The ‘Mother of Shelter Medicine’: Veterinary Pioneer Lila Miller ’74, DVM ’77

One of the first two Black women to graduate from the Vet college, Miller has devoted her career to aiding homeless animals

Dr. Lila Miller holding a small black-and-white dog.
Miller (seen here with a canine companion) has been a role model to a generation of vets. (Photo provided)

Veterinarian Lila Miller ’74, DVM ’77, is a lifelong New Yorker, so it’s not particularly surprising that she was seen in Times Square last July 10. It’s where she was spotted that’s remarkable: on the gigantic screen of one of the square’s iconic billboards, where a photo of her cuddling a puppy accompanied the declaration of Dr. Lila Miller Shelter Medicine Day.

The honor was just one of many Miller has garnered throughout a career in which she has helped save or improve the lives of millions of animals—and that’s no exaggeration.

Long known as the “mother of shelter medicine,” Miller spearheaded the development of a new veterinary specialty—one devoted to caring for the nation’s legions of homeless dogs, cats, and other pets.

“Dr. Miller is larger than life in our field,” says Elizabeth Berliner, DVM ’03, an associate clinical professor at the Vet college and director of its popular program in shelter medicine. “She has been a mentor and role model for hundreds, if not thousands, of veterinarians. And on top of that, she’s a remarkably nice person—extraordinarily compassionate, supportive, and interested in constantly improving animal welfare.”

When Miller graduated four decades ago, life—and death—for pets in most U.S. animal shelters was very different from today. Annual euthanasia rates were in the multi-millions, with animals often put down en masse due to a lack of space, minor temperament issues, or treatable illnesses.

And back then, Miller notes, caring for those animals wasn’t widely seen as a promising career path. “There was a real stigma attached to veterinarians working in shelters,” she recalls. “The perception was that the only vets who worked there were at the end of their careers, or they couldn’t hack it in the real world.”

In the past, you’d put an animal in a cage and give them food and water, and that was it. Now we recognize that the animal needs so much more.

Lila Miller ’74, DVM ’77

Today, thanks in large part to Miller’s efforts, shelter medicine is its own recognized specialty. It’s essentially a hybrid of two fields, combing the work of large-animal vets (who often manage the health of creatures living closely together in big groups, like herds of dairy cows) with that of companion animal vets, who care for dogs, cats, and other household pets.

And the field also addresses another key factor: how the stress and logistics of living in a shelter can impact mental and physical wellbeing. “One of the things we’ve implemented, that I’m very proud of, is understanding the importance of environmental and behavioral enrichment,” Miller says. “In the past, you’d put an animal in a cage and give them food and water, and that was it. Now we recognize that the animal needs so much more.”

A lifelong animal lover

An aspiring veterinarian from the age of five, Miller chose the Hill for undergrad—she was an animal science major in CALS—with the specific aim of gaining admission to the Vet college; upon graduation, she became one of the first two Black women to earn a veterinary degree from Cornell. (The other was her friend and classmate Rochelle Woods ’74, DVM ’77.)

Being a barrier-breaker wasn’t an easy experience, Miller says, and she wasn’t always treated equally; she also struggled with severe asthma and allergies—including a bad reaction to horses—that impeded her studies.

Miller (far right) and classmate Rochelle Woods (far left) examining a sheep in an anatomy lab during their vet student days.
Miller (far right) and classmate Rochelle Woods (far left) in an anatomy lab during their vet student days. (Photo provided)

Back home in Harlem, a longtime mentor guided her toward a job with the ASPCA, which was then contracted to operate the city’s municipal shelter system. Over many years with the organization—she retired in 2019 as its vice president for shelter medicine—she developed protocols aimed at improving health, lowering euthanasia rates, and making animals more adoptable: vaccinations to prevent disease outbreaks, spay-neuter programs to control populations, and much more.

“When you send an animal to a shelter, you’re thinking of it as a sanctuary,” Miller observes. “And the ultimate goal is to rehome that animal.”

In 1999, Miller teamed up with Jan Scarlett, an epidemiologist in the Vet college and a board member of the Tompkins County SPCA, to design the nation’s first-ever academic course in shelter medicine—taught, naturally, at Cornell. Miller would go on to serve as an adjunct faculty member both on the Hill and at the University of Pennsylvania, and Cornell’s single elective would grow to a full-fledged program—founded in 2004 with Scarlett at the helm—that trains students through coursework and hands-on time at local shelters.

