If you’ve never seen a Black veterinarian, there’s a reason.
There aren’t that many.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, among the estimated 104,000 veterinarians in America, there are so few Black vets that statistically the percentage registers as 0.0. Citing similar data, The Atlantic magazine in 2013 reported that being a vet was “the whitest job in America.”
Ian and Megan Scholer want to change that.
Ian is a veterinarian in Evans, and Megan resigned from her teaching career to devote more time to their four children.
Now they’re both devoting more time to Vets of All Colors, a nonprofit they kicked off officially in October. The goal is to build more interest among all school-age children to pursue careers in veterinary science, and to give minority students in particular the financial help to complete the schooling necessary to treat and heal animals.
“Instead of just a scholarship, we thought, ‘Wait.’” Megan Scholer said. “We could try to be part of a solution instead of a Band-Aid, by doing a K-12 thing here with our two school districts in Richmond and Columbia counties, and see what happens if we enable children to envision a future in the field.”
Linsay Barnes envisioned that future. She took her love of medicine and pets to Auburn University to study animal science. Now as Dr. Barnes, she practices at St. Francis Animal Hospital in Augusta.
She said Black families with more pressing priorities don’t often produce children who dream of becoming vets.
“Animals are a part of people’s family, but that means another mouth to feed and to medically take care of,” Barnes said. “A lot of families are struggling to feed and take care of themselves, (let alone) a pet. So the acceptance of animals and the field of veterinary medicine becomes very low on the scale of importance.”
Melony Johnson of Augusta started as a volunteer but earned a two-year degree to become a veterinary technician at St. Francis.
“The option for a pet was never a question in my house, but for lots of my friends they wouldn’t dream of having a pet, let alone taking care of an animal professionally,” she said. “I didn’t see any people in the industry really that looked like me, but it wasn’t about the people for me. It was always about the animals.”
Scholer encountered similar sentiments reflected in a Time magazine article published Oct. 21, coincidentally just weeks after the founding of Vets of All Colors. The article focused on Black vets struggling to diversify their professional field.
“There’s also the whole idea that children might not grow up seeing veterinary staff or veterinarians who look like them, and so it might not occur to them to enter the field,” she said.
To “make the veterinary field representative of the demographics of Augusta,” Scholer is drawing on her education experience to start engaging pilot schools in participating in Vets of All Colors’ initiatives. While scholarships will focus on minority students, the invitation to become a vet is intended to be all-inclusive.
To encourage the pre-K and kindergarten concepts of imaginary play, Vets of All Colors is providing toy vet doctor kits to elementary schools, and age-appropriate books that touch on the veterinary field.
“It’s not easy to find veterinary storybooks with diverse characters, but we found five, but we want students and teachers to be able to tell us what to buy,” she said. “It might be different for Richmond and Columbia counties, so we’re going to gather that data and make purchasing decisions after that.”
Vets of All Colors is arranging for donors to provide copies of the books through an online Amazon wish list, but the new nonprofit is accepting donations and cooperation from as many sources as it can find. Organizers have “been very pleased with the grassroots donations we’ve received just from people who believe in the mission,” Scholer said.
For upper grades, Vets of All Colors seeks to work with Dog Doctors, a program sponsored by the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine, in which vets and vet-school students bring dogs into middle-school classrooms to deliver hands-on exposure to animal care.
Scholer also has contacted a veterinarian who specializes in online instruction, including a course available at Augusta Tech that trains veterinary assistants. She hopes it can lead to extending online courses to high school students, which would be taken as an extracurricular option to avoid infringing on often-complicated class scheduling.
She also has talked to Texas A&M about the possibility of bringing a two-year certification program to high schools in which she would be the facilitating teacher. The first year would be instruction, and the second year would consist of an “externship” in which students would gain practical experience.
Reaching out for help also has yielded unexpected surprises. Scholer communicated on Facebook with Dr. Terrance Ferguson, a Black vet in the Georgia town of Byron who earlier this year got his own TV show, “Critter Fixers: Country Vets,” on the Nat Geo Wild cable channel.
“He has already agreed to come and do a book talk with our students,” she said. “He was just so friendly in his response.”
Since helping start the nonprofit, Scholer has been amazed like that more than once.
“That’s been one of the most surprising parts about this, is that people are willing to help us. They want to help us,” she said.
While Vets of All Colors hasn’t yet reached out extensively to local veterinary practices, the group’s aim is for area vets to share in the success.
“We want to tell somebody, ‘If you love it, let us help you do it.’ So hopefully in the years to come, that would mean we’ve done what we set out to do, if we can put our local Augusta minority kids through vet school,” Scholer said. “Then we’d really start to move that data.”