Students get up-close look at life as a vet


Penn Foster College student, Alexandra Bradley observes a dog skeleton at the 2013 APVMA National Symposium hosted by the University of Florida Veterinary School on Saturday, March 2, 2013 in Gainesville Fla.

ASHLEY CRANE/ Correspondent
Published: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 6:05 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, March 2, 2013 at 6:05 p.m.

When Kaitlyn Piecora was 3 years old, she convinced her parents to get a dog.

They wondered aloud if they should adopt a dog that otherwise would have been put to sleep the next day. The dog had been identified as a beagle, but Kaitlyn's parents thought it looked like a bigger breed.

They looked over at Kaitlyn, who was tugging playfully at the dog's ears, and decided to keep "Maddie," who turned out to be a Rottweiler.

Today Piecora, 19, is following her first instincts to care for animals by working to become a veterinarian. She was one of 90 University of Florida student volunteers at the annual American Pre-Veterinary Medical Association's symposium, which this weekend was held at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine.

The event gave some 680 college students from across the country a sense of what veterinary medicine is all about. UF faculty delivered lectures and conducted hands-on laboratories in which students learned how to suture pig hoofs from Publix and identify signs of animal abuse on cadavers of dogs and cats.

Recruiters from several vet schools in the U.S., as well as the UK, Australia and the Caribbean islands, provided information to students.

Schools abroad have begun to attract a lot of U.S. students because of such stiff competition to get into American programs, said Dr. Andre Shih, an animal anesthesiologist and professor of large animal and clinical sciences at UF.

"Eighty percent of the students here will not get into vet school on their first try," Shih said.

That was true for Dr. Mike Walsh, a UF professor and the associate director of aquatic animal health.

"All of you want to get into vet school," Walsh said at his lecture on marine mammals on Saturday. "I'm the poster child for someone who didn't get in."

In fact, it took Walsh three tries before he got in — and a steep learning curve involving human psychology and extroverted communication, he said.

"We're a strange species, and if we don't understand each other, we're not going to understand animals," Walsh said. "You have to understand their world and needs."

And you have to know how to control them as needed, he added, putting students to this challenge: "How are you going to get a killer whale do what you need him to do?"

Walsh, who landed his dream job working 20 years at Sea World before joining the faculty at UF, encouraged students to be driven and passionate, but also broad-minded about what type of veterinary medicine they might end up working in.

While many students come into vet medicine for love of puppies, or dolphins, they could have careers in animal research, the military or academia, apart from caring for small (or big and exotic) animals, Shih added.

"As a physician, you are locked into (your specialty), but vets are different. We can work in many fields."

For Monica Chen, a sophomore at North Carolina State University, that means animal conservation and rehabilitation of wild animals. Chen was headed to the shelter animal lab at the symposium.

Chen has wanted to be a vet since she was 9 years old and grew up with black cats. "People don't like them as much, but I still love them," she said.

Chen said it was intimidating to be surrounded by so many potential competitors and recruiters, but she's a double major in zoology and conservation biology, and she volunteers at the shelter back home. "These are all good stepping stones," she said.

If getting into vet school is the first challenge for many students, paying for it is the next one: a recent New York Times article highlighted the plight of students with upwards of $300,000 in debt, and starting salaries of a little more than $45,000.

According to professor Pamela Ginn, associate dean of students and instruction at UF, students take classes in veterinary business management and personal financial management.

"We are very proactive because we recognize this is an important part of the profession," Ginn said, adding that student debt at UF is more like $150,000 and 98 percent of students have jobs within a year of graduation.

And most students who want to be vets anyway are an incredibly passionate breed, Shih pointed out.

Piecora calls it a vocation. After raising her dog Maddie, she turned to cats and cattle, which she's shown at the state fair for several years. Her ultimate dream is to work with exotic cats.

"I have a long way to go," she said. "But I've always said that if you love what you do, you don't work a day in your life."

Contact Kristine Crane at 338-3119 or kristine.crane@gvillesun.com.

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