“Lila brought the credibility, the experience, and the knowledge,” says Scarlett, now a professor emerita. “And the students really enjoyed working with her.”

Today, shelter medicine is the newest specialty to be certified by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners. There are textbooks devoted to the subject, including Shelter Medicine for Veterinarians and Staff and Infectious Disease Management in Animal Shelters—both co-edited by Miller. And there’s a professional organization, the Association of Shelter Veterinarians, which Miller co-founded.

A photo of Dr. Lila Miller, holding a puppy, on a large screen in NYC's Times Square
Miller’s name was in lights in NYC’s Times Square in celebration of the day declared in her honor. (Photo provided)

“I think it’s safe to say that shelter medicine might not exist if it weren’t for Dr. Lila Miller and Dr. Jan Scarlett getting together and collaborating around coursework and approaches to population medicine for companion animals,” says Berliner. “Truly, when we think about shelter medicine as a field, those two heroes stand out as being responsible for getting this going as a specialty, and calling attention to the state of welfare for dogs and cats in animal shelters.”

In addition to having a day declared in her honor, Miller has received numerous other laurels, including the Salmon Award for Distinguished Alumni Service from the Vet college’s alumni association; she also serves on the college’s Advisory Council, where she continues to advocate for diversity in the profession.

Last July, Maddie’s Fund—the animal welfare nonprofit co-founded by David Duffield ’62, BEE ’63, MBA ’64, in memory of his family’s beloved miniature schnauzer, after whom the Vet college’s shelter medicine program is named—gave Miller its coveted leadership award.

“We owe Dr. Miller our deepest gratitude for her bold ideas and innovative work,” Laurie Duffield Peek, DVM ’96, a member of Maddie’s Fund’s executive leadership team, said in the announcement. “We are so very fortunate to have a living legacy in the field of animal welfare and our world.” 

Published October 25, 2021


Comments

  1. Helen LeBrecht

    Extraordinary accomplishments! What an incredible heroine! Thank you so much for changing our animal world helping homeless animals to survive and flourish❤️❤️❤️

  2. Dr. Lauren P. Davidson (CALS '95; UFL CVM '99)

    Thank you for this wonderful article about the great work that Dr. Miller has done over the years! She is an inspiration and a trailblazer in our field and I thank her for breaking barriers and making it possible for so many more veterinarians of color to succeed!

  3. Thomas Nytch, Class of 1958

    Dear Dr. Miller,
    Coming from the class of 1958 you have certainly changed my perspective on shelters and how they are (and should be) operated. Kudos to you for sticking your neck out into a field, generally thought of, as you said, by practitioners as unimportant and not well-serviced by us.
    And, Give My Regards to Rochelle, your friend and mine, who was your buddy throughout school, for I know a little of what you must have gone through together.

  4. Douglas Scott Treado, Class of 1964

    Another early African-American CU Vet School graduate was Victor Sancho, a close friend and roommate who would have graduated in the mid-’60’s. He has practiced in TX for many years. It would be good that CU would invite him back to campus for a visit and perhaps some advice to other pre-Vets and Vet school students?

  5. Pat Noar, Class of 1977

    I thought you would mention Anita Foote DVM as one of the first black female veterinarians to graduate from Cornell.

    I do like what this woman is doing!

  6. Julie H Goodrich

    Great article! A friend who was a high school classmate of hers passed it along to me.

  7. Jim Bauersfeld DVM

    Fantastic article! As a member of WSU vet class 76 we were under the impression strays were housed in “dog pounds” with little hope for adoption. Thanks for Dr Miller

  8. Gerry Beekman, Class of 1977

    As a classmate of Dr. Miller, I am so proud of the outstanding leadership she has shown in the field of shelter medicine. Long gone are the days when critters just went to shelters to be euthanized, and often not in the most humane fashion. Dr. Miller has led the way toward compassionate and innovative care for shelter animals.

  9. Pepi Leids

    Dr. Miller is an icon of our profession. I had the pleasure of serving on the NYS Board for Veterinary Medicine with her.

Leave a Comment

Once your comment is approved, your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Other posts You may like