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Lisbon - Standing at a fence just off the dirt road running down the middle of her family's farm in Lisbon, Nicole Cloutier rubs the nose of a young calf sticking its head between the wooden slats.
The calf, she explains, is an orphan. Its mother died when it was very young, so Cloutier wakes up every morning to feed the calf a milk replacer.
"The work here is centered around the animals," she says. "I can't imagine my life without them."
Cloutier, whose family owns the 50-acre Lisbon Country Stables, will probably never have to. Following a childhood of competitive horse showing and a more recent venture into raising cattle, the Griswold High School senior is heading to the University of Montana pre-vet program in the fall with the goal of becoming a livestock veterinarian.
"Talk about knowing what you want for yourself," said Katherine Kissack, her guidance counselor. "It's very unusual for that kind of focus to have developed so early in a person."
And for Cloutier, it has been something of a lifelong focus. Growing up at Lisbon Country Stables, a boarding stable for horses owned by her mother, Darlene, she's been constantly surrounded by animals. Taking care of 20-plus horses has been a full-time job for her, her mother and her two grandparents, who also live on the property.
"Growing up on a farm is hard," she said. "You really grow up quick, out there working in the hot and the cold."
Cloutier said she began began showing horses competitively at age 2, first at local fairs and then larger venues such as the Big E in Springfield, Mass. She has won numerous awards over the years, including a special prize at the Woodstock Fair as a 6-year-old in 1997 for taking first place three days in a row under three different judges. Four years ago, however, she decided to stop competing.
"To be honest, I got kind of burnt out from the competitiveness," she said. "It took up my whole summer, too, every weekend, and even my horse was sick of it."
So she turned her attention to another barnyard mainstay: cows. Starting with one heifer named Ms. Moo, she began breeding Simmental cattle as a freshman in high school. The process has provided her with some exciting moments, such as helping deliver a baby calf when Ms. Moo gave birth. Her herd has since grown to four, and she takes them around to local fairs to be displayed and judged.
Around that same time, her mother took her on a cattle drive at the Double Rafter Ranch in Wyoming, her first trip out West. That experience, plus two years of volunteering at the Lisbon Veterinary Clinic, convinced her to start looking in the West for universities with livestock programs.
"I really liked working at the clinic, but it was all cats and dogs, and that's not really my thing," she said. "I want to work with livestock."
After doing some research, she applied to the University of Montana pre-vet program and enrolled sight unseen. Visiting the campus for the first time with her mother in April, she saw their equine and cattle programs, met some of her future professors and got to take part in a cattle branding seminar. She knew right away she had made the right choice.
"If anyone could make it out there, it would be her," said Nadine Keane, her freshman and senior English teacher. "It's almost like she was born in the wrong state."
But despite her focus and the direction it has provided her, life rarely follows a plan. Her stepfather, John Cunnane, was killed in a farm accident last spring. He was fixing the brakes on a lull, a large, high-reach forklift, when - the family thinks - it somehow popped into gear and rolled over him. He and her mother had been married only three years.
Cloutier, who doesn't have a relationship with her biological father anymore, took the loss especially hard. She described Cunnane as a computer scientist with a passion for big tools and machines, a "wonderful" man for whom living on a farm, she says, was heaven.
"To me, he was my dad, and that's why it was so hard when he passed," she said. "He took over the role and it just kind of worked."
But in Cloutier's own words, life just kind of went on. Kissack said she came back to school and never asked for any special attention or treatment, nor did she fall apart personally or academically.
"It really solidified for me how incredibly independent and capable she is," Kissack said. "But then again, that maturity and the ability to handle herself have always been there."
According to Keane, Cloutier is not the kind of person to let anything, even the death of a loved one, knock her off course.
"It didn't hold her down or pull her back from anything. In fact, it made her stronger," said Keane. "She's focused on her dreams."