Don Heonig ’73
Maine State Veterinarian
This profile originally appeared in Bowdoin magazine, Vol. 74, No. 1, Fall 2002
Don Hoenig was among the first U.S. veterinarians to arrive in England to assist with the Foot-and-Mouth Disease (FMD) epidemic there in March 2001. The United States sent over 400 state and federal vets to help with that crisis, and to learn from it. Preventing a similar outbreak in Maine is one of Don's responsibilities as state veterinarian. He is responsible for overseeing all livestock and poultry health in Maine, as well as working to prevent the introduction and spread of contagious disease, especially those diseases directly or indirectly transmitted to humans. Last year, he gave over 40 talks on FMD, alone. But, "the hot vet topic right now," he says, "is Chronic Wasting Disease, found in deer. It's similar to Mad Cow but nontransferable to humans. We don't have it here yet, and we are working so we don't."
A pre-med biology major at Bowdoin, as well as a soccer player, Don wasn't inclined toward medical school. "I wanted to go into medicine," he says, "but I wanted to work outside. That left vet school." After three years in mixed (large and small animals) private practice on Martha's Vineyard, Don took a position with the U.S. Department of Agriculture covering Massachusetts and Maine for the department's Animal and Plant Heath Inspection Service (APHIS), the branch charged with protecting the country from animal and plant diseases. Based in Belfast, Maine for that job, Don and his wife, Lynn, decided they wanted to make Maine their permanent home. He took a job with the State in the mid-1980s.
Don spends about half of his time on the road these days, visiting mostly with dairy farmers, helping them with quality issues. "Farmers are the hardest working people around," he says. "I have a real admiration for their work ethic."
Not one for time outs, Don keeps an admirable schedule himself. Apart from his veterinary duties, he is the head women's soccer coach at Belfast High School, and plays competitive soccer (along with Alex Turner '70 and Kent Netzorg '97) year-round in two separate men's leagues.
Recently, at the request of local farmers, he founded the Maine Cattle Health Assistance Program, MeCHAP, for short. (He jokes, "You have to be good with acronyms to work for the government; they're everywhere. The forest service has an 178-page book of just their acronyms!") MeCHAP's goal is to eliminate disease while assisting farmers with all aspects of three major challenges they face: animal health, public health, and environmental stewardship. "Agriculture is a huge part of the Maine economy," Don says. "But, it's a part of an aesthetic, too. Without it, Maine's just another suburban state."
Don and Lynn live on a small farm in Belfast where, in days past, they raised all of our own food, even meat. "We'd name the animals we knew we'd have to kill after politicians we didn't like, so we wouldn't get too attached to them," he laughs. "I seem to recall a particular pig named Nixon."
You'll still find some laying hens on the Hoenig farm, but the nest is pretty empty these days since the Hoenigs' children, Scott '98, Leigh '00, and Sarah '02 have grown up. "It's a special thing that we all have the Bowdoin connection," Don says. "All of them had tremendous experiences at Bowdoin, as did I-and, by extension, Lynn, too." This past May, at Sarah's graduation, they even presented Lynn with a Bowdoin "diploma," signed by their three kids. "This year is the first time in 8 years that we won't have kids at Bowdoin," Don adds. "That's going to be a little strange." But, with five immediate Bowdoin alumni family members, counting Scott's wife Jennifer Knaut Hoenig '99, there's a good chance you'll bump into a Hoenig or two at Homecoming or Reunion for a long time to come.