July 23, 2024

Historically Black college hopes to be second to train veterinarians. Why it matters. – USA TODAY

When Kaila Tyree-Castro was 13, her pet geckos got sick. The closest veterinarian was an hour away from her Bowie, Maryland, home and an appointment was not available for two weeks.
Tyree-Castro, now 19, felt helpless as she watched her lizards get sicker and then die.
That episode left her wanting to become a veterinarian herself ‒ and now, as a first-generation college student at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, she is hoping to join the inaugural class at her university’s planned new veterinary school.
Last month, UMES received state approval to create a school of veterinary medicine that will become just the second among the nation’s more than 100 historically Black colleges and universities. Tuskegee University in Alabama has the only other veterinary school in the country’s historically Black universities and there are fewer than three dozen veterinary programs in the entire U.S.
“I have big dreams and if I get accepted and can continue my studies right here, my head would be so big…” Tyree-Castro said, her voice rising.
In a best-case scenario UMES’ new veterinary school will be accredited by 2025 and will have as many as 100 graduate students taking classes a year later, said Moses Kairo, the university’s agricultural and natural sciences dean.
UMES’ vet school will “change the landscape,” Kairo said, and fill multiple needs in a profession where Black people make up only 3% of the workforce.
“We are hoping that our new school will open the door and create plenty of opportunities in an underserved field,” Kairo said.
A study from Mars Veterinary Health in August 2023 found that about 55,000 more veterinarians will be needed by 2030 to meet pet health care needs in the U.S. The study also said there is a need to build a bigger talent pipeline and strengthen career pathways.
“The bottom line is we need more veterinarians of all races, from all backgrounds,” said Stacy Pursell, a recruiter in the animal health industry and CEO of the VET Recruiter. “It’s a much bigger picture than just race. There are very limited spots at veterinary schools and they turn away more students than they can accept.”
UMES’ location in Princess Anne, Maryland, about 90 miles south of Washington, D.C., should attract prospective vet students from nearby diverse cities, including Baltimore, Philadelphia, several major cities in Virginia, and even New York City, said Dr. Niccole Bruno, the founder of BLEND, a Houston-area veterinary hospital certification program that specializes in bringing inclusivity to the industry.  
Bruno, a native of the borough of Queens in New York, said a vet school located not too far from a major urban area increases the visibility and chances of having more students of color attend.
“This can be a great pathway to nurture that interest,” Bruno said.
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Pursell, whose Tulsa, Oklahoma-based search firm has placed “thousands of vets” in jobs nationwide for more than 25 years, said she’s been noticing “a decadelong trend” of more veterinarians coming from urban areas in addition to the more traditional rural locations.
“Therefore, we likely will see more veterinarians of color,” Pursell said. “I certainly hope so.”
The need for more vets also comes as more Americans have pets.
According to the American Pet Products Association, a trade group, about 70% of American households own a pet, up from 56% in 1988. About 23 million American households ‒ roughly 1 in 5 ‒ adopted a pet during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
Those statistics coincide with a recent Pew Research Center survey that said more than half of Americans own a pet, including about a third who have more than one. The Pew survey also found that an overwhelming majority of U.S. pet owners consider their pets part of their family. About 68% of white adults and 66% of Hispanic adults own a pet, the Pew survey said, compared to just 37% of Asian and 34% of Black adults.
Americans consider pets as vital family members, with some considering pets “as the most important factor when making homebuying decisions,” said Jessica Lautz, the vice president of demographics and behavioral insights for the National Association of Realtors.
“Proximity to the vet and plenty of outdoor space” for pets to run and play are keys for homebuyers with pets, Lautz said.
There are roughly 124,000 licensed vets across the U.S., but only about 95,000 of them are still practicing, as many “Baby Boomer” vets have retired. The Mars study projected pet health care services spending would spike 3% to 4% a year beyond inflation over the next 8 to 10 years.
“More millennials and Gen Z(ers) own pets and they want the same scale of health care for them as they want for themselves,” said Mark Cushing, author of the 2020 book “Pet Nation: The Inside Story of How Companion Animals Are Transforming Our Homes, Culture, and Economy.”
“Unfortunately, the supply (of veterinarians) hasn’t caught up with the demand,” he said.
The increase in pet ownership, plus the projected 19% growth in the veterinary field over the next six years validate UMES’ decision to launch a veterinary school now, Kairo said.
“There are very few vet schools being established, so there’s room for growth,” Kairo said. “We feel our timing is just right.”
UMES’ Department of Agriculture, Food and Resource Sciences already has a pre-veterinary program that graduates about an average of five to seven students per academic year.
Pre-vet major Donovan Grady, Jr. 20, a junior, from Mardela Springs, Maryland, is eager to enroll in the graduate program, though he’ll have to wait for a year once he completes his college degree.
Grady, who loves nurturing the goats and other small animals on the school’s seven-pasture farm, said after he becomes an established licensed vet, he hopes to return to his alma mater to teach. “I want to pay it forward and help streamline the path for others,” he said.
News of Maryland Eastern Shore’s upcoming vet school comes about three months after the university announced a $60-million fundraising plan. The financial campaign − the largest in the school’s nearly 140-year history – will hopefully lead to the construction of a dedicated building for the veterinary school, said Dr. Kimberly Braxton, an associate professor at UMES.
In addition to the new building, the funding would be used to upgrade UMES’ vet facilities, especially the farm that features small ruminant animals including sheep, goats, and a chicken coop.
UMES hopes it can get funds similar to fellow HBCU institution Spelman College in Atlanta, which just received its largest donation ever of $100 million from businesswoman and philanthropist Ronda Stryker and her husband, William Johnston, the chairman of Greenleaf Trust.
“It’s a huge task,” said Braxton about UMES’ financial endeavor. “But a good task to have.”
A UMES alum and a licensed veterinarian, Braxton was recently named the veterinary school’s interim founding dean. She said discussions around a new veterinary school have been ongoing for at least six years.
At first, Braxton said she was thinking of simply adding a vet technology program. But the school’s president, Heidi Anderson told her to aim higher. “She said, ‘Let’s shoot for the stars and see if we can get a super-big goal for Maryland and historically Black colleges and universities,'” Braxton said.
Many of UMES’ current pre-vet students had never seen a Black veterinarian until they met her, Braxton said. Some students were even more surprised when they met another Black vet in the form of Dr. Vernard Hodges, star of Nat Geo TV’s “Critter Fixers: Country Vets,” last year.
“That pulled at my heartstrings,” Braxton said. “That’s why I’m ready to put in the work to make this an even greater program
Anderson is a clear indication that the UMES School of Veterinary Medicine will help us fulfill a clear need in our communities, Maryland and beyond.”
The timelines are important to help UMES try to cut into the overall vet shortage nationally, said Cushing, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based attorney whose lobbying firm, Animal Policy Group, is helping UMES with its vet school accreditation process.
The UMES school will adopt a hands-on, accelerated three-year program similar to one at the University of Arizona, Kairo said. “We will not be sacrificing our curriculum as we will offer courses similar to four-year schools, but our students will be in session throughout the year to complete their requirements.”
UMES pre-vet student Olivia Ludolph, a junior, said she is so adamant about attending UMES for graduate school that she would delay her studies if necessary. The 20-year-old from Baltimore wants to stay closer to home and near her “real family and my UMES family.”
“I definitely have a family here on campus that is so caring and supportive,” Ludolph said. “I want to specialize in livestock and large animals and that’s what the (vet) school hopes to bring. I just want to be a part of something special.”

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