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America’s Top Veterinary Heroes Revealed; Now, Choose Your Favorites

Voting now open for the 2021 American Humane Hero Veterinarian
and Hero Veterinary Nurse Awards™, sponsored by Zoetis Petcare

WASHINGTON, DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA, June 10, 2021 — Behind every beloved pet is a dedicated veterinarian or veterinary nurse, working to keep our best friends healthy. To honor these vital and tireless professionals, American Humane, the country’s first national humane organization, is pleased to announce that voting is now open in the eighth annual American Humane Hero Veterinarian and Hero Veterinary Nurse Awards, sponsored by Zoetis Petcare (a U.S. business unit of Zoetis). Following the review of more than 300 nominations from animal lovers across the country, a blue-ribbon judging panel of veterinary professionals and animal care experts has selected 10 of the country’s top veterinarians and veterinary nurses as finalists. Pet owners and animal lovers alike are invited to visit every day between now and July 29 at 12 p.m. Pacific Time to vote for 2021’s top American Hero Veterinarian and American Hero Veterinary Nurse.

The winners will be honored at the 11th annual American Humane Hero Dog Awards®, which will air nationwide as a two-hour special on Hallmark Channel this fall.

“These 10 finalists are inspiring examples of the veterinary community,” said Tara Bidgood, DVM, PhD, DACVCP, Executive Director, Zoetis Petcare Veterinary Professional Services & Medical Affairs. “The American Humane Hero Veterinarian and Hero Veterinary Nurse Awards are Zoetis Petcare’s way of helping to put a spotlight on their vital work. Congratulations to these extraordinary finalists and all veterinary professionals who work so hard every day to protect and help provide better, healthier lives to beloved pets.”

“Veterinarians and veterinary nurses are the ones we turn to in order to keep our best friends happy and healthy,” said Dr. Robin Ganzert, President and CEO of American Humane. “These dedicated professionals work day and night, often behind the scenes and with little public recognition of the lifesaving roles they play. The American Humane Hero Veterinarian and Hero Veterinary Nurse Awards seek to provide a reminder of all that our veterinary heroes do for us and our beloved family members, and we encourage every animal lover to join us in giving them our heartfelt thanks by voting in this year’s campaign.”

Meet the 10 heroic veterinarian and veterinary nurse finalists!

Here are the nomination essays written by their supporters:

American Hero Veterinarian finalists
Dr. Priya DeSoyza (Lebanon, New Jersey) – When I think of Dr. DeSoyza, I think of incredible strength and compassion. I first met Dr. DeSoyza when she began working at Crown Veterinary Specialists. Her love and passion for the animals was clearly evident right from the start. Our relationship sprouted as we got to know each other at work. What we didn’t know was that six years prior, Priya underwent a radical mastectomy for breast cancer. She battled through taking chemo and working. Shortly after beginning at Crown Vet, Dr DeSoyza took a special interest in the dogs from Outcast Rescue, knowing firsthand the horrible conditions the dogs would come in. She then volunteered to be the rescue’s medical director. Shortly after, Priya received the horrific news that the cancer was back and her new diagnosis was metastatic breast cancer. Priya is one of the strongest women I have ever come across. To be diagnosed with cancer is horrible enough but to learn the cancer has metastasized is catastrophic. She has not once let her diagnosis stop her from the love and care she gives to every patient who comes through the door of the emergency room. Priya may not always feel well, especially on the weeks she receives her chemotherapy, but that vibrant smile and contagious laugh is always there. Priya is the same old Priya who is fighting an uphill battle. Her love for the animals and her constant will to help them keep her going. Not only is she a great ER doc, she is a great co-worker and friend. She is a HERO, our HERO!

