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Westminster dog show’s 1st vet of the year has more than 60 pets: ‘Our life is animals’

TODAY logo TODAY 6/22/2022 Jen Reeder

When Joe Rossi was in the sixth grade, he tried to get help for a chicken who’d been attacked by a raccoon and badly injured. But he couldn’t find a veterinarian who would agree to treat it.

So with the help of his mom, he sewed up the chicken’s wounds — and saved its life.

“Ever since then, I said, ‘You know what? I’ll see anybody’s animal at any time,’” Rossi, 59, told TODAY.

That lifelong love of animals is one reason why tonight at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show, Rossi will accept the inaugural Veterinarian of the Year Award. As part of the prize, Westminster and pet insurance company Trupanion will donate $10,000 in his honor to MightyVet, a nonprofit that promotes wellness for veterinary professionals.

Dr. Joe Rossi is a lifelong animal lover who participated in 4-H as a child and cared for orphaned robins and other birds. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi) © Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi Dr. Joe Rossi is a lifelong animal lover who participated in 4-H as a child and cared for orphaned robins and other birds. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi)

Rossi graduated from Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine on the island of St. Kitts in 1987 and went on to found North Penn Animal Hospital in Landsdale, Pennsylvania, in 1996. He credits the “amazing” team at his practice — which is both accredited by the American Animal Hospital Association and a certified Cat Friendly Practice — as the reason why he won the award.

“Veterinary medicine isn’t my profession — it’s my life. Everything we do revolves around animals. At our practice, with my employees, it’s the same way,” he said. “Animals are their lives.”

It’s no exaggeration to say animals are his life. He and his wife, Jill, care for more than 60 pets on their farm, including seven dogs, five cats, donkeys, horses, sheep, Scottish Highland cattle and — naturally — rescued chickens.

Olde English Miniature Babydoll Southdown sheep Pattootie and Lambert are two of more than 60 pets Joe and Jill Rossi care for on their Pennsylvania farm. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi) © Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi Olde English Miniature Babydoll Southdown sheep Pattootie and Lambert are two of more than 60 pets Joe and Jill Rossi care for on their Pennsylvania farm. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi)

The first and last thing they do every day is feed, water and spend time with their pets.

“We don’t even know how to turn on the TV,” he said with a laugh. “Our life is animals. We look forward to our animals. I guess that’s what God put us on this Earth for.”

Dr. Joe Rossi smiles alongside his wife, Jill; daughter, Alexa; and son-in-law, Phillip Michelfelder. All three of the couple’s adult children inherited their parents' love of animals. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi) © Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi Dr. Joe Rossi smiles alongside his wife, Jill; daughter, Alexa; and son-in-law, Phillip Michelfelder. All three of the couple’s adult children inherited their parents' love of animals. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi)

The hardest part of having so many animals was realizing he couldn’t cure everything. For instance, their 35-year-old donkey, Elaine, was born with a clubfoot. (She’s named for a client who happens to be a podiatrist.)

“I’m just keeping her comfortable,” he said. “I can’t fix everything.”

Elaine, the donkey, watches over Pattootie and Lambert. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi) © Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi Elaine, the donkey, watches over Pattootie and Lambert. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi)

It’s fitting that he’s winning an award from the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show since some of his patients have won in the past. His own Norwich terrier, Doloris, won best in breed at the competition in 2020.

Dr. Joseph Rossi’s Norwich terrier, “GCH CH Thistledew’s Rhymes With Doloris,” won best of breed at the 2020 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. (Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi) © Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi Dr. Joseph Rossi’s Norwich terrier, “GCH CH Thistledew’s Rhymes With Doloris,” won best of breed at the 2020 Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show. (Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi)

At home, Doloris pals around with her grandmother, Louise, and daughter, Loretta, as well as other dogs like an Irish wolfhound named Big Al, a Jack Russell Terrier dubbed Heidi Klum, and a Spinone Italiano called Tony the Spinone.

No matter the breed or species, each beloved pet has its own personality, according to Rossi.

“They’re all important,” he said.

Dr. Rossi’s pets Stewart, Catherine and Dennis are Scottish Highland cattle. (Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi) © Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi Dr. Rossi’s pets Stewart, Catherine and Dennis are Scottish Highland cattle. (Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi)

Rossi hopes the award and the donation to MightyVet help shine a light on the dedication of veterinarians to helping animals — and the challenges they face.

A 2019 study found veterinarians are more than twice as likely to die by suicide than the general population. Issues like exhaustion, high student debt, stress and burnout were already prevalent before the pandemic led to increased staffing shortages, longer wait times with curbside protocols and stressed — and sometimes abusive — clients.

So MightyVet and allied organization Not One More Vet aim to support veterinary professionals through the challenges they face.

“We’re human, too,” Rossi said. “We all do the best we can. But it’s not like fixing a car. You look into (the animal’s) eyes and they get into your heart. And when it doesn’t go well, it’s horrible for the owner, but it’s horrible on us, too. We take it personally. We cry ourselves.”

Though being a veterinarian can be stressful, Rossi finds it “more rewarding than anything.” (Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi) © Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi Though being a veterinarian can be stressful, Rossi finds it “more rewarding than anything.” (Courtesy of Dr. Joseph Rossi)

While Rossi understands that people have to advocate for their pets since animals can’t talk, he also wants them to be kind to veterinary professionals. He said if veterinarians were motivated by money, they’d work in human medicine or other professions.

Instead, they’ve chosen a labor of love.

“Every veterinarian I know out there is out to help the animals,” he said. “That’s our oath. We’re here for you and your animals.”

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