It’s hard to believe you can be what you cannot see. And one of the least diverse professions in America is veterinary medicine.
It’s a long-standing issue. In 2013, veterinary medicine was the whitest job in America, according to The Atlantic, and last year’s Bureau of Labor Statistics data showed that only 2.2% of veterinarians are Black, with Asian and Latinx vets severely underrepresented as well. The overwhelming majority of vets are white women. A lack of visible representation, high vet school tuition costs, six-figure student debt and enduring biases are some of the reasons for this.
To put stories behind those numbers, HuffPost interviewed three Black veterinarians to hear why there are still so few Black people in the profession today, what continues to excite them about their jobs and their advice to those who want to follow in their path.
Answers were edited for clarity and length.
Dr. Charles McMillan is the medical director and owner of GoodVets Atlanta Group Hospitals. A graduate of Tuskegee University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, he has 10 years of experience as a vet.
When did you first want to be a veterinarian?
Since I was 5-6 years old, I always wanted to be a veterinarian. My very first veterinarian job was when I was 14. I started cleaning kennels and walking dogs [at a clinic], unpaid, of course. After a few months, the doctor took an interest in me and allowed me to be on payroll and allowed me, once my duties were done, to come in and shadow him. That experience nurtured that desire.
When did you meet other Black veterinarians?
I was generally always the only Black person on staff, the only Black person at these hospitals, and that carried through to varying degrees throughout my career, so much so that I became habituated to it. I didn’t meet another Black veterinarian until one of my professors at the Tuskegee school of veterinary medicine. It gave me that exposure that I was missing.
Upon graduating vet school, I kind of returned back to that reality. I was one of the few Black interns at my internship, and in a number of my jobs, I was one of the only, if not the only, Black veterinarian there. Tuskegee was a break from reality. It allowed me to create a lot of lasting bonds, and it was also the impetus for me to want to effect change.
What was it like to be the only Black veterinarian in these rooms?
Clients were kind of surprised at seeing you. Cohorts were kind of surprised at seeing you. It almost forced you to lose your individuality in a sense. Because there are so few Black veterinarians, and from other kinds of marginalized groups, you feel like there is the extra sense of responsibility.
If a person from a dominant group makes a mistake, they’re just like, “Well, it’s that individual person’s training, it’s that individual person’s shortcomings.” If, as a minority, you make a mistake, a generalization is automatically had that “all Black veterinarians are like this.” That wears on you. It’s hard to kind of gauge. You’re living your life through a whole bunch of stereotype threats. When you know you’re part of a group that is so few in numbers in a particular profession, it creates this psychic anxiety that you can’t really measure.
Why are there still so few Black veterinarians?
It’s multidimensional. [Beyond representation issues], there are very few veterinary schools, so that makes that access limited, but also there is some research recently that suggests there are biases within the admission process in and of itself. And then what do you do after leaving vet school? We know that people from marginalized backgrounds come out with more student debt [on] average. We also know if you’re able to make it through that kind of jungle of obstacles, then once you’re out in practice, there’s not a lot of Black veterinarians in leadership roles to reach down, mentor and bring up people from these marginalized groups.
Once you’re an associate, you don’t really see any upward mobility because a lot of places say it’s good to have Black workers or people from marginalized groups, but still there is a disconnect between making that leap from worker to “now do we trust this person to actually run this hospital, recruit for this hospital,” and things of that nature.
Some people believe that the lack of Black veterinarians means that there is a lack of desire amongst Blacks to be veterinarians. Or we’re seeing a lack of aptitude. You look at the numbers and you come up with this faulty conclusion.
“When you know you’re part of a group that is so few in numbers in a particular profession, it creates this psychic anxiety that you can’t really measure.”
That’s what I try to argue against. It’s not a lack of desire. You don’t see a lot of people who look and sound like you doing what you aspire to do, so it makes it seem like it’s a little more unattainable. Society tries to typecast Black and brown people to certain professions, so it’s a lot easier to go into those professions than one where you’ve never seen folks. Over time, your desire and your aspiration to be a veterinarian gets muted. It gets smaller and smaller. That’s the silent killer of these aspirations.
What’s your pitch for Black professionals who want to be veterinarians?
Veterinarians are born. Just as many Black veterinarians are born as there are white veterinarians. The lack of exposure, the lack of access and all the other things ... leads and redirects Black veterinarians and other people from marginalized groups from pursuing those passions. My goal is to let people know, don’t let those numbers deter you. My goal is to prepare the profession and make it as healthy as possible so that I can, in confidence, recommend my kids go into the profession.
