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Nurses of the pet world combine critters, career

It's 9:30 a.m. on Friday, and a cacophony of barking greets Vivian Tiffany, 40, as she enters the dog kennels.

Toby, a 4-year-old black Labrador retriever, wildly wags his tail as Cocoa, a mixed breed in the adjacent pen, bounces off his door performing front and back flips like a champ. And Parker, a 2-year-old hound dog, tongue lolling from his mouth, howls from his dog run.

"He's just got no manners," said Tiffany, a certified veterinary technician and instructor in St. Petersburg Junior College's veterinary technician program.

It's a typical morning at the school where students rotate cleaning and feeding the dozens of cats, dogs, hamsters and other animals. The only veterinary technician program in the state, it attracts people from throughout Florida. Students graduate from SPJC's two-year program with an associate's degree and have the training to work anywhere from an animal hospital to a zoo.

Veterinary technicians, or vet techs, assist veterinarians in caring for animals. In 43 states, including Florida, licensing is required.

Although they aren't allowed to diagnose, prescribe medication or perform surgery, vet techs are considered nurses, and thus caretakers in the world of veterinary medicine.

"They're really important," said Dr. Guy Hancock, 46, a veterinarian and director of the program. "They free up the veterinarian and make the vet more efficient."

Twice as many veterinarians graduate each year as vet techs, according to Hancock. With 150 students continuously enrolled in the program, 300 job announcements flooding the school yearly, and a recommended ratio of two techs to every doctor, the field has become a promising career.

"The attraction is they get to work with animals and do medical things but not have to take on the responsibility that vets do," Hancock said. "Plus a lot of people can't stare down nine years of school."

Some students do look at the program as a steppingstone to veterinary school. Although many of the classes overlap, the program can give students who are undecided a chance to figure out if they really enjoy the work.

"A lot of vet techs I know who started here made great vets," said Steve McCauley, 35, a veterinarian and instructor at the school.

Heather Reed, 24, says she hopes that's true. Reed, a part-time hairdresser, plans to apply to veterinary school after graduating from the program next year. "I'd rather deal with animals and not people," Reed said.

By 10 a.m., students have broken into three groups, practicing anesthesia, radiology and treatment.

Cocoa and Honey, a small dark cat, have been tranquilized and are waiting for four students in scrub tops to put them under general anesthesia. In the other corner, Tiger, a greyhound, is lying placidly on the ground as Tiffany wraps orange-and-red tape around his leg. She's demonstrating a Robert Jones _ a type of bandage that can be used to stabilize broken bones.

"It thumps like a watermelon after it's done," Tiffany said as she rapped on the neon cast.

Most of the animals cared for by the school come from shelters, clinics or have been abandoned. The program tries to place the animals in homes within a year, and all having been spayed or neutered and vaccinated.

Backtalk, a 5-year-old greyhound retired from the racetrack, spent Friday, his last day at the school, being wrapped with tape during the bandaging clinic. Then Belinda Zeh, 31, rushed him off for a last bath. His new owner, Jen Shaw, who works at SPJC's district office, arrived early in the afternoon to take him, and his stuffed animal, Barney, home.

"We're real sad to lose him because he's so good with the kids," said Tiffany. Instructors from the program visit elementary and middle schools to teach pupils about caring for animals.

Increasing the profile of the school is a top priority for administrators. Last August the school went on line, receiving computer inquiries about its program from as far away as Colorado. To emphasize professionalism, the school enforces strict dress codes.

"We're trying to bonafide the profession a bit," said Tiffany.

Meanwhile, a love of animals still remains the primary attraction for the students enrolled in the program.

"You're always helping them no matter what it is," said Reed.

Rhonda Valdez, 32, agreed. "It's a great accomplishment."