Veterinarian Hero

Katherine Polak

Veterinarian Hero

She may not know every member of the Class of 2010, but it seems like all of Dr. Katherine Polak’s classmates know about her.

When a 2010 graduate was approached about this project, they would say something similar to…“you have to talk to Katherine Polak. She’s doing amazing work.”

It’s hard not to be impressed with what Polak has accomplished in the decade since graduating from Iowa State. She has wasted no time putting her DVM degree to meaningful use.

Polak works for the charity FOUR PAWS International, managing its companion animal work in Southeast Asia from her home base in Bangkok, Thailand. In this role, she developed and launched a regional partnership program which aids local animal welfare groups, trains local veterinarians, and operates community engagement programs.

“When I started, FOUR PAWS had only operated stray animal programs in Eastern Europe, so work in Southeast Asia was completely new for the organization,” Polak said. “I had the unique opportunity to help craft a regional strategy and launch a program designed to help capacity build local animal welfare charities who really needed help.”

She combats poor veterinary training and the lack of government interest in animal welfare. There is rampant pet abandonment in Southeast Asia and a lack of spay neuter services.

Polak tailors the programs to the local situation. In Cambodia and Thailand, she goes up against a huge animal welfare issue by working with local governments and providing care to animals at Buddhist pagodas and underserved communities. Veterinary training is also incorporated into programs. In Vietnam, “Cats Matter Too” provides free spay/neuter and medical care for thousands of cats in Vietnam in addition to educational programs for children.

“These programs are so desperately needed given the significant suffering of companion animals in much of Southeast Asia,” Polak said.

But the program’s most notable focus is on the cruel dog and cat meat trade in Indonesia, Cambodia and Vietnam.

Under Polak’s direction, FOUR PAWS launched an international campaign to end the cat and dog meat trade in these countries. She manages the on-the-ground operations, investigations, as well as local activities and lobbying.

FOUR PAWS has established an international transport/adoption program for rescued dogs, transporting them from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Boston and Los Angeles for re-homing. In 2019, the organization was successful in shutting down a dog slaughterhouse in Cambodia, which was responsible for killing over 2,000 dogs a year. Since then, she has helped shut down three more slaughterhouses, one of which killed more than one million dogs since opening.

“Our first closing took months and months of planning, determining a livelihood conversion opportunity for the slaughterhouse owner, and then finally rescuing dogs,” Polak said. “It was so incredible to save them from an imminent death, but also help the slaughterhouse owner and his family who really didn’t want to be killing dogs for a living.”

She also manages FOUR PAWS undercover investigations. That means visiting dog and cat markets, slaughterhouses and restaurants.

“The cruelty there is unimaginable,” Polak says. “Seeing the drowning, hanging, stabbing and blowtorching of companion animals is heartbreaking and it can be difficult and so emotionally exhausting.

“But the progress made is also incredible. In July 2020, we were able to secure the first-ever ban on the dog meat trade in Siem Reap, Cambodia.”

These experiences have cemented Polak’s long-time passion for helping underserved animals. After graduating from Iowa State, she completed an internship in shelter medicine and surgery at Colorado State followed by a residency at the University of Florida.

But her passion was really cultivated at Iowa State during the Summer Scholars program. Polak was assigned to work with Dr. Claudia Baldwin on feline respiratory infections in shelter cats and Polak spent the summer at the Ames and Boone County Humane Society.

“I was shocked by the number of healthy animals being euthanized,” she said. “That really struck a chord with me how dysfunctional in many ways the sheltering systems was back then, and how little resources there were for shelters to work with and improve their practices.”

After her residency, Polak served as the medical director at Soi Dog Foundation in Thailand, where she trained local veterinarians and launched a program in Bangkok to neuter upwards of 80,000 dogs per year.

Her humanitarian work hasn’t been limited to Southeast Asia. She is the founding medical director of the Spayathon for Puerto Rico with the Humane Society of the United States. This groundbreaking initiative has a goal of neutering more than 85,000 dogs and cats over a three-year period.

For her efforts, Polak has been honored, and honored a lot. In 2019, she was named the Association of Shelter Veterinarians’ Veterinarian of the Year. The American Humane Society named Polak its Hero Veterinarian of the Year in 2020, an honor that was presented on the Hallmark Channel for the world to celebrate.

And this past fall, the Iowa State University Alumni Association awarded her its Alumni Humanitarian Award. The award, established in 1932, annually recognizes ISU alumni outstanding contributions to human welfare that transcend purely professional accomplishments.

“Improving animal welfare is central to my philosophy as both a person and veterinarian,” Polak said. “I’m really fortunate to have the opportunity to try to create sustainable change for animal welfare in an area of the world where there aren’t many resources for animals, particularly strays.”