Name: Lisa Pregent, 41
Position: Livestock manager at George Washington’s Mount Vernon
What she does
Lisa Pregent gets the familiar call in the middle of the night: One of her charges has escaped. Again. It doesn’t matter whether it’s 11:30 p.m. or 2 a.m.; Pregent gets dressed and heads to work.
“We have some very smart cows that have figured out how to get out of their pens,” she says, but fortunately, the escape artists are also easy to collect: Grab a bucket of grain, and the cattle will come. Usually.
As the livestock manager at George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Pregent oversees the care of more than 100 animals, including sheep, cattle, pigs, chickens, a donkey and horses, many of which are rare heritage breeds.
“Basically, my job is to educate our visitors about the importance of livestock in George Washington’s time, and to bring alive his farming techniques,” she says. “We’re also big into the preservation of rare breeds.”
There are five full-time staffers on Mount Vernon’s livestock team, plus three part-timers and a couple of seasonal workers. Pregent arrives by 7:30 a.m. each day, at which point the team splits in half, either tending to the animals behind the scenes — there’s a livestock farm just out of view of the public — or in the historic area that visitors can explore.
For the next hour, “We’re feeding, haying, making sure everybody has clean water,” Pregent says, as well as administering any necessary medical treatment, like shots or minor procedures.
Some of the staffers, designated as animal caretakers, remain behind the scenes throughout the bulk of the day, cleaning stalls, pens and horse tacks, filling feed bins and receiving deliveries, and setting up for special events. The livestock handlers, meanwhile, spend about 80 percent of their time in colonial costume, leading events for the public.
The best time of year, Pregent says — for visitors and staffers — is lambing season. Washington had a flock of 600 to 1,000 sheep, and Mount Vernon raises the rare Hog Island breed, which is native to Virginia. Following Washington’s timeline, the rams move in with the ewes each October; the gestation period is typically five months, which means birthing starts in March. As Pregent scooped one lamb into her arms — a white-and-black-spotted 1-week-old who weighed 7 pounds — the animal started to squirm and bleat for its mother, who hovered nearby.
Some of the lambs, such as those that are particularly weak, need to be bottle-fed — so the staffers take them home each night for two weeks, feeding them every two to three hours.
“We load them into our cars, and we have [travel cribs] that we just roll into our living rooms or wherever, and they stay in them,” Pregent says. Each animal has a unique personality, and Pregent says she could never pick a favorite — it’d be like choosing a favorite kid. But she feels a special affinity for the sheep she once bottle-raised, and for the pigs who recognize her voice when she calls to them: “They come running out, grunting and they want to be scratched,” she says, smiling at the thought. “So you scratch them and they do a high-pitched squeal and start shaking.”
How she got the job
Pregent grew up about a mile from Mount Vernon and used to go fishing at the estate’s wharf after hours. She also was an enthusiastic horse rider. When she was 17, in need of a volunteer position for her high school government class, she starting grooming horses and cleaning stalls at Mount Vernon. After graduating, she headed to the University of Mary Washington, where she thought she might study journalism. She also took a historic preservation class, which proved to be a prescient choice. A year into school, she left to return to the estate full time.
“I just kept going back to Mount Vernon,” she says, gesturing around the barn where she spends much of her day. “Everything kind of centered around this place.”
Who would want this job
Do you prefer the company of soft, loving animals over humans? Proceed. In addition to a passion for livestock, you’ll need a strong work ethic to survive in this (literal) field; the days can be long, especially during birthing season, and you’ll be on call 24/7, every day of the year. An all-weather personality is helpful, too.
“I get to work outside on days like this,” Pregent says on a recent sunny, 80-degree day. “But some days, it’s raining or snowing or below 0, and we’re outside working in it. When we have 3-foot blizzards come through, we’re at the mercy of Mother Nature.”
How you can get the job
Some prior experience with horses, cattle or another type of livestock is helpful, Pregent says, but not required. While hands-on experience is generally most important, studying animal science, biology or equine science can be useful. One Mount Vernon staffer just finished veterinary technician schooling, and Pregent spent four years as a veterinary assistant at a local animal hospital, work she juggled in addition to her responsibilities at Mount Vernon.
“You just have to have a good head on your shoulders and quick thinking, and the rest can be taught,” she says.
After more than 20 years on the job, she’s convinced she’s living the dream.
“This is one of those jobs where you wake up in the morning and don’t dread going to work. Some of the staff come in and say, ‘This is my getaway; I come to work to get some peace,’ ” she says. “It’s special and it’s unique.”