By Marianne Salza
Cynthia Barker Cox progressed from studying Buddhism to organic chemistry on her journey to becoming an animal doctor. Now she works as a shelter veterinarian at MSPCA Animal Care and Adoption Center, in Jamaica Plain, which is recognized for its focus on infectious diseases, public health, forensic medicine, and surgery.
“MSPCA is your local, amazing organization. I’ve been there for 20 years. If you have animals that need specialized vet care, they have MRI’s, cardiologists, and neurologists,” explained Cox. “They also have an amazing animal shelter that I was the first medical doctor for.”
Cox presented, “From Gastrotomies to Gonads: Valentine’s Day with a Veterinarian,” during the February 14 Beacon Hill Women’s Forum (BHWF) at the Hampshire House, where she encouraged listeners to adopt if they wish to make an addition to their furry families.
“Valentine’s Day is a great time for this talk because I think it’s an appropriate day to talk about castration,” opened Cox flatly, with an outburst of laughter from members.
Cox boasted about her “obscenely fast” gonadectomy skills while wearing one of her favorite birthday presents: prosthetic, testicle earrings.
“Shelter numbers are down because we’ve spaded and neutered so many that we don’t get as many shelter animal intakes,” said Cox. “We’re able to offer more low-cost public services to people who are low-income. I strongly believe that access to pet care is social justice. Animals give a lot of love and stability to people. I see the difference they make in hard lives.”
Cox also conducts frequent gastrotomy procedures, surgically removing an assortment of objects from animals’ stomachs, such as a toy dinosaur, false teeth, yards of fabric, pacifiers, and coins.
“Animals will eat anything,” Cox warned. “The worst thing they can eat is string – tinsel on Christmas trees, Easter basket grass, and yarn. It does awful things.”
Cox grew up in Tennessee, and has been a vegetarian since she was a young teenager. At Northwestern University, in Chicago, she studied history of religions, specializing in South Asian theologies and languages. Cox attended a joint graduate program with Northwestern, The University of Chicago, and the University of Oxford, and studied in Sri Lanka for a year as a Fulbright Scholar.
“When I was in Sri Lanka, I was spending more time with animals and accumulating cats,” remembered Cox. “I was more interested in that than my studying.”
While teaching as an adjunct assistant instructor at Whitman College, in Walla Walla, Washington, Cox was translating a 13th century collection of folk tales from Pali, the Buddhist language, when she realized that her dissertation had already been written by someone else.
She then decided to become a veterinarian, and moved into a corrugated, steel shed on an organic farm. The summa cum laude, Washington State University graduate now serves as the senior shelter veterinarian at MSPCA.
“Challenges can seem amusing in retrospect,” chuckled Cox, who described the experience she had when holding the penis of a bull while her instructor carved a wart off of it.
Cox was one of the first diplomates of the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners for Shelter Medicine; and is a co-founder and former board member of the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, which provides veterinarians with resources to continue their education.
Cox implored listeners to be patient when admitting their pets into the emergency room, as there is a challenging shortage of veterinarians, as well as a high suicide rate among them.
“Part of that is because they’re having to turn animals away because people can’t pay, which feels awful,” revealed Cox. “Social media has also not been good for humanity in a lot of ways. People get horrible reviews on social media. A lot of people in the veterinary profession are sensitive, nurturing, perfectionists, and it’s difficult.”
In her free time, Cox enjoys contra dancing, and surrendering to the will of her four cats: Sabine, Orca, Steve, and Little Grey Baby.