Talking Cattle, Goats, and Chickens (Oh My) With Nat Geo WILD’s Heartland Docs
The vets behind Heartland Docs, DVM discuss brining the science and soul of rural animal medicine to Nat Geo WILD.
Ben and Erin Schroeder, the husband and wife veterinarian stars of Nat Geo WILD’s news series Heartland Docs, DVM, almost found a different route to television altogether. After a local paper ran an article about Ben and Erin remodeling old buildings in their hometown of Hartington, Nebraska, production companies began calling looking for the next Chip and Joanna Gaines of Fixer Upper fame.
“One of the production companies that called us said, ‘We’d love you guys to remodel some veterinary clinics around the country. We’ll set it all up and you guys go remodel your little hearts out,’” Ben says.
But if the Schroeders were going to make the jump to TV stardom, it was going to be doing what they love: helping animals. Now they have their chance. Heartland Docs, DVM is a six-part series that is set to tell the stories of the Schroeder family as they tend to the cows, pigs, llamas, chickens, deer, and many other animals crucial to the heart and backbone of their rural Nebraska home.
We spoke with (the ludicrously tall) Ben and Erin about their first foray into television, practicing animal medicine in a farming town, and raising misbehaving goats.
DEN OF GEEK: I would imagine you guys are in both a profession and a part of the country that there are a lot of misconceptions about. What are some of the misconceptions you encounter about being a veterinarian and working in Nebraska?
Ben: I think there are misconceptions each way. We have people that we do work for with a dairy farm or a beef farm that are afraid when the film crew comes that bad things are going to be put out there about them – that they aren’t doing justice to their animals. So we’re kind of nervous about people elsewhere, away from the Heartland, not knowing really what we do. I think this show is going to bridge that gap. Erin is actually a born and raised New Yorker.
Erin: Upstate New York. I grew up in Westport, New York. Right on Lake Champlain. It’s stunning in that part of the country. But you know, even our production crew, when they came out and started filming for the show, just couldn’t believe some things. After the first week, they just said, “This is really not at all what we thought raising animals was about. This isn’t how we thought it was done.” There’s so much more compassion, there’s so much more substance to the people and to the care that they take of their animals. We work with a lot of family farms and their perspectives were changed in the matter of the first week off filming. We certainly hope that we really can kind of educate. We’re hoping that we provide everybody with just a basic understanding of how things work out here.
In the first episode you treat a cow, a chicken, and some piglets…
Very well done. What were some of your memories of shooting that episode and do you think that’s a nice diverse collection of animals to open with?
Ben: I think the piglets, they’re just such cute little things. A little litter of piglets. I mean, come on! I think Erin says it best when she’s looking at these little piglets with diarrhea and saying, “Piggies!”
Erin: They still were cute with diarrhea. Not a lie. I don’t know that my kids were cute with diarrhea, but these piglets sure were. But Whitey the chicken was a house pet and that was a great story about an animal that’s considered livestock being this lady’s pet.
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Ben: And she had taken it to an exotic veterinarian in a bigger city. He didn’t find out really what was the problem. Took it to Erin, and she of course figured it out right away with a little more investigation. We formed the splint and that little guy’s doing great with his bad leg. I think that’s some of what gets lost in a bigger city. When you go to the vet, you’re on the appointment schedule, you get your 20, 30 minutes and you’re out the door. (In a small town) we’re going to see you probably later that night.
Erin: We might coach your kids. We might coach against your kids.
Ben: I’ve got a list of many clients in my contacts right here on my phone where, if they want to call me anytime, they can. I want them to call me. Let’s talk it out and figure it out. There’s a lot of personal connection with our clientele.
Is there a particular animal that would come in that you’re better at diagnosing than the others? Do you have specialties?
Ben: Because of the numbers, I feel like cows are for sure my specialty. I think dogs and cats are definitely (Erin’s), just because of the sheer numbers that we see. But if we don’t know about an iguana or another type of strange animal that’s coming in the door, we’re still going to see it. We’re going to figure it out, and we’re going to tell the owner, “Hey, this isn’t what we do every day, but give us a little time. We’re going to research it. We’re going to figure it out for you and we’re going to solve this problem.”
