CASTRO VALLEY -- Dr. Russell Hackler was a veterinarian who worked to control the feral cat population, helped clients deal with the death of their pets and, when he had some free time, loved to fly planes, including the amphibious one he was restoring.
On Saturday, he was at the controls of that aircraft when it crashed on a hillside in Calaveras County. Hackler, 68, who lived in Danville, was killed.
News of the longtime Castro Valley veterinarian's death prompted scores of online comments, as people recalled how he had gone out of his way to care for their pets.
"He has done so much for so many people," said Jeanne Gocker of Hayward Friends of Animals, an animal rescue group.
Gocker, who had known Hackler for more than 20 years, credited him with saving thousands of animals' lives. "He gave us special breaks so we could spay and neuter feral cats," Gocker said. "He never turned anyone down; he was very generous."
His widow, Kathie Hackler, said her husband worked with several animal rescue organizations, and neutered countless feral cats. The cats would then either be adopted or rereleased into the wild.
His compassion extended to those facing the loss of a pet.
"Russ made house calls for clients that were too distraught who had to euthanize a pet," said Kathie Hackler. "He would put the animal to sleep at home and then take it to the clinic to be cremated."
Hackler practiced veterinary medicine in Castro Valley for more than 40 years, most of that time at Groveway Veterinary Hospital, which he sold in April. Semiretired, the veterinarian had cut his hours back to two days a week as he transitioned out of the business, Kathie Hackler said.
He was a on solo test flight on his amphibious plane, which could land on either water or lane, when it went down near the Calaveras County-Maury Rasmussen Field Airport.
Hackler, who had logged more than 500,000 hours flying, also volunteered with LIGA International (The Flying Doctors of Mercy), flying physicians in a second small plane he owned to El Fuerte in Sinaloa, Mexico, where the group runs a clinic to help the local residents.
"He sometimes assisted the doctors, but not in the procedures," Kathie Hackler said. "Sometimes he worked in the pharmacy, sometimes there were repairs that needed to be made at the clinic. He was the kind of guy who did things that needed to be done."
Hackler was born in Lexington, Mo., and earned his veterinarian degree from the University of Missouri. He had just graduated when he was drafted at the tail end of the Vietnam War and was stationed at the Oakland Army Base.
Even then, Hackler loved flying, his wife said, and he used his GI Bill money to take flight lessons.
Hackler joined Dr. Hugh McClung's veterinary practice in Castro Valley and then took it over when McClung retired in the early 1970s.
Dr. Lori Dabaco of Eden Pet Hospital said he had mentored several young veterinarians over the years, including her.
"Many of them have said how much they learned from him, not only about veterinary medicine, but how to be with people. He was a people person," she said.
Linda Davis, of Castro Valley, said Hackler had been her family's veterinarian for more than 30 years, taking care of their dogs, cats, bunnies and her daughter's horse.
"He was a charming man, and a very competent vet," Davis said. "He will be sorely missed."
Reflecting on her husband's contributions, Kathie Hackler said, "Somebody said something to me that meant a lot. 'Russ was the kind of person who made you feel very special when he was the one who was the special one.'"
Private services are planned. Besides his wife, he is survived by three children, Teresa Dilger, of Pleasanton; Tara Hackler, of Bend, Ore; and Russell Winston Hackler Jr., of Livermore; two sisters, Carol Ghisalberti, of Lexington, Mo., and Cathy Schmid, of Fort Worth, Texas; a brother, George Hackler, of Warrensburg, Mo.; and three grandchildren.