Black veterinarians make up two percent of practicing vets in the United States, Dr. Hodges and Dr. Ferguson are working to increase that number

By Kelli Bender
February 11, 2021
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Courtesy of Critter Fixer Vet / Instagram
| Credit: Courtesy of Critter Fixer Vet / Instagram

Dr. Terrence Ferguson and Dr. Vernard Hodges likely look familiar to many animal lovers, the two veterinarians are the stars of Nat Geo WILD's Critter Fixers: Country Vets — a reality series about the rural Georgia veterinary practice (also called Critter Fixers) the men started together.

In the show, viewers get to see Dr. Hodges and Dr. Ferguson care for not just cats and dogs, but camels, horses, lizards, pigs, and more. The visibility has caused some of the veterinarians' regular clients to get a little starstruck around their pets' doctors.

"Now, regulars come in and stare at me even though you've been treating their pets for 15 years, and they want a photo. It's been an amazing reaction," Dr. Hodges said of the fame that comes with having your own show.

Even better, are the thousands of messages that have poured in from fans around the world, who adore the duo's friendly demeanor and drive to help animals of all shapes and sizes. Many of these messages also include thanks for providing great role models to Black children dreaming of a future in veterinary medicine.

Credit: Courtesy of Critter Fixer Vet / Instagram

"It blows me away when I see all the kids that want to be vets," Dr. Hodges said of the messages he gets from fans. "It's a passion for us. We love it. God blessed us with this. We don't take it for granted. We don't mind being role models."

"We love it," Dr. Ferguson said, adding that he "figured out the impact of the TV show" when a client from New York visited the Critter Fixers practice with her mother.

"The mother, who was African American, was in her seventies. Her daughter said 'We drove down because my 70-year-old mom wanted to say hello.' Dr. Ferguson told PEOPLE. "I go out to the car to meet her and she just said, 'I am so proud of you all!' And she was crying. That just showed me the impact we have. The pride we inspire in the African American community. We represent something great and it caused her to gleam with joy."

Both veterinarians know the importance of having a mentor. Dr. Ferguson developed an interest in animals as a kid after he rescued a dog that was hit by a car and nursed the pup back to health. Dr. Hodges's love for critters started with fish.

"I always wanted to be the first Black Jaques Cousteau and voyage into the sea," Dr. Hodges said.

Credit: Courtesy of Critter Fixer Vet / Instagram

But even with these passions, both men didn't decide to become vets until they met other Black people pursuing the same career.

"It wasn't until junior year of college that I saw my first Black vet," Dr. Ferguson says. "I hadn't seen anyone like me as a vet. I didn't see that example. It wasn't until I met my mentor that I decided to pursue becoming a veterinarian."

According to dvm360, African Americans make up only 2.1% of the veterinarian workforce.

"That's 2% when we started and still 2% now," Dr. Hodges said.

The Critter Fixers are hoping to increase that number, not just through the reach of their TV show, but through hands-on work with the future faces of veterinary medicine.

"We are trying to train the next generation," Dr. Hodges added.

Credit: Courtesy of Critter Fixer Vet / Instagram

Since opening their practice, the Critter Fixers have hired three associate veterinarians from Tuskegee University College of Veterinary Medicine — their alma mater and the only historically Black college or university to currently offer a doctorate in veterinary medicine. Dr. Hodges and Dr. Ferguson have also inspired dozens of other Black students to pursue a career in veterinary medicine by offering them jobs and internships at their practice.  

"Sixty kids worked for us, we wrote their recommendation letters for school, they interned with us, and then they graduated from veterinary school," Dr. Hodges said, adding that many employees go on to become veterinary technicians as well.

For aspiring vets who can't make it to the Critter Fixers practice, Dr. Hodges and Dr. Ferguson always make time for phone calls.

"They are going into a profession where they might not have anybody that looks like them. They will call me with questions out of comfort," Dr. Hodges said. "We make sure phone calls get scheduled with kids even if it's three- or five-minute calls. It feels good to tell them 'You can do this!' It's about what you do for others. Without someone showing me and teaching me how to be better, I wouldn't be here and I don't take that for granted."

"We are always in the schools and Zooming with students. We are doing career days and professional days," Dr. Ferguson added on how the vets reach out to the next generation of vets.

Both veterinarians also wrote books to help inspire the younger generation. Dr. Ferguson's book, C is for Critter Fixer, is a picture book based on his own childhood interest in animals and dreams of becoming a vet, and is designed to encourage early animal lovers to think about veterinary medicine.

"See it. Believe it. Achieve it," Dr. Ferguson said of the book's overall message.

Dr. Hodges's book, Bet On Yourself: From Zero to Millions, is currently taught in several Georgia middle schools and high schools. It teaches students about money management, the stock market, and other financial tools that will help them succeed as they grow older. Dr. Hodges also started the It Takes A Village Foundation in 2011. The foundation teaches business skills to the students of Middle Georgia so they are set up for success as they approach adulthood.

Similarly, Dr. Ferguson started Football Skill Development, a mentoring program for student-athletes, providing teens planning to play sports in college with tutoring, test prep, and more.

Even with this full schedule, the veterinarians always make time to inspire any child dreaming about life as a vet. For parents looking for a little advice on how to encourage a kid's veterinarian dreams, Dr. Hodges says you should help your child seek out a veterinary mentor of their own.

"Take them there and let them see it," he said. "It's one thing to see a cute dog, it's another thing to get up close and smell a dog."

The second season of Critter Fixers: Country Vets premieres Saturday, May 22, at 9/8c on Nat Geo Wild, and every episode of the first season is available to stream on Disney+ right now.

This story originally appeared on people.com