Growing up in Cahokia, Ill., Don Coats’ back lot was the “go-to” spot for neighborhood kids. Beyond a menagerie of rabbits, chickens, and homing pigeons, it was home to a couple of madcap characters. Billy, a white goat, would regularly leap up on the hood of the family sedan. Butchy turned into the community terror, so much so that the combative black crow had his wings clipped. Seems the sheriff threatened to shoot the bird for dive bombing and scaring the bejeezus out of the local kids.
During his teenage years, he spent summers driving a battered truck at his Uncle Leo’s farm, working with the cattle, pigs, and registered Suffolk sheep. While showing their prized sheep at the annual county fair, Coats discovered the amazing utility of the Border collie, a breed he has owned most of his life.
“When I was a boy my grandmother taught me early lessons of sewing and hand stitching that became the foundation of the small motor skills used in delicate, precise veterinary surgery,” remembers Dr. Coats, the beloved veterinarian who has practiced in Centreville for 43 years.
As a fresh-faced University of Illinois veterinary graduate in 1968, Coats headed east with his wife, Marti, so that he could take a position with Atlas Research Laboratory in Wilmington. In May 1969 he joined Dr. Bill Butler’s Centreville veterinary practice, patching wounds and tending to the ailments of whisker-faced canines and furry felines.
“Bill was an imposing man, very dynamic, a look-you-in-the-eye type of fellow,” says Coats, a wiry and spry 71-year-old with a grey-peppered beard. “He had quite a following. I remember the vehicles of pet owners many times lined the shoulder of Kennett Pike as they took their pets to Bill for care.”
Young Dr. Coats was full of dedication and enthusiasm as he put to use his ever-expanding skills to make people’s pets well. As the years rolled by, Coats developed his own loyal following. Today, he estimates having upwards of 4,000 clients, and for dozens, he’s attending to their third or fourth dog. His heart and manner are gentle, and courtesy is Coats’ hallmark.
Coats’ world turned upside down when Dr. Steve Butler (Bill’s son) committed suicide in 2005.
“Steve’s death was so emotionally devastating,” says Coats, a good friend as well as a colleague of Steve’s.
Coats tried to purchase the practice twice from Steve’s widow, whom Steve was divorcing, unsuccessfully. “I’m grateful it didn’t work out,” he now says. “Life is wonderful now. As a practitioner I have more time to attend to medical and surgical skills rather than the business side. It’s a nice package with a talented staff and all the new technology. Past the age of retirement, I feel truly privileged to continue my practice.”
He sees his work as akin to solving a puzzle. “Since the animal can’t tell me what is going on I have to figure it out,” says Coats, who starts his day checking on hospitalized animals and pulling lab results.
“Diagnosis is the most challenging and endlessly interesting part of my job. We analyze the symptoms, initially by touch and feel and by the nature of the animal’s gaze. Next we take X-rays and perform lab tests if needed. The digital X-rays provide an instant, detailed snapshot of our client’s ailment. It has greatly enhanced our medical staff’s ability to access the problem.”
Surgeries are scheduled for Wednesdays. He views his skill almost as an art form. A recent patient was Bella, a bulldog who had a corkscrew tail that had grown deeply inward, creating an infection.
Pulling a leather glove missing for three months out of a German Shepherd’s stomach and removing a lengthy wrapping ribbon from a Siamese cat are some of Coats’ stranger encounters. Earlier this year, while examining a Persian cat, he felt a mass the size of two lemons around the kidney and liver.
“At first, I thought it was a tumor, but when I spoke with the owner I learned the cat played with fig leaves from a tree on their deck,’ he says. “Turns out he had been eating them for some time. He eventually passed the leaves.”
So what makes a great veterinarian? “Insight, being smart enough to see the whole picture, and a true compassion and understanding of the pet and sensitivity for the client,” Coats replies.
No matter how many wonderful years a dog lives, the day he dies, your heart will break. Dr. Coats’ voice catches and his face clouds to grief at the thought of his Border collie Muddy, recently put down at age 13. His faithful companion, Muddy possessed the singular talent of herding a pack of deer as if they were sheep, on occasion steering a runaway deer toward the tall glass windows of an irate neighbor’s sunroom.
“I have always advised adults to get a new and endearing pup in a month or so if it helps fill the gaping void the owner experiences,” he says. “Except when children are involved, then I suggest waiting for six months so they learn that a life can’t be quickly replaced.”
Aware the clock is ticking, Dr. Coats has cut back his practice by a third. It enables him to pursue his avid beekeeping hobby and teach a beekeeping class at the Ashland Nature Center. He also regularly travels to Big Bend National Park, named for the vast curve of the Rio Grande in remote southwest Texas.
“I love the hiking, taking photos, sleeping out on a trail at night,” Coats says. “It’s being alone with nature. Seeing Orion and all the constellations, it makes you feel like you’re a part of it all, connected to the universe.” Reminiscent of those boyhood days when he explored the natural world along the Cottonwood banks of the Mississippi, no doubt.