‘Critter Fixers’ show kids what it’s like to be Vet for a Day

With help from Zoo Atlanta, stars of Nat Geo Wild show introduce kids to world of animal care

When you think of an animal doctor, most people have the same image in mind. “But we’re changing what a veterinarian looks like,” Dr. Vernard Hodges said Saturday after Vet for a Day activities at Zoo Atlanta.

Hodges and Dr. Terrence Ferguson are the dynamic duo behind Vet for a Day, during which kids can get a taste of not only what it’s like to be a veterinarian, but also what it takes to become one.

The stars of “Critter Fixers: Country Vets” have traveled the nation introducing kids to their profession through their Vet for a Day program. They believe that if kids who are interested in being a veterinarian can get support and information, they are more likely to pursue their calling.

Saturday was Atlanta’s turn.

Chakana the red-tailed boa met Vet for a Day participants as they entered the event space.

Credit: Nancy Clanton / nancy.clanton@ajc.com

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Credit: Nancy Clanton / nancy.clanton@ajc.com

“We are excited to be part of Critter Fixers Vet for a Day,” said Sam Rivera, DVM, vice president of animal health at Zoo Atlanta. “All careers in animal care and conservation … will be in great need of a next generation of people with passion, dedication and heart. It is very important to us that we provide inspiration, opportunities and access for our youth in ensuring that all animals, whether in human care or in the wild, have the best lives possible.”

As eager kids filed in to Savanna Hall at Zoo Atlanta — including one who flew from Phoenix with her mother and grandmother — they were greeted by Chakana, a red-tailed boa. They peppered the snake’s handler with questions and had their photo taken with her before grabbing a seat.

Kyndal Freeman, an eighth-grader at Amana Academy in West Atlanta, said she was attending the event to learn how to properly care for animals.

“I love animals,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to be a veterinarian.”

Kyndal’s mother, Dana Butler, said she not only wanted her daughter to have this experience, but also wanted to find out what she needed to do to help her reach her goal.

Nadia Jackson, a sophomore at Mount Zion High School, said she wants to go into medical research.

“I’m hoping to become more educated,” she said. “I want to learn more.” The 10th-grader is already prepping for her future, having received a scholarship from Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College in Tifton over the summer.

Nadia Jackson, a 10th-grader at Mount Zion High School, converses with Dr. Vernard Hodges during the suturing station, one of three hands-on activities at Vet for a Day.

Credit: Nancy Clanton / nancy.clanton@ajc.com

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Credit: Nancy Clanton / nancy.clanton@ajc.com

The program

During the first hour of Vet for a Day, participants heard from Cary Burgess, senior vice president of DEI, Government and Community Affairs at Zoo Atlanta, and some of the vets who care for Msholo, Kelly and Tara, the zoo’s elephants.

“This is a very special day for us and aligns with so many parts of our mission,” Burgess said. “Not only are we devoted to superior animal care, but we are also committed to accessibility and opportunities for our community as we strive to provide inclusive access to the resources and experiences the zoo has to offer.”

The doctors shared their stories of what it took to become a veterinarian and what the participants should expect on their journeys through college, vet school and beyond.

Then Ferguson and Hodges took the stage to share their stories and to play a game of “What did I eat?”

During their first hour of Vet for a Day, participants played a game of What Did I Eat? Drs. Terrence Ferguson and Vernard Hodges brought X-rays, and the kids had to try to guess what the pet consumed. In this case, it was false teeth.

Credit: Nancy Clanton / nancy.clanton@ajc.com

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Credit: Nancy Clanton / nancy.clanton@ajc.com

Displaying X-rays taken of some of their patients at their Bonaire clinic, the doctors asked participants if they could figure out what the animal had eaten. Answers included a rubber duck, earrings, false teeth and, in one patient, more than 200 socks. “See? It’s not your dryer eating them,” Hodges quipped.

The program then became a hands-on event, with three stations set up to teach participants about ultrasounds, suturing and skeletal systems. For the latter, the zoo brought exhibits from its vault.

During this time, parents received information on schools, financing and ways to support their future vet.

After each group went through all stations, the participants were escorted to the elephant barn to meet one of the zoo’s residents and learn how trainers and doctors work together to check the pachyderms’ musculature, feet, eyes and teeth. The participants even got to watch how blood is drawn for tests (hint: it’s from the ear).

Vet for a Day participants got an upclose view of what it takes to care for Kelly, one of Zoo Atlanta's three elephants.

Credit: Nancy Clanton / nancy.clanton@ajc.com

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Credit: Nancy Clanton / nancy.clanton@ajc.com

“We don’t get any elephants at our practice!” Ferguson said during his group’s encounter with Tara. He and Hodges were just as excited as the kids during this behind-the-scenes experience the zoo arranged.

“We have great admiration for Drs. Hodges and Ferguson and the outstanding work they do both for animals and for their community,” Burgess said. It is exciting to see them meet our own world-class veterinary team, and to offer the children here today an experience we hope they will never forget.”

Ferguson and Hodges said they hope the participants will be encouraged to continue their dreams after meeting doctors who look like them, which is rare. That’s because fewer than 2% of the country’s veterinarians are Black.

Both said Saturday’s event was more than they had hoped for.

“To see the excitement on the kids’ faces was everything,” Ferguson said.

If your child wasn’t able to attend this Vet for a Day, the doctors and Burgess said they are already planning another event at the zoo.