As a child, Dr. Terrence Ferguson almost didn’t follow his dream because he couldn’t say, “My veterinarian looks like me.”
Ferguson knew at the age of 7 he wanted to be “an animal doctor,” he said. His mother told him they’re called veterinarians. But he’d never seen a Black vet, so he decided instead to go into fishery and wildlife.
“It wasn’t until my junior year in college that I saw a Black vet,” he said. That’s because fewer than 2% of the country’s veterinarians look like him.
That vet, Dr. Earnest Corker, inspired Ferguson to continue to follow his heart and become a vet. Corker became not only his mentor, but also mentor to Ferguson’s friend and now business partner, Dr. Vernard Hodges.
Ferguson and Hodges graduated from Fort Valley State University and then attended veterinary school at Tuskegee University. Those are two of only four historically Black universities — with Delaware State University and Florida A&M — to offer a degree in veterinary medicine, and Tuskegee is the only one to offer a doctorate.
The two opened Critter Fixer Veterinary Hospital in 1999, and last year became the newest members of the National Geographic family with their own show, “Critter Fixers: Country Vets.” Season 2 will premiere on Nat Geo Wild at 9 p.m. May 22, and you can watch Season 1 on Disney+ (look for the Nat Geo Wild tab).
Their journey wasn’t an easy one, however, and the two have made it their mission to clear the path for the next generation.
Evolution of the Black veterinarian
Dr. Booker T. Washington founded Tuskegee University in Alabama in 1881. Washington’s thought was, in the South, the white farmer was not going to let you work on him.
“But the most important thing at that time was their mule,” Hodges said, “so he said, ‘Let’s get a veterinary school started.’ Because if we can get an African American trained as a doctor of veterinary medicine, we can work on that mule.
“It was brilliant,” he continued, “because that’s the most important thing. If you’re a farmer and you’re in the Deep South, and you’ve got this mule, and this mule is dying, you don’t care who’s working on it. So that’s how the evolution of Tuskegee started.”
“Tuskegee doesn’t have all the tools and resources of the bigger schools,” Hodges added, “but the one thing it taught us was to use our hands and our brains. So when we graduated, we were able to hit the ground running.”
When the friends graduated with their doctorates, Ferguson and Hodges sought gainful employment, “but there weren’t a lot of opportunities,” Hodges said. So they made their own.
The pair built their business from the ground up — quite literally. After finding a 1,000-square-foot space to lease, they built the walls, the exam tables and everything else they needed. They ate sandwiches every day to make ends meet.
“We definitely were qualified veterinarians,” Ferguson said, “but we were overqualified receptionists, veterinary technicians, kennel help and pooper scoopers. We had to do it all.”
That startup clinic has now grown into one of Houston County’s busiest veterinary hospitals. Critter Fixer Veterinary Hospital is more than 7,000 square feet and the only veterinary clinic in the Bonaire/Warner Robins area offering digital radiography.
Clearing the path
Critter Fixer has become not only a business success, but also a steppingstone for veterinary students.
“One thing we’re always talking about is giving that extra hand up,” Ferguson said. Their animal hospital is near Fort Valley State, and a lot of the veterinary science students have worked at Critter Fixer.
“Dr. Hodges and I have been very, very, very instrumental to being a steppingstone for them,” Ferguson said. “Of the 25-30 technicians we have, probably 75% are graduates of Fort Valley State University.”
They call it the Critter Fixer Family Tree, which is veterinarians they have either groomed at their hospital or written letters for to get into veterinary school.
“And it’s up to 63 we have had a big hand in helping to become veterinarians,” Ferguson said.
Hodges added, “The veterinarians in the Critter Fixer Tree are all around the country and have gone on to do great things.”
“It’s been awesome because we know we’ve had a hand in helping with this diversity issue we have in our profession,” Ferguson said, “and we’re going to continue to do it.”
The doctors aren’t waiting until kids are in vet school, however, before being an influence.
Ferguson has written a children’s book, “C is for Critter Fixer,” that is loosely based on his experience.
He said he wrote the book because “when I was young, I didn’t see a Black veterinarian, so I said, ‘You know what? I want to let kids know that it does not matter what color you are, it doesn’t matter if you’re handicapped. Whatever your restrictions are, you can become one — even if you don’t see it.’ And the great thing is this platform on Nat Geo Wild allows people to be able to see us. It may not seem important, but I know it’s important, because I never saw that growing up.
“We don’t take that lightly, and that’s why we’re so involved with our community and with young adults now,” he said.
The doctors know there is more to being a success than just getting into vet school.
“Even though we talk about diversity and education, we gotta start helping with the socioeconomics,” Hodges said.
“I have a foundation that teaches socioeconomics called It Takes a Village,” he continued. “It takes groups of kids and teaches them business skills — just the basics. Then we help them develop a business. And once they come up with their idea, then we fund the business. We have kids who have started apps; they’ve started yard care businesses. Because socioeconomics is the key.”
“I wanted to show people that I didn’t learn anything on Wall Street, I don’t have an MBA, but through the school of hard knocks, I learned some finance, and I wanted to teach that,” Hodges said.
“We have to expose them to these things more at an early age,” Ferguson added.
In the South, Hodges said, “all these kids want to be professional football players, right? Or professional basketball players. But think about it: Do you ever hear a kid say he wants to be a professional hockey player? No, because they don’t see it.
“So when they see us, then they think, ‘OK, this is possible. I see this guy. I see the platform that Nat Geo or Disney has given these guys. Those guys are veterinarians,’ " he added.
When people think about historically Black colleges and universities, Hodges said, they think Martin Luther King Jr. and Morehouse, and George Washington Carver and Tuskegee.
“It’s really cool to see Kamala,” he said. Harris graduated from Howard, which is an HBCU.
“Now I think people are starting to see that HBCUs produce amazing, smart people from all walks of life,” Hodges said. “And it’s so cool now, because people see Kamala, and they’re like, ‘Man, she went to an HBCU.’”
Ferguson added: “I want people to understand that if you went to an HBCU, you can achieve just as much and maybe more than everyone else. Let’s embrace where we are. Let’s continue to be positive, professional and exude what the HBCUs have to offer.”
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight different African American pioneers ― through new stories and our archive collection ― in our Living and Metro sections Monday through Sunday. Go to AJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African American pioneers featured here each day.