Students get veterinary career training through high school program

SUNSET HILLS, MO - FOX 2 recently visited the St. Louis County Pet Adoption Center where adoption rates are increasing and euthanasia rates are dropping. There is a group of teens working with the county to ensure no pet is left behind, even the special cases. They are students in the veterinary assistant program at South Technical High School in Sunset Hills. The half-day program teaches the basics of grooming, but students are also learning how to diagnose, treat, medicate, and vaccinate.

These high school juniors and seniors get the training they need to turn their passion for pets into careers.

“We’re a hidden gem,” said instructor Erica Zengerling. “I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say, ‘Wow! I’ve never heard of this program!’”

Zengerling is also the founder of Saving G.R.A.C.E. pet rescue. She built a relationship with St. Louis County Pet Adoption Center and the partnership has been mutually beneficial.

“Any time they have medical cases, they know that they can call me and sucker me into it. Especially if it’s something interesting that my students haven’t seen,” said Zengerling.

Treating special needs and medical cases is expensive. Zengerling says “it takes a village.” She has a positive relationship with St. Louis County Pet Adoption Center, so when they get an animal they are unable to help medically due to cost, she will take that animal to a veterinarian whom she has also built a positive relationship with.

The animals are treated by a Dr. Hallie Feagans with Family Pet Hospital (10400 Watson Rd.) who assesses the animals and performs all necessary surgeries.

Once cleared by Dr. Feagans, the animals are brought to South Tech High School where the veterinary assistant students continue to care for, treat and socialize the animals until they are ready to be adopted through Saving G.R.A.C.E.

“We give them the jobs, and they do it,” said Zengerling who is also a graduate of the South Tech veterinary assistant program. “We watch them, but we want to make sure we turn out kids who know as much as they can about different medical procedures, different treatments, different ways to medicate.”

When FOX 2 visited, the class was caring for puppies, kittens, dogs, cats, guinea pigs, snakes, a bearded dragon, a tarantula, a tortoise, a hedgehog, rabbits, turkeys, a rooster, and several chickens.

“This program is a huge step up,” said Rebecca Wurl, a senior at Lindbergh High School. “Some people have never been exposed to all of the animals that we have. So, when you’re getting chosen for a college and putting applications in, it’s a huge deal to be like ‘I have past experience. I do have veterinary experience.’”

The program shows students that medical work is hard and life is fragile. Wurl learned this lesson firsthand when she cared for a litter of sick kittens battling an upper respiratory infection.

“I had one of the kittens and it actually died in my arms,” she said. “That was probably the big moment of ‘This is what I want to do, but it’s going to be hard to do it.’ It’s not all happy cases and happy endings.”

There are happy cases, though. Cases that remind the students what they’re working towards. Cases like Bessie, the dog with a four-pound tumor, quickly running out of time at the St. Louis County Pet Adoption Center.

“She was going to be put down for her tumor, and it was very hard to see that,” said Matti Palmer, a senior at Mehlville High School.

Zengerling brought Bessie to Dr. Feagans who removed the tumor, then students in the veterinary assistant program provided post-op care.

“We helped take care of (the surgical site),” said Nikki Wagstaff, a senior at Mehlville High School. “We helped keep it clean, and we just made sure that she was doing good, that she was getting her medicine and stuff.”

For now, Bessie is doing well, and there are no signs the tumor is growing again. She will live out the rest of her days, however long or short that may be, with one of the students in the veterinary assistant program.

The teens help Zengerling run Saving G.R.A.C.E. by serving as foster homes for the animals on weekends and some evenings. The students are responsible for caring for the animals, feeding them, giving them any needed medication, and socializing them. In some ways, the students are experiencing what it is like to bring their work home with them.

“It’s all up to me to take care of the dog that I take home,” said Wagstaff. “They stay in my room and I have to take them out in the mornings and at night and make sure they have their food and water, and if they are on medications, I have to make sure that they get it.”

There are approximately 57 students from more than 20 area high schools enrolled in the veterinary assistant program at South Tech High School, according to Zengerling. At the end of two years, students who complete the criteria for the program and volunteer in local vet offices will be certified as veterinary assistants. Students may go to work as certified veterinary assistants, or they may use that experience and education to continue their training and go on to become veterinary technicians or veterinarians.

“I think that the stuff that we learn at our home school is important. It’s very important, but I like being able to come here because this is what I want to do,” said Wagstaff. “I am actually excited to come to school when I come here.”

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