The profession, we are at a crossroads. Diversity is one of the reasons why we’re there. We need to improve those numbers so that we can continue to attract the best and brightest for this profession and cultivate their natural love for this profession, so we are not left in the dark ages of creativity and innovation.
Dr. Niccole Bruno is the founder and CEO of Blendvet, a veterinarian hospital certification program. Before pivoting to working full time at Blendvet in 2022, she was chief of staff of Companion Animal Hospital in Spring, Texas.
What are you currently doing?
My goal is to certify veterinary hospitals in DEI — or diversity, equity, inclusion — by having them go through a program where all of their staff is trained in certain categories related to DEI. If they go through the modules and they do community service, and they change something internally within their hospitals, then they become certified.
I see it as an opportunity to really change our culture of veterinary medicine. I think that the next generation of veterinarians really wants that, and I’m trying to be ahead of that so they have a better experience than I had early on in my career. I turned 40 in 2020, and I started to think about, “What legacy am I leaving? Am I leaving the profession better than I started?” To me, the answer was no. I have two Black children. I think about my children and if they decide they want to be a vet because they’ll see it. They have an auntie and they have a mom that’s a veterinarian, so they will never doubt that they can be veterinarians. But if they are, what kind of pipeline are they entering? I need to do what I can to make it better.
In your company bio, you talk about dealing with “racism, misogyny and stereotypical behaviors” in your career. Could you share more about that?
I dealt with a lot of imposter syndrome, which I later learned was stereotype threat, because I felt like I had to prove that I was worthy of being a veterinarian, of being in those rooms.
A lot of times, people don’t assume that I’m the veterinarian. I’ve had clients request for the doctor to come in like they hadn’t seen the doctor. And my staff is like: “What are you talking about? The doctor was just in there.” And I go back in there, and they’re like, “Oh, I didn’t know you were the doctor.”
I did have a client that refused to have me do his pet’s surgery. It was very early on in my career, but it was a surgery that I felt comfortable doing. The owner did not know what was going on with the pet, and I ... found the problem, went in there and said, “I can do the surgery. Here’s how much it will cost,” and he was just like, “I want somebody else to do the surgery.”
Was it my age? Was it my gender? Was it my race? ... I do look young. And in 2009 [when it happened], I looked much younger. People have biases towards age, towards a newer grad or towards a Black woman or a Latinx woman, or the fact that I was a woman at all. Those are the parts you can’t really separate, and I never got clarity because, even though my boss ended up doing the surgery, he didn’t provide clarity. He just told me [the client] was being chauvinistic, but as I reminded my boss in that moment, “You can’t just say that, that it’s just a gender thing.” Because a lot of us are women. It could have been so much more than that. It’s hard.
“I did have a client that refused to have me do his pet’s surgery.”
I’ve shared this story with veterinary students and people that are in practice now. And we talk about all of the steps, where was it missed? What could I have done? What could the hospital have had in place as far as rules to not allow this? What should the leader have done in that moment? It’s a case that is teachable. I had a student last week tell me that he watched a BIPOC veterinarian be declined by a white woman to have her pet seen by him, and it was horrible for [my student] to watch.
Why should Black professionals and those from other underrepresented groups pursue veterinary medicine despite the existing barriers?
In general, I think what we do is an amazing job. We have the ability to make something feel better that cannot communicate. It’s a science; it’s playing detective. It’s asking the owners the right questions but also fact-checking by seeing if it matches with the patient. Every case is a little piece of an investigation. When you are able to make a pet feel better, when you have a client that has struggled with trying to understand how to treat their pet and you can figure it out and give them tools to make it better, it’s just so rewarding.
Do you think your colleagues share your urgency for improving diversity in veterinary medicine?
All of my colleagues of color, we recognize what the diversity problem is and we all do what we can to be the change. I have friends that have started programs through their hospital to allow students to come and shadow. They go do career days within their communities. They mentor.
But in general, when I walk into hospitals, I don’t think that my white colleagues are necessarily thinking about diversity as much as we are. Merck did a veterinary well-being study in 2021, and it actually pointed out that BIPOC veterinary professionals, their No. 1 concern is diversity in veterinary medicine. That was at 46%. Whereas white colleagues, their No. 1 concern was the veterinary shortage.
Those are the differences. I think they’re both relatable: We have a veterinary shortage, so we should be thinking about who else might want to join our profession.
The clientele is diverse, and they want to see themselves in us, and I want to do what I can to not only improve the representation but also to really train my colleagues about how to appreciate cultural differences and how to connect with people. At the end of the day, how we treat animals is by having the relationships with the people. And if they say yes, then we can treat their pets, we can offer services, and they’ll pay for them because they understand and they trust us. But if we don’t have a connection with clients, they don’t come back, they don’t do what we ask them to do and the pet suffers in the end.