Dr. Rob Coke (San Antonio, Texas) – Innovation is the trademark for Dr. Rob L. Coke, San Antonio Zoo Director of Veterinary Care. A 1996 Texas A&M University graduate, he leads an 18-person team at the 501c3 non-profit zoo, which had to make fundamental changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic. His work is critical to the Species Survival Plan Program and, specifically, to the lives of Komodo dragons. He serves as a veterinary advisor to the Komodo Dragon SSP, in which he aids other zoos with Komodo Dragon medical consulting. Locally, he has been using new techniques to treat the zoo’s 27-year-old dragon, Bubba. Bubba has severe degenerative joint disease in his elbows and knees. At the beginning of treatment, he could not walk very well, but after several months of weekly therapy, he has been able to walk much better and increase his appetite. During the recent winter storm, the worst to hit San Antonio in four decades, Dr. Coke’s steadfast attitude, unwavering commitment and leadership were instrumental in ensuring the zoo’s animals were safely cared for in record-setting temperatures. In total, the zoo’s herculean effort resulted in the temporary rehoming of 14 crocodilians, more than 50 turtles, three giant Thai catfish, and 300 birds. His team also answered the call when a local animal sanctuary suffered a devastating crisis, and is responsible for saving many primates and other animals’ lives. Dr. Coke has been with the zoo since 2002 and is an incredibly deserving recipient of the hero veterinarian award.

Dr. April Gessner Deddens (Fuquay Varian, North Carolina) – Dr. April Gessner Deddens is passionate about veterinary volunteer work both internationally and locally. She has volunteered in several impoverished countries in Central America, the Caribbean, South America, and Asia. She was the campus coordinator for Volunteers for Intercultural and Definitive Adventures (VIDA) in Central America and volunteered in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala during veterinary school. She then founded Ross VIDA on the island of St. Kitts while still in veterinary school so that students could gain hands-on experience while also helping the less fortunate with their pets. The organization is still providing free veterinary care to pets of the island ten years later. Dr Gessner Deddens is currently a member of World Vets and has volunteered in Paraguay, Cambodia, Nepal, and Laos, providing free veterinary care and high-volume spay/neuter clinics in some of the most poverty-stricken villages in the world.  She was also awarded the Distinguished Alumni Achievement Award from Ross University for her international volunteer work. Most recently, she started a 501c3 nonprofit called DEGA Mobile Veterinary Care (Determined for Everyone to Gain Access to Veterinary Care).  She provides free basic veterinary care to low/no-income and homeless pet owners whose pets would otherwise not see a veterinarian. By working with other charitable organizations, she is able to identify those most in need of free basic veterinary care, which helps prevent disease and therefore decreases the number of pets surrendered to shelters. Her nonprofit has helped almost 600 pets in not quite four months!

Dr. Mary Kate Lawler (Houston, Texas) – Dr. Mary Kate Lawler has graced the Spay-Neuter Assistance Program (SNAP) with her proficient leadership—as chief surgeon in San Antonio since 2006, and as Executive Director since 2015. Her tireless work and dedication allow her to perform as many as 8,500 spay/neuter surgeries per year. When the last surgery is finished each day and the patients are recovering, she deftly shifts to her role as executive director. Her exemplary veterinary skill, business acumen, and compassion keep the SNAP team focused on our mission. Dr. Lawler is a 1995 graduate of NYSCVM at Cornell University. Throughout her veterinary career, spay/neuter surgery has been her focus. She has traveled extensively and has participated in spay/neuter clinics in India, Mexico, Ecuador, the Galapagos Islands, American Samoa, Hawaii, and on the reservations in the American Southwest. She has led the SNAP team to perform over 20,000 spay/neuter surgeries and 8,500 veterinary wellness visits annually. Her unwavering dedication to the well-being of the people and pets of our community has pushed her to persevere through hurricanes, fires, and pandemics—keeping SNAP thriving in spite of the challenges. She is a hero in the eyes of those she leads and the vast number of companion animals whose lives she has improved.

