I was introduced to Dr. Shields, but I didn’t want Dr. Shields,” Donna reflected with a laugh.
Shields skillfully amputated Spencer’s leg, allowing the cat to live for another eight years. However, it wasn’t until four years after the amputation, when Donna brought Spencer back because of cat acne, that Shields asked her out on their first date. She was hesitant about the 20-year age difference, but listened to the advice of a close friend: “My girlfriend said, ‘Donna, you’ve been dating all the anti-Christs of Northeast Philadelphia, give it a chance.’”
Regarding animal welfare, Shields is happy to have Donna by his side … though this usually means an influx of cats in the home.
“They just keep coming to her,” said Shields of their felines, which currently total eight.
Over the years, Shields has done much charitable work for cats and their owners, who sometimes can’t afford to have their animals spayed/neutered at an expensive clinic. This, in turn, causes them to reproduce, resulting in an influx of homeless, dying cats on the street.
But Shields has a reputation for doing the work that other veterinarians aren’t so willing to take on.
He would always be the last one standing at mass spay and neuter clinics, often working until the evening hours. He also was willing to travel to homes at night and on weekends to address a pet’s medical emergency.
“I’m just really proud of him,” said Donna. “He’s helped many, many animals.”
Samantha Bambino can be reached at email@example.com