Susan Horowitz wasn’t allowed to have a pet when she was a child. She turned that around with a kind of steady determination, step by step. First, she got her parents to relent and allow a parakeet. Then they acquiesced to her love of horses and sent her to summer camp where there was a riding program. At that camp, a horse fell ill and a vet arrived on the scene.
“I’d never seen anything like that. He was making the animal better. It seemed like a great job to have and I decided, ‘That’s what I want to be,’” Susan said. She was just nine years old. Talking from the clinical suite at Groton Veterinary Hospital, Susan was looking back on the years that led to her arrival in town and establishing of her veterinary practice 35 years ago this week. Susan, with an abundance of gray curly hair and a kind face that both animals and owners easily trust, is animated as she talks about the path that brought her to Groton.
Growing up in Binghamton, New York, Susan was the middle child between two brothers. Though her parents considered pets to be a messy proposition, they eventually relented and allowed a dog after she went through a difficult tonsillectomy when she was 13.
“I woke up from anesthesia yelling that I wanted the neighbors’ dog.” Apparently the scene unnerved her mother. Susan was soon was the proud parent of a poodle that she named Coquette. “They gave me a choice of a poodle or dachshund. I figured the poodle had legs,” she said with a smile. She enrolled the dog in obedience classes and showed it in competitions. By the time she finished high school, her guidance counselor was helping her apply to veterinary schools. Cornell was an easy hour away from where she lived.
Cornell was only accepting one woman that year—possibly two if the first was lonely
Then came another obstacle. It was the time when women were not readily accepted into what was then considered a man’s field. “Cornell was only accepting one woman that year — possibly two if the first was lonely,” she said, still sounding indignant all these years later. In 1968, Penn State enrolled a generous 14 women in the class, including Susan Horowitz.
“I had phenomenal parents. If I wanted to do something, they indulged me. They were bewildered by the fact that I wanted to be a veterinarian.” She earned a VMD from Penn State. All other schools award a DVM, but Penn, Susan said, was the first vet school in the nation and has held onto the naming tradition for the degree it awards.
After college, came the big life decision of “where to go next?” She admitted to hippie leanings at the time. San Francisco (too far) and D.C. (too hot for her recently acquired Husky) dropped off her list. NYC was in the running, but Boston won. It was there that she met her future husband and partner, Bob Connally. They married in 1974 and started a search for the right place to build a veterinary practice and cat boarding business.
“Bob was way into cats. He wanted to build a business that included pick-up and delivery service,” said Susan. He figured that Boston clients would be key to the business, so they wanted to stay within a reasonable drive of the city. It was Bob who discovered the potential of Groton on one of his many fishing trips. With a population half of what it is today, Groton offered small town life. And there was no vet in residence. They discovered 171 Lowell Road, a white colonial with cow barn. In 1976, they bought the property.
Susan’s brother-in-law went to work converting the barn into a veterinary facility, much the same as it is today. Bob launched Sleepy Hollow Feline Bed & Breakfast. With a great sense for marketing, he sought to capitalize on the fact that owners would prefer the thought of a B&B for their family pets. He was right. Sleepy Hollow supported them as they readied the vet practice.
People would arrive to classical music and a homelike setting. They loved it.
On the day after Thanksgiving 1977, Groton Veterinary Hospital opened with Susan Horowitz, VMD, practitioner and one tech staffer. The practice and boarding business grew. Susan became involved in town, serving for many years as a health commissioner. Bob’s model of a feline B&B resonated with owners. Though he eliminated pick-up and drop-off during an early fuel crisis, there was always a waiting list of potential clients. “He loved music and the cats were boarded in a section of the house,” Susan said. “People would arrive to classical music and a homelike setting. They loved it.”
The veterinary practice grew, expanding to include visiting specialists and five full and part-time staff technicians today. “I don’t really know how many clients we have now. My staff can tell you. But we are very busy.”
Susan continually updates her knowledge and stays at the forefront of veterinary medicine. She offers ultrasound and endoscopy and special surgeries. She uses the advanced veterinary centers at Tufts and the MSPCA-Angell, and others, for specialty practice areas — not unlike local MDs referring into Boston. “I never hesitate to refer out. During the past 15 years, the human-animal bond has gotten to a point where there is a childification of pets. People’s willingness to go the extra step is dramatic.”
Groton Veterinary Hospital has a practice that is evenly split between cats and dogs. She sees the occasional rabbit or guinea pig. No birds. Many practices are slanted more toward dogs, she said. She credits Bob’s love of cats as an influence on her practice.
They were a team, with the sign on Lowell Road advertising both Sleepy Hollow and Groton Veterinary Hospital – until about a year and a half ago. Susan lost her business and life partner when Bob died after a sudden illness at age 67. The loss, she said, “still feels raw.”
As she talked about the path that brought her to Groton, she was interrupted by one of her tech staff. The owner of a Shih Tzu had arrived with an urgent problem. The morning had suddenly become busier. Year 36 had begun.