LARGO — Penny the white hound mix sat in the middle of the students with her eyes half-closed as her belly got scratched by Emily Engelhardt. It was finals week at St. Petersburg College's veterinary technology program, and Penny had lucked out.
Engelhardt had arrived to do some last-minute reviewing for her exam in laboratory procedures, and when she realized she was a bundle of nerves, she turned to Penny. "I was stressed, so I went and got Penny out of the kennel," she said. "She's like therapy for me, relaxing me before the test."
St. Petersburg College's veterinary technology program is a place where animals intermingle with students on their way to becoming "vet techs,'' commonly described as animal nurses.
Engelhardt is one of approximately 400 students enrolled in the program, which had been housed at SPC's Health Education Center in Pinellas Park for more than 20 years. In August, it opened in its new site next to Pinellas County Animal Services, and Dec. 9 marked the end of the first semester for students in the new digs.
The transition to the new facility has gone smoothly, according to Dr. Richard Flora, head of the program.
Flora likes to compare the new building to a new boat. "With a new boat, the first time you take it out, it is called a 'shakedown cruise,' '' he said. "We'll continue the shakedown cruise into the second semester, but I will say: So far, so good.''
The reason for the new building had to do with a matter of growth, said Flora, who boasts a 98 percent job placement rate for his graduates. Although Florida is one of 12 states that don't require vet techs to hold a business license, "it is becoming more and more common for local veterinarians to look for vet techs that have graduated from an accredited program,'' he said. "We needed a place where we had more room, and the new campus has been able to provide the students with an opportunity for better learning.''
The 32,768-square-foot building cost $11 million to build. It includes three lecture rooms that typically hold between 15 and 40 students. Each room is outfitted with white boards and computerized projectors. There are also several specialty rooms, including an animal procedure room where students learn general techniques like how to handle animals and how to get blood samples. There's a surgery and recovery area equipped with anesthesia equipment, heart monitors and cameras that record the instruction.
The kennel area, for about 24 cats and 24 dogs that arrive through a relationship SPC has with Pasco County Animal Control, includes an indoor/outdoor area for the canines and a cat room for the felines. The cats get to take turns outside of their individual crates near the sun window, a one-way window overlooking bird feeders and a butterfly garden. "The window is like kitty cable TV for the cats,'' said Flora.
For Engelhardt, a second-year student, the updated building has helped her "learn things easier,'' she said. "For example, when I was in a blood lab, the teacher was able to take something he wanted to show us on his computer and project it on large white boards. I could compare the displayed image to what I was seeing under the microscope.''
Engelhardt also appreciates the area dedicated to dental work.
"Although it will be the actual veterinarian who would do teeth pulling, when it comes to preparing the animals for dental work or for cleaning the teeth, the vet tech would do that,'' she said. "It's something done frequently so it's good to be learning on the new equipment for this, like the teeth scaler.''
This might be considered a time of transition, but Flora has his eyes set on the future. Although he has already sent groups over to work with veterinarians during spaying and neutering sessions at Pinellas County Animal Services, he'd like to see his students over there even more. "The more hands-on work our students get, the better for everybody,'' he said.
And longer term, Flora hopes his program will be able to work with the University of Florida. Someday, he'd like to see UF veterinarian students study for two years in Largo. "But nothing will happen until the money situation improves,'' he said.
Flora also hopes the future includes a decision by the state to require all veterinarian technicians to hold a license from the state's board of veterinary medicine (which falls under the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation).
"A person who does your nails is required to hold a license, and the person who does your hair is required to do a license, but (vet techs) who do things like monitor pets under anesthesia are not licensed,'' he said. "This is something that needs to be taken care of.''
Piper Castillo can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4163.