Profile: Bill Zitek, the beloved veterinarian

PETER BOODY PHOTO | Dr. Bill Zitek at home on North Ferry Road.

Talk for a while with Dr. Bill Zitek and you can sense the decades he spent as the go-to vet in Southold Town and for many Shelter Islanders as the owner of the North Fork Animal Hospital. Soft-spoken, calm, careful and precise, he’s got the air of a man who has been trusted by thousands of people to help their animals.

“If I had to do it all over again,” he said of his veterinary practice, which he ran with only his wife Mariel’s help after he bought it in 1967, “I’d do exactly the same thing. I loved it.” He sold the practice 32 years later with a staff of about 15 employees.

At the end, Mariel was still helping with the inevitable late-night calls, when staff people weren’t available. Large, deep-chested dogs with “bloat,” for example, caused by twists in the stomach, were a common yet potentially fatal problem that often came up after-hours because owners tended to wait before calling.

“You could see the immediate relief” for the dog that often came after inserting a needle into the abdomen to relieve gas pressure, he said. If that didn’t work, the only alternative was surgery.

“We did a ton of them,” Dr. Zitek said, “in most cases with successful outcomes.”

Mariel was there with him when he started his career, “Helping to hold up cows’ tails,” he said. They were married when he was in veterinary school in Ithaca.

Thinking of an important detail about his practice, he said, “I had eight kids who came to me as 14-year-olds” to work at the animal hospital, kids “who went on to become veterinarians and a ninth who I have to share the credit for with Rob” Pisciotta. He’s the vet Dr. Zitek brought on board as he planned his retirement and to whom he sold the practice in 1999. A past president of the New York State Veterinary Society and an official of the American Veterinary Association, Dr. Zitek worked part-time for him for a while.

Regular visitors to Shelter Island, the Ziteks bought a house in 1984 on North Ferry Road and rented it out. One of their tenants was their son Craig, a former Shelter Island fireman who is now the chief fire marshal in Riverhead. Their two daughters, Leslie and Gail, who have two children each, live in North Carolina.

After selling the practice and expanding the house, the Ziteks moved here full time in 1999. Bill did not cut his deep ties with Southold.

He is still active with the First Presbyterian Church and the Rotary Club, for which he helped distribute food baskets just last week. He is also a local member of the Plum Island Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which oversees the treatment and welfare of the animals at the national Animal Disease Center on Plum Island.

But on Shelter Island, he’s written himself a new resumé, serving for nearly a decade on the town’s Deer & Tick Committee, from which he is now retired, and serving as a trustee and energetic volunteer at the Mashomack Preserve, a place he considers a national treasure.
“I think it is really one of the finest pristine places on Long Island,” he said. “We’re used as a baseline for that reason. It’s an extremely important place both for its natural beauty and its scientific aspects.”

He launched and runs Mashomack’s bluebird nest program, which he started in 2001. Very much a man of science, he carefully observes the nests and collects data to track the program. This fall he presented a paper at the North American Bluebird Society annual meeting in Aiken, South Carolina.

How did a kid from New Rochelle, born in 1935, develop a love of animals and the outdoors? His dad, a journeyman electrician, had a deer camp in West Copake, New York that he expanded into a vacation home where Bill and his younger sisters spent every summer growing up.

He credits his love of the outdoors to picking berries with his sisters, exploring the countryside, swimming in Snyder Pond, and getting to know his father’s cousin-in-law, Clarence Padget, an agent for the Cornell Cooperative Extension. “Padge” took Bill along on trips to give technical advice to dairy farmers in northern New York. Padge is now 96, living in Florida, and the Ziteks visit him when they go down every winter.

Bill got it into his head he wanted to be a dairy farmer. With that in mind, he went to the College of Agriculture at Cornell, where his roommate was a pre-vet student. That got him thinking. So did the summer he worked at a dairy farm up in Gouverneur, New York, near the St. Lawrence River.

“A vet named Dr. Haenel came to treat a cow that had milk fever,” a dangerous condition caused by a loss of calcium after birthing calves, Dr. Zitek explained. “He put an IV in the cow and in 20 minutes she was up and standing. I said, ‘Boy. I think I want to do that.’”

He loved his seven years at Cornell, from which he graduated with his D.V.M. in 1959. “They were some of the happiest years of my life,” he said — in part, no doubt, because he met Mariel at a party there in 1957. She was a student at SUNY Cortland from Garden City. They married in 1958 while Bill was still in school.

His first job was at a practice in Glens Falls. In 1960, he had to choose between taking a job near Buffalo or in Rockville Centre on Long Island.

“There was so much traffic there, so many people,” he said of Long Island. “I said to Mariel, who was pregnant with Leslie at the time, ‘I think we’ll go to Buffalo,’ and she sat down and cried.”

So Long Island it was. On a day off, the Ziteks took a drive out through the North Fork to Orient, enchanted by the area. “I stopped off at Dr. Waitz’s to meet him,” he said of the vet who owned the North Fork Animal Hospital then. Not too much later, when Dr. Waitz put the practice up for sale at age 55 because of his asthma, Dr. Zitek bought it and came east with Mariel and their three young children to plant their roots.