Erin: That’s one wonderful thing about technology. Even in a county that has no stoplights, we are still able to have access to information from all over. We phone friends all the time and say, “Hey, how here’s what we’ve got. Can you tell me what you know, share some information?” And vice versa. People will call us and say, “Hey, would you like someone who has a pet cow in our clinic?”
How does it change the dynamic between a vet and a patient’s owner when it’s an animal that somebody loves but also relies on for their livelihood? How does the dynamic shift when that’s the case?
Erin: I don’t know that it does. I feel like people really believe, and we’ve had many clients or owners say, “I’m going to take care of this animal because it takes care of me.” They devote their time, and more so I would say even, than with pet animals. When it’s freezing cold out and it’s snowing or raining, sometimes you’re just like, I’m going to let the dog poop on the floor in the house. But when it’s your cows out there you can’t say, “I just don’t really want to go out and feed them.” They have to go out despite any weather condition, any hardship, and that’s even harder. It takes more effort to make those animals have quality lives. Without them, the farmer doesn’t have a livelihood. I feel like their commitment is even greater than to their animals than like a companion.
Do you have pets?
Erin: We do. I’m a borderline animal hoarder probably.
Ben: It’s funny. We don’t have a shelter per se in our town, but if somebody brings us a stray kitty or a puppy that was found on the side of the road, we’re going to take him in. And we might have them in the clinic for a little while or take them to our house. We just got a pet goat, which I was a little bit skeptical about. Her name’s Veronica.
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Erin: She’s fabulous. She eats all things, all paper products. She’s learned how to open doors. She is super naughty. She just runs and poops everywhere. But she wears a diaper most of the time when she’s loose in the clinic. But she needed a home and we felt like we had a place we could offer her. You know, you cannot have a bad day with a goat running around.
Ben: We did just adopt two dogs. They had to be adopted together because they were a bonded pair, from a person that had to give them up. And Erin went up to the Humane Society and we were looking for one dog, came home with two and it’s been a really good adoption. We are enjoying Happy and Skittles very, very much. And then we have Migos, the cat.
Migos, the cat?
Ben: (We have) 16 and a 14-year-old boys.
Erin: He really enjoyed our Christmas tree this year – all the ornaments. Every day the tree just got more naked from the bottom up.
Ben: And then he’d carry random things up into the Christmas tree and leave them there.
Yeah. I have a cat and my fiancée has a bird, so no Christmas tree stands a chance.
Erin: What kind of bird?
A Quaker parrot. A blue one, though they’re usually green. I swear there are wild Quaker parrots here (in Pasadena, California) in a palm tree out back.
Ben: What color are they?
The vast majority of them are green but there are some mutations. She’s got a mutated one. Actually, I might as well ask you since you’re vets. He feather plucks sometimes. Which I know it’s hard to diagnose why because they’re sensitive creatures.
Erin: I think he’s upset that you may be moving in on his person.
Ben: My guess is it’s stress related for some reason.
Erin: Have you checked for any parasites? Sometimes they’ll feather pick because they’re itchy.
We have, yeah. He’s gone to the vet a couple times. They’re a little mystified too. I think I read somewhere online, which is always perilous, that they can get agitated during a certain time of year because the sun’s out too long. And since they’re South American birds, they require a very strict daylight/nighttime schedule for their mating cycle. Maybe like…his gonads are really bothering him.
Erin: Yes, he might be. There’s certainly birds that if they get a little aroused, too.
Ben: We’re always supposed to say, make sure everything has been done to check the bird out. X-rays and blood work, just to check.
We have done all that I believe, so it’s got to be stress related.
Ben: Psychological, yeah.
Anything else you want to add real quick about the show?
Ben: It’s a good show.
Erin: Yes, please watch.
Heartland Docs, DVM premieres January 25 at 9 p.m. ET on Nat Geo WILD.
Alec Bojalad is TV Editor at Den of Geek and TCA member. Read more of his stuff here. Follow him at his creatively-named Twitter handle @alecbojalad