Mentoring the next generation of veterinarians has been a priority for Dr. Terrence Ferguson and Dr. Vernard Hodges since day one. To date, together with the whole team at Critter Fixers, they have helped guide 70 young Black people through the process of becoming veterinarians. Critter Fixers: Country Vets, the reality show based out of their clinic, has expanded their reach to viewers globally on both NatGeo and Disney+. Through their nonprofit, Vet for a Day, Ferguson and Hodges provide hands-on experience in the veterinary field to teenagers from across the nation.
This interview is part of a new series, Sentient Media Spotlight, that celebrates people making a profound impact in their communities.
Grace Hussain: What’s the story behind Vet for a Day?
Dr. Hodges: People of Color make up less than 2 percent of the veterinary field. When we got our platform on Disney+ and NatGeo a lot of people were reaching out asking about how their kids or grandkids could be Critter Fixers. We talked about it, called in a few favors, and decided we could get together with a group of kids to introduce them to veterinary medicine. The first time we had applicants from four states. People gravitate toward what they see. These kids already love animals. When we meet them they see that we’re cool and funny; it encourages them to explore veterinary medicine.
Dr. Ferguson: This is not something that we started when the show started. We’ve been doing this for our entire career. We put a high value on giving back and bringing the next generation of Black veterinarians up. Our door is always open and has always been open to show kids around and discuss what being a veterinarian is like. We know how important that would have been for us growing up, so we make it our mission to always be that role model we never had. Now we have this platform, and we were able to make a program where we bring them in and show them not only how to become a vet but also what goes on behind the doors on Critter Fixers. They see and experience live surgeries, x-rays, patient restraint, endoscopy, fecal exams, everything.
Dr. Hodges: It’s the same way we got the show by doing the right thing when people aren’t looking. If you’re good at what you do, people will find you, even in rural Georgia.
Grace: What do you hope the kids will take away from attending?
Dr. Ferguson: What we’re hoping for is twofold. We want the kids to witness what it takes to be a veterinarian. We also see the parents learn what it takes to be better because the kids need support. If your support doesn’t understand what it takes to become a veterinarian then they can’t support you.
Dr. Hodges: It’s almost like God gave us this platform to help kids. If it wasn’t for the show we’d be doing this anyway. We’re proud of having a family tree of over sixty African American veterinarians that we have written letters of recommendation for. It can be a lonely field. At conferences, you can walk into a room with dozens of different faces and none of them look like you. They’re looking at you questioning if you’re actually supposed to be there. Dr. Ferguson and I have worked to be at the top of veterinary medicine, and we’re still trying to change the field from being less than 2 percent African American. Hopefully, now that we have a platform we can increase that number.
Grace: How do you think veterinary medicine will be impacted by an increase of Black veterinarians?
Dr. Hodges: It definitely helps because you get a different perspective. It doesn’t matter if you’re Black or white or whatever color, everyone has different communities and different perspectives. A lot of time in the Black community animals don’t go to the veterinarian because we’re worried about how we’re going to be perceived. I think animals will benefit because you have veterinarians with things in common with the community. I go to affluent areas and talk about heartworms and have a discussion about it. Then I’ll go to other areas where I mention heartworms and they’ve never heard of it. It’s a lack of exposure.
Grace: How have your experiences impacted Vet for a Day and its attendees?
Dr. Ferguson: How we got to this point is a big reason why we’re so intense with these programs. For me, I had a family dog get hit by a car when I was eight which is what inspired me to want to be a veterinarian. I didn’t have the opportunity to shadow and be mentored by the local veterinarian who was in the next county over. Representation matters to me because I was very discouraged because I hadn’t seen a veterinarian that looked like me. I saw Black people doing other things in the animal field and that was what I was going to do. That wasn’t where my heart was, but it was what I saw. Then I met a Black veterinarian my junior year of college, and he became my mentor. That’s what we’re trying to give back now. We want to be front and center saying yes, you can do it because we’ve done it.
