Bob Saunders: 1943-2017

As a youngster, Bob Saunders was very good at organizing mischief; he later found his footing as a large-animal veterinarian. Below, he introduces a foal to its mother.

With the death of the eminent veterinarian Robert Saunders on February 11, 2017, Santa Barbara lost a beloved citizen, and the county’s horses lost a good friend. Bob was born in San Diego in 1943, the second child of Catherine Hartzell Saunders and Colonel William Saunders, a West Point graduate, who was stationed there at the time. After the end of World War II, the family moved to Santa Barbara, and Bob was a Santa Barbara boy for the rest of his life. He attended Garfield Elementary School, Santa Barbara Junior High, and Santa Barbara High. Then he and a friend went on what they called a “tour of the world.” They traveled to New York, got a ride across the Atlantic on a tramp steamer, and hitchhiked through Europe.

After his return home, Bob went to Santa Barbara Community College and then to the University of California at Berkeley, where he lived with a veterinarian’s family and worked for the vet to pay his rent. That decided his fate. After graduating from Cal, he went to UC Davis’s School of Veterinary Medicine. Again he worked his way through, mucking out stables and so on. After Davis and some postgraduate study, he returned to Santa Barbara as a large-animal doctor. In time, he treated cattle, ostriches, llamas, alpacas ​— ​even a giraffe and an elephant when a zoo needed help ​— ​but his business was horses. He must have handled half the horses in Santa Barbara, on one occasion or another. He was a volunteer vet for the annual Fiesta parade. He served on call for the city’s horse shows. He donated time to the Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center. He also acted as a mentor to students who were planning to be veterinarians. They rode on call with him in his truck. His longtime office manager, Laurie Moon, estimates that maybe a dozen vets in the area went into their profession because of him.

Bob was very easygoing. His sister, Sandy, says, “Bob didn’t get great grades in school, but he got good grades, and he didn’t do a darn thing.” He was just very intelligent and had a knack for things. This carried over into his adulthood. If he invited you to dinner, you were sure to have a feast ​— ​lime-basted barbecued turkey for Thanksgiving, with stuffed chili peppers ​— ​but it might not be ready until 9 p.m. (It was a good idea to eat something before going to see him.)

He always seemed to be having fun. His cousins loved him because when they were young, he was very good at organizing mischief: sneaking out of the house after lights out, affixing marshmallows to the neighbors’ front doorknobs, rolling corn-silk cigarettes, building a fort where you could sit and tell improper jokes by candlelight. He had a wonderful soft chuckle.

Bob was artistic. He was a very gifted photographer ​— ​his hallways were lined with beautiful photos of his sons ​— ​and he made lovely silver jewelry. He was also a wood-carver. He whittled ducks, sandpipers, and other birds, which he would then mount on a slim pole over a stand incised with the recipient’s name. He said once that he would like to illustrate a veterinary textbook. Would that he had!

But everything he did, he seemed to be doing for the sheer enjoyment of it. That included his veterinary practice. His sister recalls his telling her, proudly, that he never had to hit a horse. He adored animals. After his death, his cousin Vicky Aguilar, looking at a photo of him with a colt, said, “Yes, that’s Bobby: his glasses on his forehead and something furry by his side.” But you didn’t have to have fur for him to be good to you. “We’re all better off for having had Bob in our lives,” his widow, Breehan Saunders, said.

He died, of leukemia, four days after his 74th birthday. He is survived by his widow; his sister, Sandra Traviss; his sons, Christopher, Matthew, Benjamin, and Andrew Saunders; and his grandchildren, Pearl and Nina Saunders. A memorial service will be held at the Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Center in Santa Barbara on Sunday, April 9, from 1-4 p.m. In place of flowers, donations may be sent to the Hearts Equestrian Center (P.O. Box 30662, S.B., CA 93130; or to the Equine Sanctuary of Ojai (1187 Coast Village Rd., S.B., CA 93108; in memory of him.


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