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The Call of the Wild: Veterinarian Search and Rescue

A North Carolina veterinarian combines caring for animals with search and rescue skills

To find a passion in life is fortunate. Discovering a second is rare. The ability to combine the two into a third? Alchemical. 

Nancy East was blessed with clarity at a relatively young age. She wanted to be a veterinarian, and she made it happen. Decades later, she wielded the same decisiveness in becoming a key member of her community’s search and rescue team. Now she is fusing the two together to help people better understand how to safely enjoy the outdoors with their dogs. It started with an invitation to lead a section of a local community college course in 2022 and has continued to grow and take shape ever since.

“It just sort of evolved organically,” says East. “It just seems to keep showing up in my life, and I love it that it does.”

East’s childhood home in Fairburn, Ga., was always full of animals, including dogs, cats, birds, and snakes. Some were permanent family pets while others were temporary stopovers her parents rescued from roadsides and other precarious conditions. The animals were usually sick, injured, lost, or scared. Helping them became a way of life, a vocation, yet it wasn’t until she watched a trained professional save her dog, Bo, that East realized it could be her occupation, too.

Bo was a lab mix whom the family had adopted from the Atlanta Humane Society. When East was a freshman in college, he contracted Parvo. She happened to be home for her Christmas break and accompanied her mother and Bo to the emergency veterinary clinic.

“I remember going in the middle of the night and just being absolutely enthralled and fascinated by the care he received,” remembers East. “I’d never seen any of our pets get such hands-on critical care. I was really exposed to it that night.”

She returned to campus for her spring semester and changed her major to Pre-Vet. Then, a few months later, East went on her first camping trip with some friends in northern Georgia. Again, something clicked.

“It was just like when I decided to become a vet, it was instantaneous,” she remembers. “This love affair with the woods was almost instant when I was on that trip.”

After earning both her undergraduate and veterinary degrees from Auburn University, East moved to western North Carolina in 1997 to work for Animal Hospital of Waynesville. She and her husband decided to put down roots in the area. Life got busy: three children, a slew of pets, and the establishment of her own vet relief business. The thought of becoming a search and rescue worker didn’t enter her mind until 2015 when news broke of a hiker losing her way off the nearby Art Loeb Trail. 

“I thought, wow, this is something that on paper looks so much like what I do, a solo female hiker out there in the woods,” she says.

The story inspired East to join the Haywood County team. Like veterinary medicine, East was drawn to the idea of helping others. She showed up to the next monthly meeting and has been a part of the team ever since. Mike Street, a Haywood County Paramedic and the Director of the Haywood County Search and Rescue calls her outdoor knowledge “astounding.”

“She is physically capable of doing everything, she knows this area really well as far as all the trail systems, and she is proactive with search and rescue in terms of teaching people how to take care of themselves in the woods,” says Street, before nothing that, to his knowledge, East is the first veterinarian to serve on the team. 

While she officially retired from practicing veterinary medicine in 2020, East’s unique skillset makes her a valuable resource in an area known for outdoor recreation. In 2022, Virginia Plyler, the Lead Faculty Instructor for the Paramedic Program at Blue Ridge Community College, invited East to teach a canine safety unit for the program’s Wilderness Medicine course. The section was a hit, and Plyler says she plans to bring East in again for the fall 2024 semester.

“She’s captivating,” says Plyler. “She uses the real words. She doesn’t try to speak above anyone. She is able to explain things on all levels so that it doesn’t matter what your knowledge is coming into it, you are going to leave with the complete understanding that you need in order to apply that care.”

Wendi McKinney met East while serving together on the board of Sarge’s Animal Rescue Foundation. McKinney recognized that there was a great number of people who were moving to the area from elsewhere to take advantage of the adventure opportunities, but without some of the basic knowledge and training on how to do so safely. She began putting together classes and workshops at Behavior Tails, a dog training facility in Haywood County, and invited East to teach a workshop on canine first aid. McKinney noted that the lecture drew a crowd, not only for its content, but the teacher.

“She knew just about everybody that came, and they came because of her,” says McKinney. “She filled the room based on her own personality and charisma.”

East has plans to teach more classes and clinics in 2024, both in western Carolina and beyond state lines, and says she enjoys the full, varied schedule of her current chapter. Whether it’s a search and rescue shift, a dog safety lecture, or an ambitious outdoor adventure of her own (In 2020, she set the record for fastest known time hiking all of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park’s 900 miles of trails), she is pursuing all of her passions.

“I have my hands in so many different little projects that don’t look alike,” she says. “I love this part of my career now. I’m still getting to use my veterinary brain, but just in a different capacity.”

For more information about East’s Upcoming clinics and workshops, visit

Cover photo: East and her dog Ivy, a rescue from Brother Wolf in Asheville, N.C. Photo courtesy of East

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