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Island Profile: Bill Zitek, beloved vet and volunteer

CHARITY ROBEY PHOTO
Dr. Bill Zitek

When Bill Zitek was growing up in New Rochelle, New York, a man named William Rodman Pell II came from Suffolk County every June to receive a fatted calf from the mayor.

The live calf was an annual payment due to the Pell family from the town under the terms of a land deal dating from 1689.

Years later, Bill became a friend of Rod Pell, after Bill had established a veterinary practice in Southold in 1967, and went on to care for animals on the North Fork for four decades. Rod was the owner of Pell’s fish market in Greenport and a local artist. Bill had learned that Pell (16th Lord of the Manor) did not slay the fatted calves as his forebears probably did, but took them to a nearby farm.

The recent donation of five of Pell’s historical paintings to the Shelter Island Historical Society by Bill and Mariel Zitek are just the latest of gifts they’ve given to Southold and Shelter Island in the years they’ve lived here. When they move to North Carolina at the end of the month, all creatures great and small are going to miss them.

Bill attended the Henry Barnard School and New Rochelle High School, public schools where he was an enthusiastic student. He played the clarinet and revered his music teacher, Harry Haigh, who led the school’s 140-piece orchestra. “He was demanding,” Bill said. “If I tootled off a little, he would stop and say, ‘Zitek, play that section again.’”

Bill entered Cornell to study agriculture and animal husbandry in 1952. His hands-on education included mucking out a chicken coop that contained so much manure that when his professor checked on him, he found Bill shoveling the pile of ammonia-scented chicken droppings while swearing loudly.

In 1957, Bill met Mariel Felton, a recent graduate of SUNY-Cortland, at a fraternity party at Cornell. Mariel was from Garden City and was teaching school there. When she and Bill married a year later, she taught 4th grade in Ithaca while Bill finished at Cornell, graduating as Doctor of Veterinary Medicine in 1959.

He started out in a mixed practice of large and small animals in Glens Falls, New York. After their first child, Craig, was born in 1960, the family moved to Rockville Centre where Bill worked mainly with dogs and cats.

The couple bought an existing vet practice in 1967, with three acres of land on the Main Road in Southold. There they lived and raised three children over the course of 32 years. When Bill started his Southold practice, the nearest emergency clinic was in Coram, so they — Mariel was wife, mother and medical assistant — began to take emergencies.

“If somebody’s dog got hit by a car in Southold, we couldn’t lie in bed while someone drives to Coram, so we started taking night calls,” he said.

One emergency was particularly memorable, a bald eagle found in a field in Mattituck, long before eagles were seen here. Two farmers driving a truck through the field found the enormous bird down, and fearing they had hit it, brought it to Bill, who saw that the animal’s mouth was badly infected. “You call the DEC with an eagle, you don’t mess with it,” he said.

By the time he got it into a carrier, a DEC agent armed with a revolver (the bird had a massive beak) had arrived to take it to Albany for treatment of the infection, which was likely caused by eating a dead pigeon. Bill heard later that the recovered eagle was transported back to the East End and released on Shelter Island.

Not long after he set up his practice in Southold, Bill joined the Rotary Club, an organization that became important to him. “We accomplished things together that we couldn’t do individually,” he said. The Ziteks hosted international exchange students sponsored by the Rotary, and Bill worked with the polio initiative, a successful effort that has helped wipe out a disease that was once a world-wide menace.

He participated in research on animal diseases at the government facility on Plum Island, serving on the animal care and use committee, inspecting the facility and the protocols for the care of the cattle, hogs and sheep that were studied there.

“That facility has done a lot for this country,” Bill said, remembering a time when hundreds of thousands of cattle had to be shot to control a virus that had infected large parts of the country. “We have to be constantly on guard,” he said. “It’s a good group and I was very happy to serve on it.”

When Bill hit 60, he hired a vet named Rob Pisciotta to join his practice, and by the time he was ready to retire, Dr. Pisciotta and Dr. Nancy Mullady had established themselves, so he could retire without leaving his patients lacking in care. In 1999, Bill and Mariel moved to Shelter Island.

He became a volunteer at Mashomack shortly after the move. In 2001, when Tom Damiani, who had been overseeing the bluebird nest boxes at Mashomack, mentioned that someone was needed to take the project forward, Bill rallied other community volunteers to effect a population boom for bluebirds and tree swallows on the East End. When he started, there were 35 nest boxes; now there are 61.

He applied his veterinary skills on the town’s Deer & Tick Committee, which works to manage health and safety issues around tick-borne diseases, including controversial policies on the use of 4-poster devices — feeding stands that brush deer with a tickicide, permethrin.

“It used to drive me nuts when people would argue against permethrin. This stuff, they rub it on babies’ heads,” he said. “This is what impedes progress, because it causes a moment of doubt in an otherwise wavering public.”

Craig Zitek, their son, lives in Jamesport and is the senior fire marshall for Riverhead. Their daughters, Leslie Smith and Gayle Lang, live in North Carolina, not far from Bill and Mariel’s place. Leslie’s daughters have recently graduated from college, and Bill proudly reported that both have jobs.

“Gayle’s kids are nine and eleven, so we’ll have a lot of fun with them,” he added.

What attracted him to the profession initially was the satisfaction of seeing a sick or injured animal get better. But the years practicing in Southold produced an even deeper satisfaction, “We lived in a community of people,” he said.

Bill and Mariel have been the guests of honor at more than one farewell surprise party in the last two weeks, including one by the Southold Rotary and another by family and friends on the Island.

After one of the parties, Bill said, “No matter what we had accomplished along the way, it was the wonderful people with whom we worked and shared time — our lives — who made our time here most precious, and their friendship was the greatest accomplishment.”

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