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SOUTH SIOUX CITY -- Preparing to have his photo taken, Barney is aloof, taciturn and not in the mood to cooperate.

Typical model behavior?

Well, on the one hand, Barney's a 14-year-old cat who lives outside of Dr. Robert Billiar's home. But on the other hand, his portrait can also be seen on the cover of June's Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA).

"JAVMA Magazine is distributed to more than 40 countries around the world," Billiar, who painted the portrait more than a decade ago. "Even though Barney's face is being seen all around the world, I don't think he minds being a celebrity."

Indeed, it had always been a dream of Billiar, a South Sioux City veterinarian for 57 years, to be featured in such a prestigious publication.

"JAVMA covers tend to feature animal art created by artists or animal art created by veterinarians," Billiar explained. "I'm always happy to represent the veterinarian profession."

After all, Billiar, 86, has loved and cared for animals ever since he was a kid growing up in Crete, Nebraska.

"Growing up, we always had dogs and cats and rabbits," he remembered. "Since everyone knew I had an affinity with animals, people would also bring me baby opossums, raccoons and even skunks."

It came as no surprise that Billiar would want to study the animal world in college.

"Nebraska didn't have a veterinary college at the time, so I got my bachelor's degree from Kansas State University and my Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Iowa State University," Billiar said.

By the time he finished veterinary school, Billiar was already married and had a family.

"Money was pretty tight at the time," he said. "One of my ISU professors noticed my artistic ability and hired me as an animal illustrator for various publications."

"That extra money came in handy when I needed it the most," he added.

Owning his own hospital for small animals kept Billiar for years. But he never lost his interest in art.

"I began taking art classes in my free time," he said. "At first, I'd paint landscapes and old country barns in acrylic. Eventually, I paint all kinds of animal portraits, using pastels."

While Billiar enjoyed outdoor activities like golf during the warm weather months, painting became his wintertime hobby. 

That was certainly the case when he closed his private practice a while back.

"Some people were meant to retire and that wasn't me," Billiar said, adding that he continues to work two afternoons a week at Elk Creek Animal Hospital in Sioux City.

"Even in retirement, I'd read about these breakthroughs in veterinary medicine," he said. "It drove me crazy that I didn't have a chance to get into any of these scientific breakthroughs. Luckily, now I can."

Despite his reemergence in veterinary medicine, Billiar is still gung-ho about his art.

"I love treating animals as a profession," he said. "However, I get to lose myself in my art."

While most of Billiar's art pieces have been donated to charitable organizations, he shows no signs of slowing down.

"I plan on painting for as long as I can," he said.

Even with a moody model like Barney the Cat?

"Barney is that bad if you know how to work with him," Billiar said.

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