Veterinarian Karen Mertaugh spends time with her pets Frieda and Margarita, two goats that live on the 100-year-old family farm, the site of her and her husband’s practice, The Animal Medical Center.
When you come to the house of Karen Mertaugh, chances are you’ll be greeted by a dog, a cat or even a school of fish housed on the west-side wall – all before setting foot in the actual home.
Along with her husband, Tom, Mertaugh lives in the same 100-year-old farmhouse as their veterinarian practice, the Traverse City Animal Medical Center, located on a stretch of open field along US-31.
While her combined home and work setting may be untraditional, so is the life of Karen Mertaugh.
As the only local veterinarian to provide free neutering services for male cats at the Cherryland Humane Society—she’s sterilized about 200 over the past three years—Mertaugh’s humanitarian efforts span farther than the boundaries of Northern Michigan.
Every year she sponsors a woman living in the Congo (seven so far), giving these one-time victims of violence the opportunity to work and provide for their large families.
“Some of these women get pregnant as early as 16 and have seven or eight children,” Mertaugh said. “They are usually the victims of rape or domestic violence.”
Every three months, Mertaugh receives an update from her sponsored woman. The letter, translated from Swahili, is a firstperson account of what each woman is doing with her life, along with the status of her children.
“I will write back to them about my own family,” she said.
Mertaugh has plenty to write about. As the parents of two children—Megan (28) and Ryan (25)—Tom and Karen have instilled a sense of adventure and humanitarianism in their family.
Two years ago, the entire family built a climbing wall for an elementary school in Guatemala.
“Tom and I saw the movie ‘Recycled Life’ at the State Theatre and we were just so impressed by the efforts of Safe Passage,” Mertaugh noted about the non-profit that helps families living and working in the garbage-ridden areas of Guatemala City.
After traveling to Guatemala herself, Karen and her family decided to sponsor a child, an eight-year-old named Katie, and soon after built a climbing wall at Katie’s elementary school.
“I barely had any clothes because we brought down all the hand-holds,” she laughed.
While the project took only 10 days to complete, Mertaugh stayed in Guatemala for three months, helping sickly children who are too ill to even stay in orphanages. After becoming ill herself, she spent several days at the Mayo Clinic upon her return to the States.
“I had contracted human Parvo disease, which I thought only dogs get,” she said of the ironic diagnosis.
Despite the health setback, Mertaugh said building a climbing wall in a foreign country with her family was “a wonderful experience.”
Still, when most people asked Why a climbing wall?, Mertaugh explained climbing is a way to build self-esteem and it’s something just about anyone can do.
She would know, as her family is very active in the sport.
Along with a bouldering wall in their barn and an ice tower for winter climbing in the backyard, the Mertaugh family made another trek: to the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro on Christmas morning in 2007.
“At first, I thought I would just work in an orphanage while everyone else climbed,” she said. But then she decided she wanted to join the family in conquering the 19,336foot Tanzanian mountain (the largest free-standing mountain in the world).
Mertaugh enlisted the help of local exercise physiologist Karen Wells to get her in hiking shape.
“For three months I would hike every other day and then workout every other day. I know every trail behind the old State Hospital,” she laughed. “I was hiking up to four hours in February, so I’d be hiking in the dark with a backpack full of books as added weight.”
The work paid off as the family ended their eight-day journey at the mountain’s peak – a hiking party that consisted of 12 porters, two guides and a cook.
“I had to head back down shortly after summiting because I was getting altitude sickness,” said Mertaugh, noting it wasn’t until around 12,000 feet that she realized her boots were unfastened, discovering her feet were covered in blisters.
That same determination was present when Mertaugh moved her family to Kingsley while the children attended high school.
The reason? “I didn’t like the idea of the kids turning left into town on US-31,” she said about her newly-licensed children. “I asked the road commission to put in a light at Rennie School Road.”
With no follow-through on part of the road commission, Mertaugh moved the clan to Kingsley for six years before returning to the farmhouse.
The couple purchased their home/ business in 1981 shortly after marrying and graduating from Michigan State University’s Veterinary School, the place they met.
The Mertaugh family at the climbing wall they built in Guatemala.
“Tom specialized in large animals and I specialized in small animals,” said Mertaugh. However, with a sluggish economy and the government buyout of dairy cattle in the mid-‘80s, Tom switched his concentration to small animals – something he still practices today.
“I’m semi-retired and Tom mostly works in the clinic,” said Mertaugh.
Instead, she fills in for surgeries or other vet work when needed, spending the rest of her time on projects or upstairs with the family pets: McKinley, an 11-year-old golden retriever; two cats, Esmeralda and Kibo; and a cockatiel named Apache.
The pet family also extends outside and includes their horse, Zonkers; two goats, Margarita and Frida; one sheep, Wallace; a llama, Phantom, and several chickens.
When customers arrive at the Animal Medical Center, it isn’t unusual they are greeted by the look of a grazing goat or a passing chicken – a much quieter welcoming compared to when the Mertaughs owned a rooster named Trouble.
“He would sit on top of people’s cars in the parking lot and lunge at them if they tried opening their doors to go home,” she laughed.
The Animal Medical Center is located at 229 North US-31 in Traverse City. For hours and clinic information, call 231-943-8500.
Karen Mertaugh (second from right) and her family reached the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro on Christmas morning in 2007.