Dr. Keri Sanders (Stayton, Oregon) – I have taken my pets to Dr. Sanders for years. Not only is she a very kind, caring and compassionate person, she is also very giving. She is always there when we need her not only for her clients but for others, as well. During the devastating fires in the Santiam Canyon last September there were many pets, mostly cats, who got scared and ran or their families had to flee without them. Without hesitation Dr. Sanders and her staff opened their doors and accepted many very badly burned cats and injured dogs. Some who had owners and many that people brought in to ask for help. They took care of these animals and nursed them back to health, sent the ones home who had families and helped find the families for the others who were brought in by people who found them — all of this at no charge to the families, many of whom were homeless at this point. When the word got out as to what she was doing, donations to her SOS account climbed to help her with the expenses for these injured pets. On one day, she had a completely free clinic for anyone to come for veterinary care if they had been impacted by the fires. She continued that free care for another month, and then on a case-by-case basis. She also offered a free clinic a few years back where veterans with pets who needed care and vaccinations could come in and they took care of their needs. Most of these people seeking help were not her regular clients. I feel Dr. Sanders is a true hero to our community and a fabulous veterinarian in many clients’ eyes.

American Hero Veterinary Nurse finalists
Marisa Constantino (West Seneca, New York) – Marisa demonstrates the characteristics of an American Hero Veterinary Nurse on a daily basis. She demonstrates the perfect balance of professionalism, compassion, logic, curiosity and reason. Marisa approaches each animal she is presented with as if that animal is the only one she will treat that day, and may not see again. For a large, open admission, multi-species shelter and public-facing clinic, Marisa does the work of three technicians. She has taken on the role of trainer and mentor to a large number of fourth-year veterinary students on a regular shelter rotation. She does so as she herself was influenced by mentors and strives to pay it forward with the knowledge that these future veterinarians will depend on the talents and skills of technicians as they settle into their career. She believes that knowing how to navigate that partnership with grace and professional respect is crucial. As animal welfare shifts to a true social service initiative, the ability to serve people with the same respect as animals is a skill that Marisa demonstrates without even trying.  She sees the big picture and works to undo much of the oppression and discrimination that many clients seeking services have experienced at some point in their lives. Marisa sees only solutions, not barriers. The animal welfare field needs to care about people as much as it cares about animals, and Marisa is a perfect vision of that goal.

Laura Gerard (Hooksett, New Hampshire) – Laura Gerard is the head tech for Northside Animal Hospital and is beyond knowledgeable. She is a can-do-everything type of person. Beyond that, she also is an amazing supervisor, teacher, caring individual and mother. She goes above and beyond for pets, their owners, staff members, and her job.  The year 2020 was difficult for everyone due to the COVID pandemic. Laura went through a lot with this and still showed up to work every day with a smile on her face and a “Let’s do this!” gleeful attitude. Oh, and did I mention that the vet clinic was under construction/renovation through most of 2020 and at this moment as well? The clinic did not close down at all. Laura is a core member and contributor to this hospital. She is a sturdy beam helping hold everything together, as well as the clockwork that keeps the gears turning. She does not know I entered her, but I feel she is beyond deserving of this acknowledgment and award for her excellence, knowledge and positive attitude. Everyone loves Laura. She works so hard every day and wears so many hats. I thought of so many fellow vet tech friends that I could nominate, but given all Laura has done in her career and continues to do at Northside, I believe she is the most deserving. She is just an amazing individual all around.

Jill Elston (Milan, Pennsylvania) – Jill is the embodiment of an “American Hero Veterinary Nurse.” Since college, shelter medicine has been her passion and a couple years after graduation she found her true purpose working at Animal Care Sanctuary, serving and caring for those who had no home. protecting the wounded and abused and giving a chance to souls everyone else gave up on. She courageously leads a team of veterinary professionals who provide veterinary care in an underserved rural area, and Jill herself has become the St. Jude of ACS, “Mama Jill’s Home for Lost Souls.” She is always first in line to take home the sad, broken, sick, abused, or neglected creature. She regularly rehabilitates fearful dogs and helps sick animals to recover. Her special project, though, is being a hospice for older dogs and cats who aren’t candidates for adoption, but who still deserve the dignity of a home and a family at the end of their lives. For all cats and dogs, she offers up her home, giving them a chance to flourish under comfortable (dare I say lavish) conditions, receiving the best of food and healthcare, a lively lifestyle, and a warm, soft spot next to Jill in the recliner or on the bed. These included Miss P. Kevin, Honey, Hershey, Yoda, Simza, Ava, Kado, Bacon, Barnaby, Poki, Grumio, Empress of Shadows, Squiggy, Mimi and her pups, Smokey, Teddy, Amos, Morgan, Edgar, The Bacon Bits, Cosby, Clancy, Murdock, Titan, Lou, Breeland, Yukon, Herc., and so many other patients I can’t recall. And Hickory, who started it all.

