I had my rabies vaccine before I came here to politics,” jokes Nevada Republican Sen. John Ensign, “so now I’m ready for the fights.”
He’s joking, but he knows what he’s talking about; Ensign, 46, is one of the U.S. Senate’s two practicing veterinarians. (Colorado Republican Wayne Allard is the other.) He says that his experience in veterinarian medicine prepared him for the—ahem—ruff-and-tumble of politics, because “[as a veterinarian], you work with not only animals but their owners. You have to show compassion to people, especially when an animal dies or has to be put down. The interpersonal relationships prepared me to deal with colleagues and constituents.”
Long before his arrival on Capitol Hill, Ensign earned his doctorate of veterinary medicine from Colorado State University in Fort Collins and began a career that proved anything but dull. When he was practicing in Las Vegas, his patients often included exotic animals such as mountain lions, reptiles and a lot of birds. Ensign also founded the first 24-hour companion-animal hospital in Las Vegas, where he frequently answered late-night emergency calls.
The senator easily draws parallels between animal medicine and legislation: “I like to see something and fix it. Sometimes it’s chronic, and you manage it; sometimes things may get better, but it takes a long time.” With this viewpoint, Ensign has, not surprisingly, taken animal advocacy to the Senate. He’s introduced the Animal Fighting Prohibition Enforcement Act, banning transportation across state lines of animals used for fighting purposes, and the Captive Wildlife Safety Act, which was signed into law to protect exotic animals by forbidding people to keep certain species as pets. Ensign’s efforts attracted the notice of The Humane Society of the United States, which, in March 2004, named him the top lawmaker on issues relating to the protection of animals and prevention of animal cruelty.
Ensign’s veterinary experience has translated to the political arena in other areas, especially healthcare. “Veterinary medicine is a free-market healthcare system where few have insurance, so you have to be responsive to a free-market situation and cut costs while improving service,” he explains.
Meanwhile, he hasn’t completely relinquished the responsibilities of his former calling. Nearly every week another senator or a staffer pays him a visit, usually beginning with the words, “I’ve got a dog . . .” He once received a call from a colleague, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Penn.), whose dog was having puppies. Always glad to help, Ensign says, “I walked him through the delivery.”
The senator admits to missing his work as a vet. On the other hand, he maintains, “I’d rather get late-night calls for votes [on the Senate floor] than an emergency call that an animal was hit by a car.”