Dr. Hodges: We try to be relatable. We have fun. We want this program to be twofold. We want to educate them, but also we want them to laugh and joke and have fun. We want them to see us and think that they can do this. We get to show them the different things they can do in veterinary medicine. There are veterinarians that work with the USDA, military, NASA, and university labs. There are so many different aspects that they can explore.
Grace: What advice would you give a child interested in pursuing veterinary medicine?
Dr. Ferguson: Stay focused. Learn as much as you can about animals, be a kid, but be focused. It’s our job to be mentors and steer them in the right direction. If you’re 10 years old, you’re not going to know everything but find someone to be mentored by and follow their lead. They don’t even have to be a veterinarian, but they should be a driven person that can point you in the right direction.
Dr. Hodges: Mentorship, mentorship, mentorship. Keep knocking on doors and making calls; have your grandmama call, but find someplace to shadow. Very rarely will someone deny you the chance to clean up, so tell them you just want to clean up so you can be around. Once you’re in the door, pay attention to what’s going on. The last thing you want is to find out you get nauseous when you see blood or that you’re allergic to cats.
Grace: What advice would you give to a veterinarian interested in doing more mentorship?
Dr. Hodges: Getting a veterinary recommendation letter doesn’t necessarily help you get in, but it is used as a precursor to keep you out. If you can’t get that letter you’re starting below zero. I know we’re all busy but take a few minutes to talk and walk through the clinic so they can see.
Grace: What are some of your proudest moments as mentors?
Dr. Ferguson: Our proudest achievement is our Critter Fixer Tree, the kids that Critter Fixers have had an impact on that are now veterinarians. We have had a lot of success, and now it’s not about us; it’s about legacy. The legacy we want to leave is that we made a difference in the diversity of the field. This is something we’ve been investing in for twenty years and until we’re gone we’re gonna keep investing in it.
Grace: Veterinary medicine isn’t all fun and games. Patients are lost, and there’s a very high suicide rate in the industry. How do you prepare your mentees for those realities?
Dr. Hodges: Bad outcomes are part of the profession. When you do have a bad outcome you have to be able to compartmentalize because in the next room you have a puppy with the start of a new life. Suicide is a hot topic in the profession. We have life and death in our hands. You have to deal with not only the patient and what they’ve got going on but also the owner and their psyche. The other day I had a dog with osteosarcoma, a dog with a liver tumor, a cat with kidney failure, and a cat that can’t eat because of his teeth. I’ve got to be an endocrinologist, oncologist, and dentist, all before noon. You’ve really got to be able to compartmentalize.
Grace: How can people support Vet for a Day?
Dr. Hodges: We’re always looking for volunteers especially since we’re expanding to new cities. You can also refer kids. It’s a totally free program. These kids get book bags, stethoscopes, t-shirts, thermometers, all kinds of things that will entice them to learn about the profession. If you have a clinic, host Vet for a Day. We’ll come and we’ll help make it happen. If you want to start your own program, we’re open to helping facilitate. We can’t do it across the world, so we need everyone to be involved. Just reach out to us on our website. We’d love to have more people on board.
Grace: Anything you would like to add?
Dr. Hodges: The schools are starting to get on board but for a long time they’ve been preaching that you need a 3.7 GPA to get in. What about the kid with a 3.3 who’s a first-generation college student and washing dishes at night, trying to keep insurance on their car, sending home back to mama, and doing everything they can to love animals whereas the kid with the 3.7 only had to go to school? You’ve got to look at the whole individual, and I think we’re finally starting to do that as a profession.
I have never had an animal come into my clinic without a client, so you need people with life experience who can talk to clients, not just treat the animal.
You can support Dr. Ferguson and Dr. Hodges by visiting their website and signing up to volunteer at an upcoming event near you. Through the site, you can also reach out to them to discuss bringing Vet for a Day to your city.
Grace is an animal advocate with a passion for social justice within the animal protection movement.