ROWLEY Bennett had never even met a vet when he went away to university to study veterinary science.
Growing up on the family farm in remote Brewarrina in north-west NSW, it was strictly Darwinian theory: survival of the fittest.
The nearest veterinary clinic was 380 kilometres away.
"Our dogs lived or they died," he says, matter-of-factly.
"I remember one of our neighbours took their dog to Dubbo, 300 miles away, and it nearly made front page news.
"That was pretty extraordinary!"
Yet that must now seem like a world away to the quintessential country vet who has covered hundreds of thousands of kilometres over five decades in his quest to give quality care to creatures, however great or small.
With ABC Radio for company, Rowley clocked up 70,000 kilometres a year at the peak of his working life.
Now 71, it's somewhere more in the order of 40,000-50,000 kilometres.
"It's not very hard to do 300 kilometres in a day," Rowley says.
"I used to have a lot more remote clients so the kilometres have come down over the years."
Having chalked up 42 years at Corowa Veterinary Clinic last year, Rowley has well and truly earned his stripes, particularly as a large animal specialist, on-call to farmers and horse owners throughout the southern Riverina.
By all accounts, he is a rare breed himself.
Browns Plains mixed farmers Graeme and Beth Fisher, Emohrou, who have been Rowley's clients for the long haul, will always remember a house call that went above and beyond the call of duty.
Mr Fisher says one Christmas morning, he found a cow in real trouble, wretched, unable to calve.
"I had the usual farmer's job of trying to help her but I couldn't manage to get it," Mr Fisher recalls.
"On the off chance he'd come, I rang Rowley at 10am on Christmas Day.
"He said he'd be there in half an hour and sure enough, he turned up at 10.30!
"It's his nature to help anybody he knows who would only ring him when they're in a major situation.
"I wasn't looking forward to the bill, but it turned out to be no different to any ordinary bill!"
IN OTHER NEWS:
On the off chance he'd come, I rang Rowley at 10am on Christmas Day. He said he'd be there in half an hour and sure enough, he turned up at 10.30!GRAEME FISHER
Within two years of arriving at Corowa, Rowley took over the country practice outright; later expanding the service with branches at Howlong and Chiltern.
He made it his business to nurture his large-scale patch, even when that involved long and often unpredictable hours, sometimes seven days a week.
With a dogged determination derived from his hard-working father, Rowley did not like to let any situation get the better of him.
A vet at his dad's behest, Rowley still wouldn't have had it any other way.
"My father said: 'You're going to be a vet; there's no money in farming!'," Rowley recalls.
"My father was very ambitious and he was very ambitious for me.
"It was tough love when you're only 11 or 12.
"But I'm a reasonably determined person and I was brought up by a determined man.
"I hate failure and not achieving what I set out to do; if you don't try hard you're only striving for mediocrity."
To build a healthy veterinary practice over more than four decades, Rowley evolved the business to cater for the growth in "small animal work".
Yet often the large animals do leave the lasting impressions.
"When the Billabong Creek flooded a few years ago, there were horses trapped in water at Walbundrie," he recalls.
"(Late horseman and actor on Return to Snowy River) Graeme Fry and I walked into the water, waist-deep, to get those stallions out.
"They hadn't had a lot of handling; it probably wasn't very veterinary-wise but we managed to get them out!"
Armed with more than enough anecdotes to write a book, Rowley will retire on Monday, knowing he's covered a lot of ground, made life-long friends with clients and cared for their animals to the best of his ability.
Now undergoing treatment for cancer, Rowley will move to Canberra immediately to start the next chapter of his life with his teacher's aide partner.
His Fernhill Angus stud at Corowa will keep him coming back to the region.
A father to Karl and Rex and grandfather of five, Rowley says his health and relationships will be his priorities, but he will come to miss his veterinary practice.
"I actually still really like the work and after 50 years of doing it, that's good!" he quips.
"The thing that grieves me most of all is that I feel I have to retire because of my age and the health aspect; I get tired easier and that's reasonable at 71.
"I still really enjoy the work and I'm committed to my clients and doing the right thing by them and their animals.
"Not in any way trying to sound ostentatious, but I would hate to think that by not being available an animal wouldn't get the care it needed like a cow in trouble calving or a horse with colic or a dog hit by a car."
Finding it difficult to sell his veterinary clinic, Rowley believes a vet shortage is nigh.
"The shortage of vets, in my opinion, is catastrophic, specifically large animal vets," he says.
"Successive governments have underfunded tertiary institutions, which have had to rely on overseas students who pay up front and then chuff off home after they graduate.
"We have 850 vet graduates a year and in spite of that we're barely keeping up with demand.
"The government has let down the profession and it will take a long time to turn it around. The public is demanding more and more vet care and there seems to be less and less care available."
Even more alarming, Rowley says the suicide rate for vets is four times that for other occupations.
"It's a pretty stressful occupation and you've got to be mentally tough to cope with the hours, the challenges and the disappointments."
Despite that, Rowley is widely regarded for his compassion and optimism.
"He'd never say there's no chance," long-term client and friend Mr Fisher says.
"We respect him as a vet and as a friend; we will certainly miss him.
"We'll never have another country vet like him."