Liz Phipps (Madison, Wisconsin) – How do you describe an absolutely selfless, kind-hearted, brilliant person? Hero? Angel? All those words and more describe Liz Phipps. Liz is an oncology CVT here at our emergency and specialty service. Professionally, Liz is an absolutely brilliant CVT, always willing to share her knowledge about everything. Her patients absolutely love her and she takes time to explain issues and comfort every single patient and owner. Liz has a quick wit about her and puts everyone’s needs in front of hers. She won the Wisconsin Vet Tech of the Year award in the past and has also passed her VTS (Veterinary Technician Specialist) exams for oncology. That’s just her professional life. In her personal life, Liz is part of many rescues. She takes in older bully breed dogs who have severe issues and gives them a chance to thrive. She is also part of a reptile rescue and currently has four tortoises, numerous turtles and other creatures. Real love was recently shown in the form of a puppy named Martha. Recently, our clinic suffered a tragedy when a fellow veterinarian committed suicide and left Martha and a few other pets behind. Martha has a heart condition and will only live for one or two years. When asked if someone could take Martha, Liz did not hesitate. She just said “This is what I do.” Martha the Labrador will live out her short life with the best person I know. I could go on and on. Liz is our Angel, hero, and crusader. I’m blessed to have her in my life.

Stephanie Titler (Ann Arbor, Michigan) – Stephanie has worked in veterinary medicine for 13 years and has been a Licensed Veterinary Technician since 2012.  She is currently finishing her last year of undergrad at Eastern Michigan University to achieve her bachelor’s degree and will be applying to vet school in September of this year. She has performed approximately 15 years of rescue and worked alongside the Mayor of Jackson and city council members in 2019-2020 to reinstate animal control in the city. She attended monthly city hall meetings to make this possible and successfully brought back animal control to Jackson County. She is currently a fulltime lead LVT at Blue Pearl, where she has been employed for seven years. She is a full-time college student, and works independently with multiple 501(c)3 organizations, Jackson County Animal Shelter, and both Jackson County Animal Control officers on rescue, rehabilitation, mentoring them on cases when they call her for advice. She is currently working two unpaid side jobs. She is a mentor to a coworker who is in college to become an LVT and she is also a proctor for another coworker in her first year of college to become an LVT. Stephanie fostered two pregnant mother dogs and has rescued many kittens, cats and wildlife. Stephanie has two dogs of her own and three cats. Stephanie is a wonderful, caring person and I can only hope that she receives this award.

To read each of the finalists’ stories, as told by the people who nominated them, and to vote daily for one of the five finalists in each of the American Hero Veterinarian and American Hero Veterinary Nurse categories, please visit

About American Humane
American Humane is the country’s first national humane organization. Founded in 1877, the nonprofit today saves, shelter, feeds and protects nearly one billion animals around the world each year. For more information, please visit and please follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

About Zoetis
As the world’s leading animal health company, Zoetis is driven by a singular purpose: to nurture our world and humankind by advancing care for animals. After nearly 70 years innovating ways to predict, prevent, detect, and treat animal illness, Zoetis continues to stand by those raising and caring for animals worldwide – from livestock farmers to veterinarians and pet owners. The company’s leading portfolio and pipeline of medicines, vaccines, diagnostics, and technologies make a difference in over 100 countries. In 2020, Zoetis generated revenue of $6.7 billion with ~11,300 employees. For more information, visit

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