Veterinarian fulfills a lifelong wish list

January 17, 2012

By Sarah Gerdes

Sarah Owens (center) becomes friends with two women during a luncheon at one of the first gatherings of Tanzanian and Kenyan Maa-speaking peoples (Maasai nomadic tribes) at a sharing of the commonalities and differences in traditions. Contributed

As a young person, veterinarian Dr. Sarah Owens made a point of asking her elders what it was they wished they had done with their lives. As she listened to their regrets, Owens made a promise to herself to “make sure I didn’t miss out on anything.”

Owens kept that promise. She graduated from Brown and Harvard, traveled to the mountains of Nepal to care for animals on film shoots and spent many hours in the castles around Europe performing delicate surgeries on animals. In between stints at college, Owens was an active leader in several of nongovernmental organizations in South Africa. Eventually, the pull of her native Northwest roots drew her home to Issaquah.

“Aside from the Arctic and Antarctic, I’ve lived most my life on the continents and am completely happy to be back here in the Northwest,” she said, adding that she feels a symbiotic relationship to people in the Northwest.

“No matter where I was, every time I met someone in a remote and exotic locale who was from the Pacific Northwest, I felt we shared a certain way of connecting to the natural and social environment,” she said. “I am sure it stems from coming from a landscape of such great soul.”

Early beginnings

Owens’ grandparents met at the University of California, Berkeley and moved to Bainbridge Island in the 1940s. Her father attended MIT and Harvard and accepted a job offer from Microsoft, becoming known as “guy No. 6.” Because Owens’ mother was a teacher, also working full time and raising three young children, her father left Microsoft for a time, only to return later.

“I went to sleep to the sound of my father’s typing on the keyboard in the downstairs room filled with ticketing machines and wall-sized computers,” she said, laughing. “Both sides of my family have always been very academic, and from a young age I took school very seriously.”

Her first academic experience was at the Children’s Garden, just off Issaquah-Hobart Road Southeast and conveniently located to their home on Tiger Mountain.

“I remember being invigorated with learning, and how much freedom of expression I had at the Garden,” she recalled.

Her ties were so strong to her first learning environment that one of the first people she reunited with upon coming home was Bonnie Steussy, the founder of the school who still teaches at the Garden.

“Sarah had such zest for living, such an intelligent mind,” Steussy recalls. “She was a joy to teach because her inquisitive nature was unstoppable.”

The family eventually moved to Bainbridge Island, where she finished high school, and Owens looked eastward for her continuing education.

In between colleges, Owens took trips to determined to understand how different philosophical approaches impacted success.

“In the Far East, I learned from Buddhists how to clear my mind from distractions. From the Hindus, I learned the notion that we have life stages,” she said.

What that taught her is that “no matter what you become, a scholar, a businessperson or a wanderer, one doesn’t have to be accomplished all at once. It’s best to focus on the one you are in and be patient for the rest of it.”

A deep commitment

Patience isn’t a characteristic that David Gabriel, the senior partner in Gabriel Grills & Associates in Devon, England, uses to describe Owens, who he first encountered in 2005 when she answered an advertisement for the post of assistant veterinary surgeon.

Gabriel, a renowned equine veterinarian in England and surrounding countries, said “passionate” is a better word for Owens, who “was a standout from the beginning.”

“Sarah demonstrated massive enthusiasm for her work,” he gushed, adding he occasionally led Owens to put herself out on a limb with difficult or intractable cases.

Each time, Owens overcame and preserved.

“She was the mistress of lateral thinking,” he said.

Gabriel was not surprised when Sarah announced that she was going back to the States.

“She had done her fair share of globe-trotting,” he surmised, and he said he knew it was Owens’ goal to run her own practice, in order to “harness new technologies and therapies in treatment of her cases.”

She has done that by providing state-of-the-art equine facilities in her Issaquah facility. Michele Jacobs, the general manager of The Grange in Issaquah, confirms Gabriel’s experience. She’d heard about Owens from the many equestrians serviced by the store.

“One attribute they all shared was an appreciation of her work,” Jacobs said.

Jacobs later worked with Owens during the Horse Owner Workshops and Mobile Vet Clinic for small animals, where Owens was the participating veterinarian. Jacobs was so impressed, she hired Owens for her own animals, including horses and dogs.

“She has a high level of compassion for the animals and is able to work effectively with animal owners,” Jacobs said.

Critical to effective communication is clearly and precisely delivering hard information in a “nonalarmist” but realistic way. Jacobs attributes that to Owens’ education and background.

“I think that Sarah understands ‘us,’ the ‘horse people,’ as I like to say, because she has extensive experience treating sport horses and that she is an active equestrian herself,” she said, adding that gives Owens a level of credibility that other veterinarians sometimes lack.

Making house calls

Owens makes a point of personally responding to emails, texting, answering questions and offering advice. She also works on a flexible basis for in-office and at-home house calls.

“So many times, it is more economical to do things at my clients’ homes, not here,” she said of her officer.

Having worked in very difficult circumstances, Owens doesn’t mind driving to an island one day and then to a farm in Eastern Washington the next.

Jacobs’ favorite part of working with Owens is her range of experiences.

“Every so often, she’ll tell stories about all the animals she has worked on — dogs, cats, goats, horses, zebras” on a movie location set or working with an NGO, Jacobs said.

After working for a few years with the African Union and other large policy-making and international health organizations, Owens asked an elder in the trade, a woman named Anne, how she kept from being disillusioned by all the red tape.

“She said, ‘There are a few cows out there in small corners of the world named Anne in honor of something I did to help. That’s enough for me.”

Owens took that to heart when she considered moving back to Issaquah.

She bought the historic Ruth Kees house, which has put her in touch with a number of local people active in conservation and politics, some of whom were old family friends. While doing private practice doesn’t allow Owens the same large-scale impact as the international work she did, Owens said she takes satisfaction that she is “able to do many significantly helpful things for people and animals every single day, and I get to see a lot of immediate results.”

Sarah Gerdes is a freelance writer. Comment at


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