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‘Deer doctor’ works to preserve whitetail population

By Dave Rogers | Published Saturday, March 10, 2012

Deer Doctor - Veterinarian Joe Ables shows off the antlers of the sire of his deer-breeding herd. The whitetail deer the Decatur vet sees must be tranquilized, bound and hooded before receiving any treatment.

It might have been the hunting trips to Arkansas with his dad and grandfather when he was barely old enough to walk. Maybe it was watching a TV show about an African zoologist. Certainly 12 years studying and the four degrees he received at Texas A&M led Decatur’s Joe Ables to his unique specialization as “the deer doctor.”

Ables doesn’t believe in luck or happenstance.

“The Lord taught me patience,” he said of the time he spent acquiring undergraduate degrees in both biomedical science and animal science, a master’s degree in animal science and licensing as a doctor of veterinary medicine. “The Lord had a plan.”

A native of Allen who has been working with Dr. Hal Reese at Wise County Animal Clinic in Decatur for 10 years, Ables recently won an award from the Texas Veterinary Medicine Association at its annual convention in College Station. He was named the Non-Traditional Species Practitioner of the Year for developing the first treatment for Epizootic Hermorrhagic Disease in whitetail deer, which kills more than 100,000 animals a year in the United States.

Ables said he wanted to be a veterinarian since those early hunting trips. His dad and granddad gave him impromptu lectures on anatomy as they field-dressed their kill.

“They would break the deer down and explain every organ to me,” he said. “That got me interested, but instead of killing, I try to keep them alive. I’ve always wanted to be Daktari [the veterinarian at an African animal park that was the star of the TV show from the late '60s with the same name]. I wanted to be the zoo’s vet.”

It was during his time in College Station that Ables began breeding whitetail deer and “by learning a lot hands-on,” acquired the knowledge to become one of the state’s top “deer vets,” a group that numbered fewer than a dozen five years ago.

Burnet veterinarian Dan McBride is considered “the Godfather of whitetail medicine,” Ables said. But now it is Ables who teaches a class on deer medicine and surgery at Texas A&M, passing on his knowledge to a new generation of deer docs.

Deer are big business in Texas. The deer breeding and hunting industry adds about $700 million a year to the Texas economy, nearly $3 billion in the United States. In 2010, Texas sold 1.2 million deer hunting licenses and those hunters killed 576,209 whitetails.

“There are over 2,000 deer breeders just in Texas alone,” Ables said. “Each one is required to get permits from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, and the breeders are monitored by them and the Texas Animal Health Commission. The majority of people here focus on breeding, then they sell genetics.”

By genetics, Ables means semen, which can command as much as $10,000 per sample.

So a disease running through a herd of deer and killing them before most humans can tell they’re sick is a big thing.

Epizootic Hemorrhagic Disease, also called EHD, is a widespread deer disease affecting whitetails on the Great Plains from Wyoming to Texas. It is caused by the bite of a buffalo gnat.

“It’s like ebola for deer,” Ables said. “You just find the deer dead. They bleed out.”

Ables is working on a vaccine. But his treatment, which he hopes to begin marketing this year, proved successful in 84 percent of the deer he treated in his trial, compared to the 15 percent of deer who survived without the treatment.

“Dr. Joe” recently estimated his deer practice had grown from 5 percent of his veterinary business to 30 percent. He says he travels a 300-mile radius from Decatur making house calls on breeders’ operations, and many of his visits are late at night or in the wee hours of the morning, when the deer are easier to approach. Normally the animals are tranquilized, bound and hooded for procedures.

“For the most part, I do a lot of medicine and surgery,” Ables said.

On a recent three-day trip, he visited clients in the San Antonio and Victoria areas.

Besides his work on EHD, Ables is considered an expert on herd health management, laparoscopic artificial insemination and nutrition. He regularly speaks to deer owners at state and national meetings. He has labs where he conducts stem cell and in vitro fertilization research, and he has a breeding business of his own, Texas Trophy Hoofstock.

“There’s a lot of people that helped me along the way,” said Ables, who is married with two small children. “It’s a big blessing when you are recognized by your peers.”

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