Spring 2019

Wild at Heart

Lifelong nature lover Judy Cook has supported Tufts Wildlife Clinic for decades.

By Laura Ferguson

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Photo: Anna Miller

Judy Cook has always been captivated by New England wildlife, from the pheasants that once nested near her childhood home in Milton, Massachusetts, to purple salamanders scurrying under rocks in a New Hampshire brook. Over the past 40 years she’s also been delighted by simply gazing out her home’s large picture window, one that frames a field sloping down to a sprawling pond.

She recalls, for instance, the time a fox gave birth to three kits: “We watched them grow up and once, the mother was so relaxed, she laid out in the field,” Cook said. She observed, too, the otters and muskrats that call the pond home, and she wishes she had a video from the time she witnessed a great blue heron flipping its head back to eat slippery frogs. “It was hilarious.”

Her vivid memories speak to a lifelong love and respect for wild creatures, which is why
Cook, now 88, is happy to continue her decades-long support of Tufts Wildlife Clinic at Cummings Veterinary Medical Center.

“I’m involved because what they’re doing is phenomenal,” she said, on a recent afternoon at her home outside Boston. “What they do is just dear to my heart.”

Her gifts have an immediate effect on clinic operations, said Director Flo Tseng. “We are grateful that Judy is always ready to help us grow to meet increasing demand on the clinic’s expertise,” Tseng said.

That partnership can be seen everywhere. One gift enabled the purchase of a video camera, essential to keeping a close eye on any large bird species regaining strength before release—including hawks, owls, eagles, and seagulls. Another donation upgraded the clinic’s digital X-ray system, an indispensable device “used multiple times every day of the week,” Tseng said, to help heal a barred owl hobbled by a leg fracture, an opossum suffering from a chronic knee injury, and a turtle battling pneumonia, among other patients.

And Cook’s most recent support helps pay for two student interns. “We couldn’t run the clinic, with our increasing caseload, without them,” said Tseng, noting that the clinic saw a record 4,000-plus patients in 2018.

“I’ve just enjoyed the outdoors all my life,” Cook said. Not inclined toward college—“I attended,” she said, wryly—she found a management training program at Radcliffe to be a better fit. She would go on to marry, raise five children, and in 1976, take a job managing the office of a tree and landscape business, where she also worked in the field, doing “just about everything,” from mixing concrete, pruning, and digging to running a chipper and a chain saw. Ralph Leighton, the man who owned it, would become her second husband in 2008.

Cook remembers house hunting 40 years ago and stepping through the front door of a rambling 1930s cottage set back from a winding country road. She walked into that room with its large window overlooking some three acres of open field, edged by woods. “I thought I’d come home,” she said. “It was so beautiful.”

Not content to simply enjoy the view, Cook began volunteering at Cummings School in the early 1990s. She suspects the idea came from her brother, the late Weston Howland Jr., a Tufts trustee emeritus who was instrumental in establishing the New England Aquarium. She lent a hand in the Wildlife Clinic, then based in the house that is now the Department of Biomedical Sciences.

She remembers helping Mark Pokras, V84, now associate professor emeritus, tote loon cadavers to a freezer in the basement of Building 17, where they awaited necropsy for his research on lead poisoning derived from ingested fishing tackle. Characteristically, Cook was ready to do whatever needed to be done. “There is a special feeling that comes with cleaning out cages,” she said. “It’s not a glamorous job, but you’re getting it ready for the next hapless animal and, at the same time, you see other animals getting better through the care they’re given.”

When the Bernice Barbour Wildlife Medicine Building opened nearly 20 years ago, Cook contributed unused china and the staff named their kitchen “Cook’s Kitchen” in her honor.

While she appreciates that distinction, Cook is most pleased that her gifts continue to make a tremendous difference, she said. “Tufts is getting help it needs, vulnerable animals are being given the care they need, and young people are getting educated.”

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