Berkeley Veterinarian Retires, Gives Up Poodles for Paddles

Friday August 01, 2003

For 34 years, Dr. Charlie Berger has been taking care of Berkeley pets—4,600 of them, to be precise. 

On Thursday, Berger tended to his last patient, ending an era for himself and the animal owners who love him. In the years since Berger first began the Campus Veterinary Clinic at 1807 Martin Luther King Jr. Way, he has seen the field of veterinary medicine undergo a transformation that redefined the way he provides medical care for animals. 

Nowadays, he says, pets that visit his clinic have available a level of treatment comparable to that of their animal owners. 

“It has been a field that was widely explored,” Berger said, looking around at the medical instruments and jars of pills and ointments that line the shelves of his examination room. “It’s a different practice now than it was 

when I began.” 

But for Berger—who has spent extensive time in the wilderness of Alaska and the Yukon—being a veterinarian is about the personal interactions with the animals to whom he tends. He says that working with animals was a natural career choice—“Put simply, I like and respect animals more than I do people”—though he never thought he would end up caring for domestic pets for the bulk of his career. 

“I was going to do it for two years,” he said. “I don’t know what happened.” 

Berger was born in a Brooklyn apartment house where his contact with animals was limited. Seeing pictures of wildlife in other places and hearing about them in books, he said, encouraged the “pictures in his mind” that led him to begin to study animal life and medicine. 

With a veterinary degree in hand and experience as a zoologist, Berger initially came to Berkeley in 1969 after he was drawn by the beautiful women he had seen on a visit to the area. He bought the clinic on what was then 

Grove Street and opened a practice, attracting area families who sought a family veterinarian for their beloved pets. 

He married one of the beautiful women, then found another when the first left him. Today, he is married to a third wife, a psychotherapist who helps in the clinic and coordinates his schedule. 

“People with pets in Berkeley love this man,” said his wife, Erin Donahue. “He’s been there for pets being born, pets dying. He’s been a part of their lives.” 

Over the years, Berger said the idea that has kept him going is the exploration of the interactions between humans and animals. 

“That very primitive relationship transcends everything—race, economics, intelligence, gender, education,” he said. “A relationship that progressed from man and hunter to more parent and child is such a social commentary.” 

Now Berger is hanging up his stethoscope in favor of time spent studying animals of a wilder variety. He and Donahue will move permanently to their vacation home in Vermont, but Berger will spend much of his time traveling to the wilderness areas he loves—Alaska, the Arctic, and the Yukon. He will coordinate commercial canoe trips and wildlife expeditions and focus on his photography and his writing. 

“Some people do yoga, and some go to church,” Berger said. “I poo-pah both of those. For me, an early morning canoe through the lily pads on the Spatsizi River [in British Columbia] is what gives me life. I’m lucky that I’m going to get to spend my time doing that.” 

Berger said that the idea of retiring occurred to him only recently in realizing that he is growing older. In recent months he has been to too many friends’ funerals and wants to enjoy his life while he can. 

“Two wives have left me, my [physician] died, and my accountant absconded,” he said. “It makes you think. There are still a lot of rivers I want to canoe while I’m able.” 

The animal owners that have depended on Berger’s services over the past 34 years say his retirement is well-deserved but that they will miss his services and gentle bedside manner. 

“I’ve been taking my pet to Dr. Berger since 1966,” said Kay Eisenhower. “He’s outlived two husbands. He’s absolutely wonderful—a genius with animals. It is so sad that we are losing him.” 

Berger himself often appears nonplussed by the sadness over his departure. 

“I feel like I’m in an open casket with all these women coming by and crying,” he said. “And I’m trying to tell them I’m not dead yet.”