Pre-vet students volunteer abroad to improve animal and community welfare

Pre-Vet Alternative Spring Break - Working
Mary Roche, an undergraduate in the Department of Animal Science helped treat local animals in Roatán, Honduras, with a team of volunteers.

For the past several years, a handful of UConn pre-veterinary students have traveled abroad to provide medical services for animals that otherwise receive limited or no medical attention.

These undergraduates studying in the Department of Animal Science and Department of Pathology and Veterinary Science donate their time to help communities care for their pets and livestock as part of an alternative spring break.

Alternative breaks present opportunities for students to engage in service learning, gaining important vocational skills while assisting communities. Many volunteer organizations arrange trips to coincide with college vacations to increase participation.

In the spring semester, pre-vet students went to Honduras and Nicaragua with World Vets, an international aid organization for animals. They assisted veterinarians and veterinary technicians with operations on local animals, giving students a chance to improve the health of communities and learn how to work with animal species considered exotic in the United States.

The UConn Pre-Vet Club regularly advertises these alternative break opportunities to students.

“I was at a Pre-Vet Club meeting and the students that had gone on these types of trips made a presentation,” says Brooke Chawner, a pathobiology and veterinary science major. After listening, Chawner decided to go to Granada, Nicaragua, for her spring break.

“I was new to the pre-vet route and I hadn’t had any clinical experience with animals yet. They showed us how the trip is organized, the kind of things we might be doing and discussed how it helped their careers. It seemed like a great chance to get my feet wet,” says Chawner.

The Pre-Vet Club is a valuable resource for students to learn more about the veterinary field, including ways to prepare for a doctor of veterinary medicine (DVM) program and explore potential career paths. The club supports itself and its members with a variety of fundraisers, including dog washes, canine walks and dog biscuit sales. They also raise monies via crowdfunding through the UConn Foundation and their HuskyDrive Ignite campaign. These funds sponsor guest speakers, trips and volunteer experiences for students, including alternative spring breaks. The club regularly has over eighty members.

Mary Roche, an undergraduate in pathobiology and veterinary science, is the current president of the Pre-Vet Club. She encourages members to participate in alternative breaks, especially those looking to expand their knowledge about working with exotic animals and gain experience with veterinary practices outside the United States. Roche traveled to Roatán, Honduras, an island in the Caribbean Sea, with World Vets during her spring break earlier this year.

Pre-Vet Alternative Spring Break - Blow Dart
Roche learned how to use a dart gun to sedate particular animals. “It’s for their safety and for ours,” says Roche.

“An alternative break is a time to push yourself out of your comfort zone and do things that you never thought you’d have the opportunity to do,” says Roche. “I helped with health exams on all the animals and minor surgery on capuchin and spider monkeys, pumas, jaguars and other animals I wouldn’t easily get a chance to work with in the United States.”

While many organizations accept volunteers to provide animal care domestically and around the globe, World Vets is one of the most popular choices for students. The stated mission of World Vets is to deliver veterinary services and training throughout the world, in addition to disaster relief. Pre-vet students often participate in World Vets’ Veterinary Field Projects, which establish clinics for communities to spay and neuter pets, provide general medical care for all animals and assist with livestock and animal husbandry issues.

Many of these communities are underserved and benefit immensely from services provided by these clinics. Students sterilize animals to curb overpopulation, administer vaccines and apply flea and tick preventives to control the spread of diseases amongst animals and humans.

“We also provided education to the community about proper diet and conditions for animals. This work is not only to improve the health of animals, but also the health of humans and the environment. It’s all intrinsically linked,” says Roche.

“These types of organizations and programs are great for everyone involved,” says Sandra Bushmich, associate dean for academic programs, director of the Ratcliffe Hicks School of Agriculture and faculty advisor to the Pre-Vet Club. “Our College has a great relationship with World Vets. The students enjoy their trips and learn a number of valuable skills. They get exposure to new experiences, people in these areas get the peace of mind that their animals are receiving the care they need, zoonotic diseases are being addressed and the quality of life for these animals is improved.”

Pre-Vet Alternative Spring Break - Group Photo
A group photo from a World Vets field project in Roatán, Honduras. Roche is seated on the right, in the center row, with a monkey on her shoulder.

About a dozen team members usually staff each World Vets field project, led by veterinarians and veterinary technicians who supervise students. The limited number of staff and community demand means students are performing tasks and procedures they would not usually get to do.

Kylie Baker, a double major in animal science and pathobiology and veterinary science, went to Nicaragua with World Vets and she described it as an intensive hands-on experience.

“We would prepare our patients for spays and neuters by conducting a full physical examination, administer pre-anesthetic medication, place catheters, intubate, express bladders and give anesthetic induction. After surgery, we gave injections of antibiotics and rabies vaccines in addition to oral and topical anti-parasitic medications. We even traveled to a rural part of the country, setting up a clinic in a field to help companion animals and horses,” says Baker.

Pre-Vet Alternative Spring Break - Snorkeling
While students spend a majority of their time at the clinics, they do have free time to experience what the region has to offer. Roche went snorkeling and explored the marine life, which included sea turtles.

Bushmich says alternative breaks are a great way for students to get additional exposure to animals and veterinary medicine that aids students’ personal growth and career prospects.

“Students do the work of veterinary technicians on these trips. This means they have to step up, learn quickly and ask questions. This is where students shine. They realize they know more than they thought they did, they start connecting the classroom stuff to the real world and they grow more comfortable with asking for help, which is an important quality for self-improvement. Alternative breaks promote confidence and leadership,” says Bushmich.

The College offers two tracks for pre-veterinary studies in the Department of Animal Science and Department of Pathobiology and Veterinary Science. Students are encouraged to speak with advisors about their options and check admission requirements at prospective schools. Most students complete a bachelor’s degree before applying to a veterinary medicine program. These programs are competitive and requirements vary by institution, but practical experience is always a valued component.

UConn’s curriculum helps students garner practical experience, but alternative breaks can further enhance skills and help applicants stand out. They also provide a great way to meet others students and find mentors. Students form lasting friendships and connections to volunteers and communities.

“I kept in touch with the veterinarian I worked with on the trip. She agreed to write one of my letters of recommendation for veterinary school, and I could not be more thrilled,” says Roche.

By Jason M. Sheldon