Animals

Veterinary Students Get Hands-on Training at Animal Services

Dr. Jim Babbitt, D.V.M. and Shannon Blakeman examine a shelter dog.
Dr. Jim Babbitt, D.V.M. and Shannon Blakeman examine a shelter dog.

What was once a passion for animals is now a career in the making for Shannon Blakeman.

The Pima Medical Institute (PMI) student is getting hands-on veterinary training through an externship at County Animal Services.

Externships are similar to internships but typically they are shorter, involve job shadowing and rarely offer academic credit. At PMI, externs get the hands-on experience, are graded and must pass in order to graduate.

The former real estate agent is the 12th extern at Animal Services since it signed an agreement with PMI in October 2016.

These externs do everything from drawing blood, giving vaccinations, inserting microchips and IVs to prepping animals for spaying and neutering, and assisting in surgery.

“I’m doing something I love,” said Blakeman.

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Blakeman is wrapping up a six-week externship, the last requirement before graduating with a certificate as a veterinary assistant. After that, she plans to continue her studies to become a registered veterinary technician.

“We have the luxury of extra help, an extra pair of hands, and they get to learn every illness, every injury in every species from dogs and cats to snakes, rodents and birds,” said County Animal Services Animal Medical Operations Manager Manny Balcazar.

He should know. Balcazar graduated from PMI as a registered veterinary technician and held several jobs in the field before returning to shelter medicine at County Animal Services.

Balcazar says students who work with the shelters’ veterinarians often learn more than they would at vet’s offices because those typically deal with just cats and dogs. The shelter vets are well-rounded because they have to be.

“I don’t know what’s coming in the door next,” said Blakeman.

The shelters also deal with a large volume of animals. The Gaines Street shelter has 200 kennels currently filled with dogs and cats. The shelter is also housing rabbits, six guinea pigs, a dove, a snake and a bearded dragon.

Blakeman says she loves the big dogs best. She has three 90-pound dogs at home, a German shepherd and two Labradors. Not to mention the Amazon parrot and two parakeets. But when she did her first jugular blood draw on a canine recently she admitted she was more nervous than the dog.

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This day, she and veterinarian Dr. Jim Babbitt checked an 86-pound pit bull that had skin and ear issues. The dog became a bit restless but Blakeman knew what to do. She gave the dog a treat and then properly restrained the animal so the doctor could examine her. Then it was on to the next animal. Some 20 to 30 animals stream through the medical examination and treatment room each day.

Sometimes externs are hired on by County Animal Services after graduation. But job or no, it’s the experience that will prove invaluable when Blakeman goes looking for work.

Blakeman knows whatever happens, she’s switching careers to something she is truly passionate about. She’s looking at her veterinary education as a long-term investment and hopes to open a private shelter in Texas someday.

“I love the exotics; it’s a field I’m looking at,” said Blakeman.

Meantime, in the remaining weeks of her externship, Blakeman will soak up everything she can about medically caring for shelter animals. The staff will appreciate her helping hands and the animals will get the health care they need before they’re placed in forever homes.

Tracy DeFore is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact