SPOKANE — Rolf Westly has been asked to be a pallbearer four times in his lifetime.
“Two of the four individuals, I never met until I pulled onto their farm and quarantined them for a disease issue,” said Westly, who for 30 years worked as a field veterinarian for the USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service’s veterinary services in Eastern Washington.
For Westly, it’s an example of the trust he was able to generate working with ranchers during some of the most stressful times in their lives.
Westly’s duties included emergency disease response, international movement of livestock or products, import of research products and various disease programs.
Westly, who retired Dec. 31, lists three incidents among his most memorable.
When foot and mouth disease occurred in England in 2001, Westly was sent to one of the last hotspots to help European Union veterinarians and ranchers.
“It was a pretty stressful event; there was a lot of emotion involved, as you can imagine,” he said.
When mad cow disease was discovered at a Washington state dairy in 2003, he was involved in the response within three days. More than 100 people were on the team, based in Yakima, and it took about six weeks to get things under control, he said.
“It was a lot of hours,” he said. “During that time of year, it was extremely cold. There were days it was 23 degrees below zero. Any time you try to work with livestock and you’ve got temperatures at zero or in that area, it slows things down quite a bit and is pretty tough on everybody involved.”
Westly recalled needing some supplies during that time. He called four ranchers out of the blue, three of whom he had quarantined for disease, and asked them for help, and they replied, “We’ll help you anyway we can.”
When Westly mentioned compensation, they told him, “Worry about that later, but we’ll help you now.”
“How amazing is that, all of a sudden the shoe is on the other foot and I’m asking them for help?” he said.
Westly was also involved when highly pathogenic avian influenza broke out in 2015.
“Most of the time, if you know where there’s an infection, you can draw a circle around it and then kind of work your way in to eliminate it,” he said.
Avian influenza was spread by migrating birds, so an infection could occur in one spot, then somewhere else completely different, depending on where the birds landed and how they interacted with domestic fowl.
“I’m sure it’s probably happened throughout history, but that is the first time I’ve been involved where the actual disease was being carried by wildlife,” he said. “All of a sudden it was just like it dropped out of the sky.”
During his career, Westly primarily worked away from the headlines, one-on-one with ranchers dealing with a range of diseases.
“I’ve sat at hundreds of kitchen tables trying to work with producers to get a resolution on a problem,” he said.
Westly attended veterinary school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He got his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Washington State University.
Originally from the San Joaquin Valley in California, his diverse background in agriculture helped him to work with ranchers, he said.
“You need to know how they think and have some empathy for what the issue is,” he said. “We’re trying to help them out of a problem they might not even know that they have.”
At that time, he said, ranchers are scared and dealing with the unknown. His job was to help them get through the “rough area,” he said.
“You’ve got to be straight up honest with them; you’ve got to be available any time, 6 in the morning or 10 at night,” he said. “If you can be there through the whole duration of the issue, that certainly helps. At the end of the day, all the producer wants to do is get back to normal. As far as the producer is concerned, ‘normal’ is how life was before we showed up.”
Westly enjoyed the variety of the work and the chance to travel, often serving on task forces as a foreign animal disease diagnostician.
Westly credits his wife of 35 years, Hollie, for her patience, as the job often took him away from home for long stretches of time.
When he started 30 years ago, Westly said, there were no cell phones. At the time, having a fax machine was pretty “techy.” Technological advances have helped the industry move quicker, he said.
Westly sees much improvement and progress in the industry. When he first started, 34 states had brucellosis infections. Now, the disease is confined to the Yellowstone area, he said.
Researchers, including with the USDA ARS in Pullman, helped to understand the mechanisms of scrapie in sheep and goats, so USDA veterinary services could start an effective eradication, he said.
“Within the next five years, I would imagine it will be pretty much gone,” he said.
Westly advises ranchers to maintain a good relationship with their private veterinarian, who knows how to work with USDA in case of an issue.
Westly isn’t 100 percent sure what his next plan is. But he has a pretty good general idea.
“I’ve been involved with agriculture since the age of 3,” he said. “God willing, I’ll be involved with agriculture to my last breath.”