Mary Huhndorf still lives in the cabin in Nikiski her parents homesteaded in. An animal lover from a young age, she also continues to find ways to help them as she works on her recently-opened veterinary clinic on Island Lake Road.
“I know my dad was a hunter, trapper, fisherman from way back,” Huhndorf said. “He said that when he would bring in the trap and the carcasses, that I would feel so bad about them, and (he) eventually quit trapping because he said it wasn’t something he could do in front of his kids and be proud of it so maybe he shouldn’t be doing it at all. And my dad was an animal lover.”
Her mother, too, cared for animals and instilled in Huhndorf a sense of personal responsibility when it came to taking care of them, she said.
Huhndorf was one of the 36 members of Oregon State University’s inaugural class in its veterinary program. Graduating in 1983, she went to work on the east coast for 25 years before returning to Alaska. She has worked at Twin Cities Veterinary Clinic in Soldotna for about seven years, and recently opened the North Road Veterinary Wellness Clinic to be able cut down on her commute to work, especially in the winter.
Huhndorf recalls knowing from an early age that she wanted to help animals.
“We didn’t have a vet in this area,” she said. “I remember one time when I was 7, I was feeding our big sled dogs and one got loose and it got our cat, and the cat was dying, and of course upset and everything, and I remember my mother telling me, ‘Someday you might grow up and be a veterinarian and you might be able to help.’ And that kind of stayed with me.”
Huhndorf also recalls Alaska’s very first vet, Erik Barnes, travelling to Nikiski from where he first practiced in Anchorage to care for her family’s sick sled dogs.
Today, Huhndorf has 12 cats, 11 dogs, a rabbit and some fish of her son’s she cares for. She hopes to offer her knowledge and care to Nikiski residents who otherwise have to drive into town for veterinary services. When it came time to open her own clinic, Huhndorf said the search was not easy.
“First of all I thought I was going to do on-call and I looked at a mobile unit,” she said.
Ultimately deciding against it because of all the driving involved, Huhndorf looked first to rent, and then to buy, but struck out due to lack of facilities or high start up costs. At one point she even looked at an airport hangar.
“But I thought, ‘Man, the work I’d have to do to renovate that!’” she said.
Just as she was started to get discouraged, Huhndorf said a friend brought the old Nikiski Senior Center on Island Lake Road to her attention. Huhndorf leases the facility and is renovating it for her needs to include separate areas for cat and dog exams, isolation, surgery and recovery.
The clinic is open for basic veterinary needs like vaccines, wellness exams, light surgery, spays and neuters and some emergency care. Huhndorf will continue to add services as she gets the clinic more established, she said.
“It has all the room to grow,” she said.
She’d still like the former senior center to be a place the community can gather, and said she’d eventually like to offer puppy socialization, dog classes, grief counseling, an animal library or even an animal feed store. Huhndorf has thought about being able to host animal-themed movie screenings, small-scale pet shows or other activities where community members can get together at the old center.
While Huhndorf works mostly with cats, dogs and small animals, she said she is able to work with larger farm animals on a limited basis as Dr. Jerry Nybakken is the only large animal vet on the peninsula.
“He’s only one person and the peninsula’s a big place,” Huhndorf said. “So under duress if there’s nobody else, you know, a lot of times between what the horse owner or goat owner knows and what I know, or am able to look up, and medications I can get, we can get some of the job done.”
Huhndorf enjoys house calls and still wants to make them in the future, she said. Making house calls sometimes allows vets to get a better sense of what might be going on with an animal because it allows them to see their environment, Huhndorf said. Taking this extra step goes along with her philosophy of care for animals, in which she sees herself as an advocate for the animal first and foremost, she said.
Huhndorf said it can be easy for veterinarians to tell animal owners how they think they should care for their pets, but that advocating for an animal should be done in a way that “supports and enhances the client’s relationship with their pet, not alienate them.”
“The art of medicine is listening to people and listening to what the home life is for the animal, what the concerns are for the animal, how you can be part of a team because there’s the own there’s the client — the animal — and then there is the doctor,” she said. “And it’s kind of like a triangular team, and if everyone works together, it can be a beautiful thing. And too many times we lose … that fact that we need to be part of a team.”
Huhndorf is working with the Peninsula Spay and Neuter Fund as well as the Cat Tree and Barkery, and also works with an equine dental technician in the summers.
Her sister, Gretchen Bogard, said the surrounding Nikiski community is excited about the new clinic and that is has been a long time coming.
“So many people have wanted her to do it,” Bogard said. “She’s finally got a place where people can come to her.”
A fellow Nikiski resident, Bogard said Huhndorf already has Nikiski clients who would travel to Soldotna specifically to have her care for their pets. What makes her sister a popular vet is the fact that she’ll make house and emergency calls, even if it’s over the phone when she can’t be there in person.
“That’s what she’ll do,” Bogard said. “She shows up any time she can.”