Dr. LuJean Waters is a big animal veterinarian making a living in what used to be a man’s profession.
Just two miles from her family’s old homestead, LuJean Waters practices veterinarian medicine on large animals, including cattle, horses, sheep and goats. A 7th generation Floridian, descended from a family that migrated to the Lake Garfield area in the 1800s, she hasn’t strayed far from her roots.
When she visits animals on the ranch, she may encounter her cowboy husband, Ike Stein, or her father, Fred Waters, usually hired by ranchers.
Life is comfortable in some ways, but it is by no means easy. Nor is her work something women traditionally are expected to do. She’s called out in the middle of the night to take care of sick animals too big to move. Sometimes she needs to do emergency surgery in the field, away from the conveniences she’s built into her office, in a barn, where she’s set up four hospital stalls.
“We don’t always have the proper setting or the proper equipment,” she acknowledges. “Sometimes we have to do with what we got. It makes it much more difficult.”
The pay is about one-third of what pet veterinarians make, and one-tenth of what regular physicians earn on average. All of which says this is not a job many would chose.
For Dr. Waters, however, owning and running Heartland Large Animal Services in Bartow is a dream job. “It’s what I always wanted to do,” she explains. “It gets difficult. When you have your dream job, you’re not willing to give it up.”
That dedication appears to run in the family. Dr. Waters’ dad has been the Florida Cattlemen Association’s Ranch Rodeo Chairman, for Polk County and the state, for 10 years. Her uncle, Ned Waters, was president of the Florida Cattlemen’s Association last year and her aunt, Rhonda Waters, is president of the Florida Cattlewoman’s Association this year. Her mom, Lew Ann Strickland, also is a cattle owner.
Dr. Waters gives back by offering free exams through 4H and FFA, with owners paying reduced rates for immunization. She also works with students, giving talks in the schools and rotating in and out two interns year round.
“I just think it’s in our blood. That’s what we’re supposed to do,” she says. “I feel like definitely I was born to be in the cattle industry. It’s just been such a big part of our family life for so long.”
Looking back, she says she “basically grew up in the saddle, working cows.” As a 6- and 7-year-old, she would stuff snacks into saddlebags, and often left a trail of candy wrappers behind her. “I would never be able to get lost. If I got lost, they could follow the candy wrappers,” she says. “They tease me to this day.”
She was about that age when she met the family’s veterinarian and knew what she wanted to do.
Dr. Waters started her college career by earning an associate’s degree in Zoology and an associate’s degree in Biology from Santa Fe Community College in Gainsville. From there, she went on to the University of Florida, where she received a bachelor’s degree in Animal Sciences. After that, she was off to St. Matthew’s University in Grand Cayman for veterinary studies, completing them with residency training at Oklahoma State University.
She also earned a master’s degree in Business Administration, with an emphasis on hospital management, through an online program at Davenport University based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
“I feel like I’ve been in school my whole life,” says the 37-year-old.
Earning the business degree was strategic though. “Knowing that I was going to open my own practice one day, I wanted to be sure I was a successful,” she explains.
She opened her practice in 2013.
Now, with school behind her, balancing work and personal life still can be a challenge as a wife and step-mom. The family does get away in the summer to harvest scallops at Steinhatchee. But on other occasions, family time might revolve around gathering the cattle on horseback at the ranch. Or being involved with events like the ranch rodeo, which she makes a point of participating in.
The five-member teams must include at least one female and every team member competes together in events. The focus may be on calf roping, or pretending to brand, for example.
As a big animal vet, her work life largely revolves around cattle, just as it did for her ancestors who migrated to Florida after receiving an agricultural land grant for 160 acres. The family at first settled south of Gainsville, possibly around the 1840s, before migrating to the Lake Garfield area.
Dr. Waters pushes her physical limits working long hours, sometimes seeing the sun rise or set over the land. But she is away from a desk, out in nature, working where few Floridians do. “So many people don’t know that we still gather cattle via horseback,” she says.
She finds it rewarding knowing she is helping feed America by helping protect cattle, she says.
There are occasional customers who expect a male veterinarian instead. They may ask her when the doctor will arrive or where he is. That expectation is changing as men take other career paths, leaving women to fill the void.
In veterinarian school, students were mainly women. In Dr. Waters’ internship program, the numbers are also overwhelmingly female. “I think we’ve had two boys in the last three years,” she says. “We’re booked solid through November. We don’t have a single man coming.”
She does believe women will struggle and have to work smart. They will have to prove themselves by their actions, not their words. “When you go there, you have to basically do a better job than a male in the same role to win them over,” she says.
Sometimes she refrains from crying when an animal kicks her, or from showing physical exhaustion. “I always tease that I have to be twice as good as any male in my role,” she explains. “If have to stay twice as long to show that I’m going to be good at my job, then that’s what I’m going to do.”
Still, she doesn’t want to sound like a feminist. “I certainly believe in tradition for sure,” she says. “We’re their only option at this point. Because they were out of other options, they had to accept us. They learned we were just as capable.”
Ultimately, Dr. Waters believes it is her heart that draws her to the cattle industry. “That’s just what’s inside me. That’s what makes me happy,” she says.