Messenger - Vol. 2, No. 3, Page 5
Summer 1993
First State vet 'wrassles' with pigs, rabies and poultry disease

     H Wesley Towers, Delaware '64, spent every spare minute of his youth
with his grandfather, the farm manager on E.E. du Pont's Greenville, Del.,
estate, "Dogwood." He loved the country, he loved the farm work, he loved
the animals, and when the local vet came to tend the livestock, Towers knew
what he wanted to be.
     Since 1969, "Doc" Towers has been Delaware's state veterinarian, and
this year, he's one of the University's two outstanding alumni.
     Friends say Towers ought to write a book, something in the James
Herriot vein. He has a signed photograph of Herriot in his southern
Delaware farmhouse, but he has no time for literary aspirations. What
Towers does have is the nation's fourth largest poultry industry to
protect, a rabies epidemic to police, race courses to regulate and an alma
mater to support. In his spare time, he's trying to breed a "bluer" Blue
     Towers studied animal and poultry science at the University, working
summers at the Delaware Park track. Graduating with honors and distinction,
he spent four years at the University of Pennsylvania veterinary school,
and he went on to become the First State's vet almost by chance.
     A job in private practice fell through, so on short notice, Doc took a
Kent County position as apprentice to the state veterinarian. That was his
day job. At the same time, Harrington and Georgetown racetracks offered him
a "temporary" job overseeing racehorses in the evening. Within several
weeks, the track vet had a stroke, leaving him unable to resume race work.
The temporary job became a full-time, second job. Tiring? "Yes," concedes
Towers, "and I did it for 18 years."
     Next year, the state vet retired and Towers was appointed in his
place. He had found his niche.
     Since then, this year's Department of Agriculture Employee of the Year
has won the University's Worrilow Award for service to agriculture and
Delaware's coveted Award for Excellence and Commitment to State Service.
     "Quincy of the animal kingdom," Towers dubs himself. He does a lot of
lab work, mainly autopsies and analysis. "They're mostly dead when they
come in here," says Towers of his "patients," but Towers relies on
prevention rather than cure, and the stakes are high. Containing and
excluding contagious and infectious animal and poultry diseases is his
priority, public enemy No. 1 being avian flu-a virulent respiratory ailment
that decimates poultry.
     Towers speaks of avian flu in terms you might reserve for the Black
Death, but the figures bear out his concern. The Delmarva poultry industry
employs tens of thousands of people, producing 548 million broilers
annually. All that makes for a $1.25 billion industry.
     When tell-tale antibodies were detected in two Eastern Shore farms
recently, Towers feared a potential disaster. Recruiting a posse of
Delaware, Maryland and U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel, he
blanketed the peninsula with safeguards, restricted poultry sales and
quarantined infected flocks. He and his deputies tested more than 70
"non-commercial" farms (where the birds run free) to plug every gap in the
state's defenses. No viruses have made it through so far.
     He'd love to see influenza go the way of the swine disease,
pseudorabies (a viral disease not related to rabies). Just over the state
line, Pennsylvania suffers both avian flu and pseudorabies, while Delaware
has neither-not yet. Towers quietly touches wood as he says this.
     But Delaware does have rabies itself: 270 exposures last year.
Raccoons carried the disease from Virginia, spawning Delaware's first case
in Newark in November 1987. Experts hoped the Chesapeake and Delaware
canal, deep and broad enough for ocean- going vessels, would insulate the
southern peninsula. But radio collars confirmed the raccoons were actually
swimming the waterway.
     And then, there's the pig "wrasslin." Towers tells about his encounter
with "The World's Largest Hog," a 1,000-lb. Pennsylvania brute who
regularly stars at the Delaware State Fair. "They wanted me to remove some
blood and renew his health papers," Towers recalls.
     Armed only with a "pig holder" (an ambitious and optimistic title for
a stick with a snout attachment), the intrepid vet did his bit for
Delaware. "He's kind of tough, a cantankerous old boar. It was his place,
and he didn't want anyone else in there." Least of all a man with a stick
after his blood. But, the state got its blood, the pig got his papers and
Towers is ready for a re-match, come fair time.
     Towers is also responsible for animals not indigenous to the U.S.,
ensuring foreign animals have appropriate care and aren't a public
nuisance. Definitions of public nuisance tend to vary, he finds. For every
Delawarean who thinks nothing of lying about draped in the coils and folds
of a boa constrictor, there's a nervous neighbor on the phone to
authorities. Doc takes special care screening caged pet birds for chicken
     Further commitments are numerous. He routinely testifies in court
matters and volunteers for SPCA cases, including some particularly nasty
revelations over local "puppy mills." Or, you might find him sleuthing
around a truck bed, analyzing specks of blood, bone or fur for evidence of
closed-season hunting. Then there's the racing commissions, the State Fair
Board and the Tri-State Bird Rescue group.
     And, at his alma mater, there's the Agricultural Alumni Association,
the Alumni Association board, the Career Planning and Placement advisory
committee, the phonathons, the "Alumni in the Classroom" program. The list
goes on. Why does he do it?
     Towers remembers his undergraduate days with enormous fondness, as
"just a good time and good feeling," especially the then animal science
department and such inspirational teachers as Paul Sammelwitz. Both his
children are Delaware students, David, Delaware '91, and Laura Ellen,
Delaware '94. But the primary motivation behind his tireless activism is to
see agriculture powerfully and sympathetically represented in the
University, in government, in institutions and in "people's thoughts in
     There is such a thing as a federal veterinarian, but this most
comfortable of men is entirely at home in his own farming community and has
no ambitions in that direction. "I was born in Delaware and I hope to end
my days in Delaware," he says.
      If he ever retires, he wants to build a barn on his 125 acres and
raise some real animals-some livestock-to go with his current menagerie of
dog, cat, chickens and carrier pigeons.
     And, of course, then he'd have a lot more time to breed the blue into
that Delaware Blue Hen.
                                   -Steven O'Connor, Delaware Ph.D. '94