Karolina Wirga, 21, cuddles a tightly curled bundle of white named Fou Fou, causing the miniature white poodle to snort in what sounds like happiness.
For Fou Fou, a stray currently residing at the Santa Cruz County Animal Shelter, these minutes with Wirga, a neuroscience major at UC Santa Cruz’s Cowell College, are about getting some TLC and also being socialized so he’ll have a better chance of finding a new home.
For Wirga, these moments are about her passion for animals and her goal of becoming a veterinarian in communities where veterinary services are an unaffordable luxury. It’s also part of the volunteer work she does in her role as president of UC Santa Cruz’s student-run Pre-Veterinary Club.
With 29 members at its first meeting of the year and an active calendar of events that includes talks by veterinarians and animal experts, the campus’s Pre-Veterinary Club is designed to support and energize those who want a career working with animals.
“The Pre-Vet Club is the reason I stuck with it (the goal of becoming a veterinarian),” says Katie Githens, 21, vice president of the club and a double major in marine biology and molecular, cell and developmental biology at Stevenson College. “When I first came here, I felt a little alone but then I saw the Pre-Vet Club table at the OPERS Festival and that was it.”
Both Githens and Wirga came to UC Santa Cruz with the idea of becoming veterinarians, even though the campus doesn’t offer a formal pre-veterinary medicine major. Dogs and cats were part of each of their lives growing up, they say, and both talk about the close connection they feel with animals.
Githens, who plans to graduate in spring 2017, is considering specializing in exotic and large-animal medicine with the idea of working in a zoo.
Wirga, who also is a senior at UC Santa Cruz, was influenced by trips to Guatemala and Nicaragua where she worked alongside veterinarians to provide health care and spay-and-neuter services to animals whose owners could not afford the cost of veterinary care, she says.
Sitting outside McHenry Library on a warm fall day, she describes a fluffy white dog named Boji who came into a clinic in Guatemala with large tumors on his neck and genitals. The tumors were bleeding and the dog was in such bad shape, veterinarians weren’t able to operate, she says.
“I helped monitor and take care of the dog as it got chemotherapy and after the first treatment the tumors had reduced 70 percent in size,” Wirga says. “We were able to give him a good life and help him be in less pain. That was really good.”
It’s why, she says, she wants to work among animals in underprivileged communities.
While both Wirga and Githens still face four years of veterinary school, they are immersed in science classes at UC Santa Cruz and in the activities of the Pre-Veterinary Club, which has been in existence for about five years.
Meetings include discussions about class requirements and applications for veterinary school, types of veterinary specialties available, and visits by professionals who discuss their work. Volunteer work ranges from animal interaction at the county’s two shelters to working at the Monterey Bay Horsemanship and Therapeutic Center, where people with disabilities come for horseback riding experiences.
Sitting with Fou Fou in her lap, Wirga says her volunteer work “gives me my animal fix” and also provides her with the chance to improve her skills communicating with and understanding animals. It’s also a reminder of the beauty with which animals approach life.
“Animals are really present in the moment,” she says. “…They’re pretty content where they’re at.”
She gives Fou Fou a belly rub. “I think animals have a healing energy to them.”