WWII veteran, retired veterinarian gives ailing animals a spring in their step
By HANNAH NATANSON | The Washington Post | Published: August 9, 2018
OXFORD, Md. — In a small white warehouse in a tiny Chesapeake Bay town, 90-year-old Lincoln Parkes spends his days making wheelchairs for dogs.
Or cats. Or rabbits. Or chickens. Not horses, though, as Parkes is "not a horse person."
Parkes first invented and patented a cart that allows disabled animals to walk in the early 1960s, launching a life-long love affair with the craft. He opened a wheelchair shop, K-9 Cart, around the same time and kept it running as a side business throughout his decades-long career as a veterinary surgeon.
After performing more than 3,000 spine surgeries, Parkes retired in 1991 and moved to Oxford, a colonial port-turned-vacation spot with a population of roughly 600, one grocery store and scores of yachts.
Parkes's retirement didn't mean he stopped working — instead, he focused all his attention on his life-long passion. He set up a workshop two blocks from his home and began churning out wheelchairs.
"I like to give animals a better life," Parkes said. "If you put them in a cart when they can't get around, it gives them mobility so they can use their front legs and their spirit just goes — they're like kids once they got their independence."
On a sunny Tuesday morning, Parkes bent over a table and fiddled with tiny rubber leg straps attached to a wheelchair destined for a Welsh corgi. This is how he whiles away every weekday from roughly 10 a.m. to 8 p.m., hand-crafting several hundred made-to-order carts each year. He fashions small wheelchairs for dachshunds with bad backs. Still smaller ones for chihuahuas that were born without front legs. Massive metal monsters for 120-pound German shepherds.
He's still designing, too, still trying to perfect the pet wheelchair. Retired veterinarian colleagues marvel that the man — known in the field for his invention and for his empathy toward disabled animals — is still working and innovating. Clients say Parkes's wheelchairs, which run from $300 to upward of $800, offer extra years of life to sick pets.
"It made a dramatic difference — the moment Llyr was put into that cart, he took off running," said Amy Deisher, who purchased a cart for her corgi after he contracted a degenerative disease that slowly paralyzed the dog. "Prior to going into the cart he was dragging his hind end, he wouldn't do his normal activities. . . It made me very happy, that he could do what he used to do."
Parkes discovered his veterinary vocation when he tried to earn a living as a professional skier in his 20s.
He had joined the Navy Air Corps roughly two years before the close of WWII, at the age of 17, and spent the tail end of the war stealing and analyzing enemy equipment. Afterward, feeling somewhat aimless, Parkes and a friend began skiing their way around the country. The pair roamed the United States for two years, paying their way by working odd jobs. They often tended animals on ranches.
"But I woke up one morning and said, 'Uh oh, is this my life?' " Parkes said. "It didn't make a whole lot of sense, though it was a lot of fun."
His time as a ranch hand had convinced him he wanted to work with animals. So, planning to learn animal husbandry and become a rancher, he went back to school: first prep school, then veterinary college at Colorado State University (where the powder snow was excellent for skiing), then an internship and, later, graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Somewhere along the way, he nixed ranches and chose veterinary surgery.
In the early 1960s, Parkes began working and researching at the Animal Medical Center, a nonprofit animal hospital in New York City. He quickly noticed that many owners of the dogs he operated on had the same demand.
"The dogs that I'd done surgery for didn't all walk afterward," Parkes said. "And the owners said, 'Look, I'm not going to put my dog down, will you give something for him so he can get around?' And so I said, 'Sure.' "
He seized on the idea, and K9 Carts was born. Parkes disparages his original design now — the squat, four-wheeled cart with its steel framework is too heavy — but it was revolutionary at the time, according to Sheldon Steinberg, a professor emeritus of neurology and neurosurgery at Penn Vet.
Steinberg said the pet wheelchair became instantly popular with dog owners nationwide.
"The device served both the patients and their owners very well," Steinberg said. "The one he built, if it wasn't the first, seems to be the most effective — there was nothing as useful and popular."
Throughout the '60s and '70s, K9 Carts had almost no competitors, according to Parkes. The company sold thousands of wheelchairs every year to people all around the country and made Parkes a lot of money, enough to buy several properties in Montana and Maryland and a small island in Maine. Despite its success, Parkes kept tweaking the design of the wheelchair, always seeking to make it lighter, better balanced and easier to adjust. He ultimately filed and earned three different patents for three different carts over the course of four decades.
In addition to cash, the wheelchairs earned Parkes a reputation. Tory Hampshire, a retired veterinarian who now runs a medical device consulting company, said Parkes became known as "the James Herriot of the profession." Herriot, a British veterinary surgeon who died in 1995, gained fame and adulation after writing a series of books about his experiences tending to animals in the English countryside; he was particularly known for his competence and his kindness.
"The reason that Parkes is admired, at least by veterinarians, is he was able to understand that people aren't ready to put their pets to sleep, and his invention shows tremendous empathy," Hampshire said. "The wheelchair makes a big difference for people."
But trouble struck shortly after Parkes retired.
He and his wife, Barbara, divorced in the early 1990s. The split sundered K9 Carts, too. Barbara Parkes had spent years running the company's day-to-day operations while Lincoln Parkes focused on his veterinary work, so he figured it was "only fair" to give her half.
Parkes and his ex-wife struck a deal: she would sell wheelchairs on the West Coast (she was living in Montana at the time) and he would move to Maryland and sell wheelchairs on the East Coast. Her company would be called K9 Carts West — though she later dropped the "West" — and his would be called K9 Carts East, as it still is. The dividing line would be the Mississippi River.
"The Mississippi, within months, got very wide, and she was just — so we compete now, we compete," Parkes said. "We have a problem. A family problem."
In an interview, his ex-wife disputed the idea that the two are competing. She noted the K9 carts companies sell two totally different carts; Parkes stopped designing for her years and years ago.
"I'm not competing with him, I don't look at his site, I don't really know what he's doing at this point," she said.
Still, the family rivalry seems poised to continue into the next generation. Barbara said she is grooming the son she had with Parkes to take over her company. Parkes, who has been married four times, is hoping a daughter from another marriage will take over his.
It's not just Barbara, though. Parkes and K9 Carts East face five or six other serious competitors, he said.
The last few years have been especially lean. Parkes was recently forced to let his company's five employees go because he could no longer afford to pay them. He said he himself hasn't turned a profit from the work in almost three decades — K9 Carts East typically brings in just enough to break even. Both Parkes and his wife, a 55-year-old veterinarian and researcher at Johns Hopkins University, have at times dipped into their savings to help fund the operation.
Sales are down to a few hundred carts per year and Parkes's reach is no longer national; he mostly sells to locals now. Once, he could pay workers to make the wheelchairs while he focused on creating new prototypes; now, he is the one putting together carts, often taking days to fill a single order as he stitches together plastic sheeting and aluminum pipes.
But he is not discouraged. He's working on a new and better version of the wheelchair that he thinks will sell well.
"This is just an interim period," Parkes said of the recent slump. "I am a determined little devil and I'm not going to give up."