Lila Miller ’74, DVM ’77 majored in animal science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and completed her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. She is known as a trailblazer in veterinary shelter medicine, and taught as an adjunct professor at the Vet School on the subject. A New York City resident, Lila volunteers on the Vet College Advisory Council. Notably, Dr. Lila Miller Shelter Medicine Day was declared for July 10, 2021, in honor of her pioneering work. She received the Avanzino Leadership Award from U.S. Senator Charles E. Schumer, U.S. Representative Tom Reed, New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo, New York State Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, New York City Mayor’s office, City of Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick, and Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer.
How did you begin your journey as a Cornell volunteer?
I was invited to teach shelter medicine in the epidemiology and population department (now Population Medicine and Diagnostic Sciences) under Dr. Jan Scarlett in 1999. I would drive from NYC up to Cornell on Monday, teach Tuesday and Wednesday, and return to NYC on Thursday for four weeks starting in February. The first time I drove up was during a blizzard, and the class only had seven students. Each year after we had more interest and more students. I became an adjunct assistant faculty member in 2007.
In 2017 I accepted an invitation to join the Cornell Veterinary College Advisory Council.
Is there a Cornell program or initiative that is near and dear to your heart?
The shelter medicine program is nearest to my heart because it was the first class of its kind at a veterinary college. It grew from scratch to become a model for other veterinary colleges to follow, increasing the value of homeless animals in the eyes of the profession, and helping make shelter medicine a viable career option and veterinary specialty that has improved and saved the lives of millions of animals.
Did you have a favorite class or extracurricular activity when you were a student?
I devoted all my energy to studying, so there was little time for extracurricular activities outside of occasionally going to the movies. One of my favorite classes was parasitology, largely because of the instructor, Dr. Georgi.
How has Cornell influenced who you are today?
Cornell taught me resilience, patience and perseverance in the face of adversity.
You are a pioneer in the field of shelter medicine and a trailblazer as one of the first two Black women to graduate from Cornell’s Veterinary College. How did you get into shelter medicine as opposed to private clinical practice?
I was tired and disillusioned with veterinary medicine when I graduated from Cornell. I didn’t feel prepared to go into private practice but didn’t want to enter the highly competitive environment at most internships. I thought working at the shelter for a few months would give me an opportunity to gain more experience handling, examining, and treating animals while I decided what I really wanted to do with my life and career.
Who or what in your life influenced you to follow your passion, and who or what kept you motivated in the face of adversity?
My family, and mother in particular, always supported my decision from when I was a young child to become a veterinarian, even when the odds were against me succeeding and there were other more prestigious and attractive options to consider. Dr. Joseph Tait, my mentor and veterinary consultant to the ASPCA, convinced me to take a job at the shelter to improve the health care of the animals. I was a new graduate with no work experience and facing not only the medical challenges but working with staff who were not accustomed or prepared to take orders from a young Black woman. He thought I was up to the challenge and promised to help, guide and support me. As we began to see conditions improve, my resolve increased to help these homeless animals that other veterinarians and society in general had cast aside as worthless.
What is your advice to Cornellians who share a passion for a cause or want to blaze their own trail?
I would tell anyone who wants to blaze their own trail to be open to new and different ideas and experiences, dig deep to do the necessary research, be willing to listen and learn without prejudice—sometimes the best information comes from the least expected sources—and to evaluate criticism objectively to learn from one’s mistakes and setbacks.
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