The following interview features Dr. Mike McFarland, Chief Medical Officer at Zoetis in conversation with Dr. Vernard Hodges and Dr. Terrence Ferguson, co-founders of Critter Fixers Veterinary Hospital in Bonaire, Georgia. Dr. Hodges is founder and executive Director of the It Takes a Village Foundation, helping kids from diverse backgrounds learn about veterinary medicine.
Dr. McFarland: Why did you create the It Takes a Village Foundation and the Vet for a Day programs? What makes these programs unique?
Dr. Ferguson: The Vet for a Day program was something we were basically already doing, just not in a formal way. Our doors have always been open, so we get kids coming in daily. Their mother might come in, or their grandmother, saying, ‘My kid is interested in being a veterinarian, but we don’t know what to do.’ So, we bring them in, talk to them, become their mentors, and show them around the clinic. A lot of times they end up becoming volunteers or being employed at the Critter Fixer Veterinary Hospital.
Then we got together one day and said, ‘Look, we do this every day, why don't we just get this group of kids together and be a little formal about how we approach them?’
Dr. Hodges: Yeah, you do what you see. I will challenge anybody to come down south of the Mason-Dixon line and find a Black kid who wants to play professional hockey. It doesn’t happen because they don’t have access and they don't see it. Everybody isn’t gearing up for hockey on Saturday mornings. It’s football because that’s what they see. The beautiful thing about our partnership with the Zoetis Foundation is that we’re also able to show kids different avenues they can take as a veterinarian, whether it’s in the animal health industry, research, the military, or working for the government. There are so many different avenues they can take in this profession.
I've also found that socio-economics tend to translate into the job people choose. So we started “It Takes a Village Foundation” to show kids that by creating a business, by creating commerce, or by creating a place for them and giving them a chance to win, they can change their lives and their families’ lives.
Between the Vet for a Day program and your show on National Geographic, Critter Fixers, you've done an amazing job of increasing visibility of diversity in the veterinary profession among youth. Can you speak to the impact this will have on the next generation?
Dr. Ferguson: It’s 2022 and you would think that the world has evolved, but, just this weekend, I was talking to a dentist in South Carolina who asked about us coming up there to talk to some kids because when she saw us on television, we were the first Black veterinarians she’d ever seen.
Representation matters. It’s just that simple. There are still people who don't think that this field is an option for them because they have never seen it. Now, if they got exposed to it, then maybe there would be more kids doing it.
Can you talk more about how the Vet for a Day program is starting to influence veterinary colleges and universities?
Dr. Hodges: I'll never forget being in Pennsylvania and the Dean of the Mississippi State Veterinary School took it upon himself to write down kids' names [of those participating] during one of our Vet for a Day programs. That tells me we have the ear of the veterinary schools now thanks to the Zoetis Foundation’s help.
I'm a kid who failed in 9th grade, barely got into veterinarian school, and now Cornell University wants me to come up to do Vet for a Day for three days. Cornell University! One of the most exclusive veterinary schools in the country wants our presence at their school and for us to talk about diversity. A lot of schools were not listening to me before Vet for a Day.
Same thing with Texas A&M, one of the largest veterinary schools in the country, and their neighbor, Prairie View A&M which is a Historically Black College or University (HBCU). HBCUs know firsthand about the lack of diversity in the veterinary field. Texas A&M came to one of our Vet for a Day programs and now want to help support. These schools giving us a listening ear shows the impact.
Dr. McFarland: What was really noticeable to me was that veterinary schools were almost desperate for a program that would help them move the needle of diversity in the veterinary profession. You can only write so many white papers. You can only have so many meetings and conferences. Vet for a Day takes mentorship off the piece of paper and makes it a reality.
How has the Zoetis Foundation helped advance your mission?
Dr. Hodges: The Zoetis Foundation has taken the financial part of Vet for a Day and made it a whole lot easier. Our main concentration now is signing up kids, exposing them to life as a veterinarian and letting them know these resources are available. Thanks to the Zoetis Foundation’s support, we're now able to target bigger cities and connect with more aspiring veterinarians on a larger scale.
Dr. Ferguson: Zoetis colleagues’ representation at these events also lets us know that [in addition to the Foundation’s grant] it’s something that you all really believe in, which continues to help encourage us to want to go out and make this thing happen. The presence of Zoetis colleagues being supportive, doing the program and helping out, that means a lot.
What is the most important thing you want students to walk away with from the program?
Dr. Hodges: I want people to know they should keep dreaming because their dreams can come true. We're living it every day.
Dr. Ferguson: I want the kids to walk away knowing wholeheartedly that the field of veterinary medicine in some way is an option for them. If they leave the program knowing that, I think we've done a good justice.
What are your hopes for the Vet for a Day program/where do you see the program in the next 10 years?
Dr. Hodges: There is a gentleman in this world by the name of Dr. McFarland, who said, ‘Okay, guys, I see you’re doing this program in rural Georgia, now we want you to take it across the country.’ Today, my network has transcended into the highest level of veterinary medicine. I was giving a speech at the American Association of Bovine Practitioners meeting in Long Beach recently, and all of a sudden the new president of the AVMA sits next to me and starts talking about Vet for a Day and how she can't wait to do it in Denver.
So, I see the program being in all 50 states in ten years. There are veterinarians everywhere, veterinary practices and schools everywhere, so if we can just put the system in place, why not?
The Zoetis Foundation is honored to support the Vet for a Day program to help build a diverse and inclusive veterinary community and is eager to see the initiative continue to inspire and grow the next generation of veterinarians.