Over more than three decades, veterinarian Dr. Robert Franklin has advocated for animal welfare—even when those animals never set a paw into his specialty practice in Beaverton, Oregon.

Franklin ’75 BS, ’76 BS, ’79 DVM is on the frontlines of animal wellbeing and companionship issues in the Pacific Northwest, whether he’s working behind the scenes to save a stray or squarely in the spotlight ensuring that famed orca Keiko was getting appropriate medical care.

“The animal welfare movement is waiting for veterinarians to lead it like we should,” says Franklin, who recently received Washington State University’s Distinguished Veterinary Alumnus Award. “We’ve got to look at what’s in the best interests of the animals we take care of.”

“I think he’s somewhat of a pioneer,” says David Frei, an admirer who is best known as the cohost of the Westminster Kennel Club’s annual dog show in New York City.

Frei says Franklin always seems to be out front with new ideas in the pet world, actively supporting endeavors such as hospice care for terminally ill animals and grief counseling for their human companions, setting up pet blood banks, and pairing at-risk children or prison inmates with shelter animals.

“He’s making it a better world for animals, and he’s making it a better world for people,” says Frei, who met Franklin when they both served on the board of what is now Pet Partners, a Bellevue-based nonprofit organization that promotes pet companionship, therapy, and service to improve people’s lives.

“The benefit of animals is far more a reality than I think the human medical community is willing to admit,” Franklin says.

When he served on the executive board of the Oregon Veterinary Medical Association (OVMA), including a term as president in 1998, he helped convince state legislators to make animal abuse a Class C felony. He also helped change the state law for dogs who kill livestock, giving them a chance to avoid a death sentence if they could be resettled out of temptation’s way. Franklin later pushed for a law that required veterinarians to report suspected cases of animal abuse.

“We do know that there is a direct relationship between people who abuse animals and their tendency to be violent” to people, says Franklin.

“He’s always challenging the profession to reconsider our points of view on animal welfare,” says Glenn Kolb, executive director of the OVMA. In 2013 the association awarded Franklin its highest honor, a Meritorious Service Award. “Bob was really at the forefront of getting the organization to move in the right direction,” says Kolb.

Franklin was leading the state veterinary board when Keiko was at the Oregon Coast Aquarium, following his star turn in the movie Free Willy, recovering from living in poor conditions at a Mexican amusement park.

A rift over his medical care developed between the Newport aquarium’s vet and a California-based vet for the Free Willy-Keiko Foundation, which was planning to release him back into the North Atlantic Ocean in 2002, where he was captured as a youngster in 1979.

Franklin and the OVMA demanded that an independent veterinarian give Keiko a checkup. Even though that exam showed Keiko’s health had improved significantly in Oregon, Franklin disagreed with the plan to release an animal that had spent its entire adult life as an aquarium entertainer.

“This whale was like a pet. He was sitting off the coast of Norway, playing with kids” after his release, says Franklin, who believed Keiko was doomed well before the orca died in 2003, in part because the animal didn’t belong to a pack like his wild kin. “There was no way he was going to survive.”

Franklin shows the same passion for his patients at Oregon Veterinary Specialty Hospital, where he is a partner and specializes in internal medicine.

“This is a guy (who) will turn things upside-down to get to a proper diagnosis,” says Trish Clark, a psychologist who started out as a pet-owner and now teams with Franklin to help homeless cats in the Portland area. “He’s just unbelievably dedicated.”

Born on Long Island, New York, and raised for a time in Bellevue, Washington, Franklin has always kept pets and longed to be a veterinarian from his earliest memory. At WSU, he fell under the influence of Professor Leo K. Bustad ’49 DVM, a groundbreaking researcher of the human-animal bond and cofounder of the organization that would become Pet Partners.

“We think Leo would be looking down and be quite proud of Bob Franklin,” says Frei.