National Cattlemen’s chief veterinarian hails from college’s charter class
profile by Michael Sutphin
Dr. Kathy Simmons has worked in an animal hospital, on her family’s West Virginia farm, and on Capitol Hill. For the past two years, she has been a leading voice for animal care and health regulatory issues in her role as chief veterinarian for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA).
Simmons is also a proud graduate of the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine’s founding Class of 1984. “Many of us who were a part of the first class had worked very hard to advocate for the formation of a veterinary college in Virginia,” she said. “I personally was involved with the work of the Citizens Committee for a Veterinary College in Virginia.”
The college’s inaugural class had 64 members, including Simmons. Just as they are today, both Virginia and Maryland students were in-state students at the regional college. “It was personally for me and professionally for the college a very proud moment when the members of the Class of 1984 accepted their diplomas to become veterinarians,” she said.
Simmons had experience working with animals before her formal veterinary training. The McLean, Virginia, native spent summers on her family’s farm in Lewis County, West Virginia. Her family has operated S&S Farms, a 500-acre cow-calf operation, since 1967.
“I also had the opportunity in high school and in college to work as a veterinary assistant for both companion animal and food animal veterinarians,” said Simmons, who added that her 4-H experiences also helped shape her early interest in animals and appreciation for veterinary medicine.
Although Simmons still helps manage the accounting and taxes at the family farm, her job at the NCBA’s Washington, D.C. policy office has taken her away from the day-to-day operations. After the death of her mother five years ago, the family now raises Black Angus cattle for the commercial market rather than registered stock. The beef cattle herd has been reduced in size over the years so that her 89-year-old father can better manage the business. Simmons is quick to draw comparisons between her family’s situation and national trends.
“Like 90 percent of our members at the NCBA, we have a herd of less than 100 head,” she said. “The majority of beef cattle farms and ranches in the United States are family-run operations.”
Simmons deals with a wide range of issues in her position at the NCBA, including foreign animal disease control, antimicrobial drug use in cattle, cattle disease management programs, animal welfare, and pre-harvest food safety. In addition to her advocacy on behalf of U.S. beef cattle health, she is also involved in international animal health issues through the World Organization for Animal Health and food safety issues through the Codex Alimentarius Commission, an arm of the United Nations that works to protect consumer health and ensure fair prices in the international food trade.
“The most personally rewarding aspect of my job is working with cattle producers, like my father, to ensure that their viewpoints and interests are heard on important issues involving cattle health and well-being,” she said. She keeps photos on her desk at the office of her and her family with their black Labrador retriever, Jewel, and calico cat, Cali, as reminders of the importance of the human/animal bond.
Before joining the NCBA, Simmons spent a year as a congressional policy fellow for the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Veterinary Medical Association. She served in the office of U.S. Senator Olympia Snowe and worked closely with the senator’s legislative assistant responsible for human health policy issues. Whether meeting with constituents or physicians’ groups, briefing the senator for Senate Finance Committee meetings on health issues, or researching issues related to the Affordable Care Act, Simmons had her hands full.
“I had the opportunity to meet with stakeholders and write a bill that Senator Snowe introduced into the 112th Congress for Medicare reimbursement for osteoporosis testing, as well as writing her floor speech for the introduction of this bill,” she added.
Although Simmons focuses much of her time on animal health policy and not treating individual animals today, she has 27 years of private practice experience under her belt. After graduation, Simmons worked at a mixed animal practice in Martinsburg, West Virginia, for a year before moving back to Northern Virginia. She then worked at the Herndon-Reston Animal Hospital in Herndon, Virginia, for 26 years. In 2009, Veterinary Centers of America purchased the animal hospital and she stayed with the company for a year as a medical director.
During her time away from Blacksburg, her alma mater underwent some major changes, especially in terms of teaching and research space. When Simmons returned to campus for her 10-year class reunion, she found that much had stayed the same, too. She cited “the friendly, small town atmosphere in Blacksburg, the enthusiasm of the veterinary students for their chosen profession, and the dedication of the faculty and staff to provide the best veterinary education for the students” as staples at the college.
The town holds a special place in her heart as the location of both of her undergraduate and graduate studies. Simmons studied biology and biochemistry as a Virginia Tech undergraduate before pursuing her veterinary education. She plans to return to Blacksburg on Saturday, August 30, for the 30th class reunion of the veterinary college’s charter class.
“I am sure that when I return in late August, there will be additional physical changes to the appearance of the area just as there have been changes to my own physical appearance since 1984,” she joked.