What would be your advice for Black professionals who want to become a vet?
Not to give up. Know that there are opportunities out there to find mentors. I’m part of an advisory group called Pawsibilities. We do exist. We may not be a lot, but there are many of us that are willing to mentor students through this platform and some of our colleges and veterinary schools.
Dr. Donna Jarrell is the attending veterinarian at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston and director of its Center for Comparative Medicine. She grew up in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and was the second Black attendee and first Black woman graduate (in 1988) of the North Carolina State College of Veterinary Medicine.
Can you explain your role?
Currently I’m the attending veterinarian, the senior position at Mass General Hospital, which has a huge research institute. My department at MGH is 130 people. I actually have seven veterinarians and three residents all providing veterinary care to an array of species of animals, from zebrafish to mice. We have over 100,000 mice under our care. And then we have sheep and goats, and really a variety of species. I’ve moved up and now am more in the administrative realm, I would say. I’m overseeing the care of all these animals.
Researchers partner with us. We take care of their animals and then we support them as they perform their different experiments. Our focus is to balance the welfare of the animals against the knowledge of the potential gains from the experiments. We are the guardians of the animals during their experimental phases.
We’ve expanded our reach. I’ve been there for 28 years, and we got very involved in pet therapy programs, and we’re helping the hospital to do that. Now we’re even asked to look at things like service dogs in the workplace and what are the welfare concerns of having animals in our hospital.
I get up every morning, even 35 years later, loving what I do. It is truly a calling. A lot of the advancements that we are successful at at Mass General circle back right around to the veterinary profession.
Are you the only Black veterinarian at your job?
I am the only Black veterinarian on my staff. We have more diversity [in] our residency [program] because we can be purposeful in our recruitment. New England is not a popular place for people of color. Getting people to move to New England is interesting. I’m still oftentimes the only Black veterinarian in the room. I’m excited when I’m not.
I’m not the only African American veterinarian in Boston. There’s actually five of us, and we get together on Sundays for brunch. We find our community and we shore each other up. And take care of each other.
“I get up every morning, even 35 years later, loving what I do.”
Can you share more about your path to being a veterinarian?
When I turned 16, I was very purposeful. I went and interviewed at three or four different hospitals in my hometown, wanting to be a kennel worker. I told every one of them that my goal was to become a veterinarian.
I was hired by one of the veterinarians in town. He was white. They all were white. Two years in, I’m a senior in high school, he says, “You know, you’re pretty smart. I think you should go down into the veterinary tech program in the state and then come back and work for me.” I thought, “I told you I don’t want to be a veterinary tech, I want to be you.” So that was kind of a turn-off.
I went away to college, and when I came back that summer, he had sold his practice to a Black veterinarian that had been teaching at Tuskegee University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, which produced the highest percentage of veterinarians of color. And [the new owner, Calvert Jeffers] became my boss. And because he had been an instructor at the vet school, he was outstanding at teaching me. I was no longer just a kennel worker on a path to being a great vet tech; he actually supported my dream and helped me to really get that confidence in being in that environment.
You’ve been many firsts. Could you share more about that experience?
From high school on, there were often times I was the only Black student in my AP classes. I’ve always been in that arena of opening doors. In vet school, there was one male African American student who was two years ahead of me, and the two of us were two out of over 220 students. You have to learn how to establish yourself. I learned how to navigate being the only one. I always went back to my community, my family, my friends to regroup, shall we say. I always had a community behind me that would tell me, “You’ve got to go back, you’ve got to finish.”
I do a lot of mentoring, and I think about things like imposter syndrome and how does it happen. Pursuing veterinary medicine requires a strong academic record, and that is flaked with a lot of obstacles, shall we say, from teachers who don’t see you as [someone with] high potential or successful [at] standardized test-taking, and how you do on that. We all know that the AAA+ student doesn’t necessarily translate into the most high-performing clinicians, but that had to be proven, I’ll say, over the years.
Why are there still so few Black veterinarians?
There are many obstacles to getting there. ... There are so many needs in the medical profession across the board that if you are successful academically, everyone wants you to go into human medicine. Appreciating the role of veterinary medicine and how it can serve the community was not something you heard a lot about in our community.
I do really believe that you need to see other veterinarians of color to see yourself in that opportunity.
Do you think, in your career, you will see Black representation increase in veterinary medicine?
It has hovered between 1% and 4% for 40 years. I think that the recruitment of underrepresented minorities in vet schools at higher levels, like NC State, is realistically where I think we’ll see the numbers change. It may take another 50 years to see that number grow because it’s a long journey.