Tributes pour in after death of longtime Yellowknife veterinarian Dr. Tom Pisz

Sienna Keller can still remember the first time she met Yellowknife Veterinarian and stable owner Dr. Tom Pisz many years ago, as a seven year old.

"We were absolutely terrified of him," said Keller, laughing at the memory.  "He was, to a seven-year-old, a rather big burly man with a big beard and a rough, gruff Polish accent."

But the big, intimidating man with the gruff exterior would go on to change Keller's life. Pisz became a mentor and "father-figure" to Keller, starting her on her current path as a horse trainer and even gifting Keller her first horse.

"He was an amazing man," she said.

Yellowknife veterinarian Dr. Tom Pisz is being remembered for his dedication to his work and love of animals.
Yellowknife veterinarian Dr. Tom Pisz founded North Country Stables where he offered riding lessons to many Yellowknife kids. (Submitted by Sierra Keller)

Pisz died on June 11 after serving Yellowknife pets and their guardians as a veterinarian for decades. He founded the clinic Great Slave Animal Hospital, as well as North Country Stables where he introduced many Yellowknife kids to horses and riding over the years.

In the weeks since his death, tributes have poured in both online and offline, recognizing his love of animals and quiet generosity. But that doesn't mean he was everyone's favourite, Keller said.

"He was one one of those guys where you either just loved him to death, or he drove you completely crazy. Cause he didn't always have the best bedside manner," Keller said.

Gilly McNaughton loved him to death.

She began volunteering at North Country Stables when she was in Grade 6, and went on to work for Pisz at the stable and Great Slave Animal Hospital until she moved away from Yellowknife for education in her early twenties.

"He wasn't somebody that sought out to make people comfortable," McNaughton said, which could alienate people. But those who were able to know him behind his tough exterior found a deep acceptance.

"Even though he came across as, like, being really hard, he just made a lot of space for people, for who they were."

'Shirt off his back'

As a vet, McNaughton said that Pisz cared deeply about every animal he saw. When she spoke to him about her interest becoming a vet, he was honest with her about the emotional toll the job sometimes took on him. She said it was incredibly hard for him to see animals mistreated, or in pain. Many times, she saw him cry when he had to put animals down.

Dr. Tom Pisz holds Tiny, a seven-year-old ball python that was surrendered to the animal hospital last week. Ball pythons can live more than 30 years.
Back in 2015, Pisz showed CBC a ball python that had been surrendered to Great Slave Animal Hospital. (Hilary Bird/CBC)

Great Slave Animal Hospital also acted as a makeshift shelter for strays in the years before the SPCA came to Yellowknife, and McNaughton said that Pisz poured a lot of his own resources into that.

"He had an entire kennel behind his building that would just fill up with homeless dogs, and he would feed them and pay people to care for them and just keep them for as long as possible to try to find them home."

As a boss, she said he was tough but fair, and didn't hold grudges. Pisz also took the time to teach her a lot of skills others might not have. When her own dog needed frequent injections for allergies, he made sure she could administer them herself.

Keller said that generosity also came out at North Country Stables.

Keller wasn't able to afford riding lessons when she was growing up. So Pisz gave her and her friends lessons at North Country Stables in exchange for help with chores around the stable. As part of her informal work there, Pisz also taught Keller how to train horses, knowledge she now uses every day at work. She called him a "shirt off his back"-guy.

Veterinarian Tom Pisz says the dogs injuries are a sign that the territory's Dog Act isn't being enforced.
Gillian McNaughton said that Pisz cared deeply about all the animals he treated as a veterinarian, and used his own money to provide shelter to homeless animals. (CBC)

Pisz also gifted Keller the horse that she rode at North Country Stables, Alberta's Gingersnaps, when she went away for post-secondary education.

It was an extremely generous gesture —  she estimates he could have sold Gingersnap for $8,500 to $10,000 — and one that meant an enormous amount to her. Owning a horse had always been a dream, but one she never could have afforded otherwise.

'He loved his animals'

The "gruff," sometimes grumpy Pisz often showed his softest side around animals, McNaughton said.

His home was always full of pets. He had dogs, Siamese cats, and sometimes "other things" he brought home from work, McNaughton said.

But his greatest passion was for horses. McNaughton remembers Pisz's special bond with a horse at North Country Stables he called Willie, a huge, gentle "baby of a horse."

"Tom just seemed almost, like, giddy about him," she said. "He just loved him."

For Keller, the memory that stands out is the way that Pisz used to carry his huge, uncoordinated Irish Wolfhound puppy Jakes up and down the stairs of his family home before the puppy could navigate them alone.

She said that it was a common sight, Pisz holding his huge dog in his arms.

Its just one of many Dr. Pisz stories she has, like the time he chased off a bear wearing nothing but underwear and a pitchfork when it interrupted him sunbathing.

"I think everyone in Yellowknife has their own Dr. Pisz story," she said.

She said his legacy will live on in those stories, through Great Slave Animal Hospital which continues to serve Yellowknife pets, and through the many kids like her who grew up at North Country Stables.