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Dr. Dee Thornell: A Vet on the Move

Dr. Dee Thornell

Dr. Dee Thornell: A Vet on the Move

She gained fame with her own TV show on Animal Planet, but now Dr. Dee Thornell has bigger plans for veterinary medicine. She wants to bring new veterinarians to the Last Frontier to revolutionize the practice.

In 1982, when she first moved to Alaska, Dee Thornell, DVM, worked out of her pickup truck. Driving around Fairbanks and the surrounding areas with a motto of “All Critters Welcome,” Thornell was a mobile veterinarian. Making house calls  in town and off of dirt-rutted roads in the country, Thornell lived up to the motto, working on everything from reindeer to moose, and all  sorts of pocket pets and birds. Aside from coping with the cold—temperatures would inch down to minus  40 degrees in the winter—business was good.  

And, it kept getting better. Thornell did not last long in the truck before she moved her practice into a feed store, and finally opened one of Alaska’s most advanced veterinary clinics, with a team of 15 employees.  

By 2015, Thornell piloted a plane en route to treat animals in the Arctic Circle. A film crew chronicled the trip for the first episode of Animal Planet’s “Dr. Dee: Alaska Vet.” 

“I never thought I’d get into vet school,” Thornell said with a laugh. “But I didn’t think I’d have a TV show, either.”

One of her clients worked in film and TV, however, and put her in touch with a TV scout. They pitched the show to Animal Planet, and had a two-season run. Thornell said it was a challenging project, but was thrilled to see the response to it, especially among female veterinarians.

She has only picked up the pace since the show ended. She bursts with enthusiasm when she speaks about being a veterinarian and the plans she has to give back and improve the field —or, as she said, to “revolutionize the practice.”  

Thornell became a veterinarian because that is what her older brother, Dickie, wanted to be. He was 10 years older than she was and was killed in the line of duty in Vietnam. Thornell was in elementary school at the time, but her brother’s passion stuck with her.  

She went to the MSU College of Veterinary Medicine and completed her undergraduate and veterinary school degrees in five years, finishing in 1981. She spent one year working at the Waverly Animal Hospital in Lansing, then packed her belongings and moved to Alaska with her then boyfriend. She has been there ever since (the boyfriend left). She has stayed busy.

Her veterinary clinic is a 13,000-square-foot former equipment warehouse she bought, and it includes the Animal House Veterinary Hospital; Noah’s Ark, which is home to a groomer, a laundry and retail store; and a Montessori dog training school called Muttessori.

Now, she is eager to bring recent veterinary school grads to Alaska, share her experience and help them start their career. Her plan, in which she would pay them a living wage while renting them the use of her clinic’s equipment, would allow new veterinarians to run their own businesses.

Her mentorship and clinic would provide a safety net for someone early in their career. “You don’t have to spend $100,000 to start your own practice,” she said.

And, she doesn’t want them to.

Thornell is still working out the kinks in her plan, but would like to bring in a recent veterinary school grad in 2020 or 2021. The  new veterinarian will be given  overflow patients, and a chance  to build up their own practice  under the roof—and guidance— of Thornell. If they are lucky,  maybe one day they, too, will have their own TV show. 

Learn more about Dr. Thornell at: go.msu.edu/thornell

Author: Liam Boylan-Pett

Spartan Profiles — Fall 2020


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