Shelley Onderdonk: Veterinarian, Writer & Lifelong Animal Lover.
Why did you make your latest transition?
I’ve been a veterinarian, equestrian and animal enthusiast for a long time. For 25 years, parenting was my primary responsibility, but now that two of my three boys have left home I have more time for other pursuits. I have more time to spend with my animals, which I love. In the last few years, I’ve also fulfilled another goal; I’ve become a writer. (Ok, two goals—I finally got my own horse!) Since 2016, I’ve published two books with co-authors, first my husband and then a college roommate and friend. The first book, Polo Life: Horses, Sport, 10 and Zen helped me define some things about my veterinary practice, my relationship to our horses and other animals, the farm I live on and and my own thoughts about the life I continue to purposefully fashion. My second book, The Anti-Cookbook: Easy, Thrifty Recipes for Food-Smart Living, might seem like a very different endeavor, but I am who I am and consequently it is an extension of my point of view about finding harmony with nature, making ethical choices and applying a holistic vision of wellness.
What are you doing now?
I’m spending my days working as an integrative veterinary practitioner and also training horses. I also spend time every day acting as the custodian of our 325-acre conservation-easement farm in Aiken, South Carolina. I love the balance between working with animals who are pets or companions and living with animals that are wild. I also do book events to support my writing projects and teach yoga.
How did you decide to pursue these opportunities?
One of my earliest memories is toddling over to our dog, who loved to lie in a patch of sunlight by a bookcase on the floor of the house I grew up in. I would sprawl out next to him in the warm light. I can still see what my dog looked liked in my mind’s eye. I was always the way I am now—in love with animals. I told people in kindergarten that I wanted to be a veterinarian. Every book I read had something to do with horses. I was also influenced by James Herriot’s books. After college, I took some “gap time” and taught English in China for two years, but pretty much the rest of my life has been devoted to animals and my family.
What surprised you most about your transition?
What has surprised me is how much fun I’m having. Motherhood was so natural to me and it has been hard to let go of those days when my kids were younger, but it feels great to be where I am now. I’m enjoying less wearing all the different hats and more being focused on my jobs.
What advice would you give to someone in the same circumstances?
If you want to build a life that puts relationships with animals at the forefront, figure out what you’re comfortable with. As I mentioned, I love the balance I have with both companion animals and wild animals. There’s no judgment, but those two categories are very different. Be aware of what your place with animals looks like. If you had a day to spend how would you want to spend it? Birdwatching in the woods? Helping animals in a shelter? Ask yourself those kinds of questions.
Special: Given your vast experience both professionally and personally, do you have a top 5 or 10 list of things that you would tell people if they would like to follow in your footsteps or follow a similar path?
-Work hard always. Making a life work with animals demands that.
-Get the appropriate training in what you want to do.
-Make a practical plan; you can’t save all the animals you want to save if you go broke.
-Be generous with your time.
-Don’t expect glamour.
-Let animals change the person that you are.
Shelley is a veterinarian with a practice that focuses on equine acupuncture and sports medicine, writer and yoga instructor. Together with her husband, Shelley manages their horse farm in Aiken, South Carolina, striving to be a sustainable steward of their land while providing an ideal center for all their horses to thrive. Her adorable dog, Hobnob, is named after a thoroughly delicious British biscuit.