Fish Vet Adventures – Starting My Business
Throughout veterinary school, my direction wavered. Sure, I had gone to veterinary school because I wanted to be an aquatic veterinarian, but I ended up at a school where this career path was highly unrealistic and laughable. Seriously, people would laugh. Without a mentor or any guidance, I started to consider other tracks in veterinary medicine. My mother thought I would be suited for large animals, specifically horses, since I am tall and horses are tall. I did like working with horses and the long arms give me an advantage, so I tried doing some work in the large animal hospital and externed at a large animal hospital in Salinas, CA. Small animal medicine and surgery was fine and all, but I never felt very comfortable with it. My original plan to pursue aquatic med just seemed unattainable.
Do you know how many lecture hours that we had on aquatic medicine? Four. Out of the entire veterinary curriculum, only four are still relevant to my practice today. Three of these hours I did not even attend. Why? Because I was bored out of my mind! Fish gill physiology was something I learned years ago and had other things to study for, like small animal med and anesthesiology. Without any guidance, I drifted to the internet, trying to find someway to play with fish while in veterinary school. Thankfully, I found AQUAVET. A joint program between Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, this was what fish vets dream of learning. Veterinary practice involving all my favorites: invertebrates, fish, mammals and reptiles! And the best part was not the learning and labs, which were amazing, but the people teaching. These people were who I wanted to be like. They were full-fledged aquatic veterinarians with solid careers. To this day, they continue to be my colleagues and mentors.
The summer of 2010 was my golden moment in veterinary school. I attended the four week AQUAVET program, and another very similar program in Grand Cayman at St. Mathew’s called MARVET. It bolstered my spirit and refocused my career direction. I knew that someday, I would be an aquatic veterinarian.
However, the traditional path to becoming an aquatic vet is rigid and has very few positions. First, you must complete a small or large animal internship. Yes, back to land critters for a year. Then, you must complete a year-long aquatic internship, usually with a zoo or aquarium. There are a couple dozen of these available, so it usually takes a year or so as a regular intern in order to make yourself a good enough candidate. After the aquatic internship, you must quality for one of the three aquatic residency programs in the county. Yes, there are only three of them, currently. After that, you have to wiggle your way into a recently vacated aquarium position and hold on tight. That is the traditional path to becoming an aquatic veterinarian, and what has been followed for most veterinarians working in zoos and aquariums.
Now, there are those who break the mold. At the end of veterinary school, you can submit yourself to the internship lottery. Every position in the country is taken from this program. At my veterinary school, if you weren’t applying for an internship, there was something wrong with you. Please keep in mind that any veterinarian can go into private practice directly from veterinary school, provided you have passed the state and national veterinary board exams. Being a sheep, I entered into the lottery, not being a great candidate for any position. Guess what? I didn’t match. As people kept bouncing excitedly around me, ecstatic by their new jobs, my brain lost it and I had to get out of that place. Told my supervisor I was sick and got out. Called my boyfriend who was about to leave to go skiing with his parents and quickly jumped into the car to join them. I cried the whole way to the mountain, but had a good day of getting out of the toxic intern environment.
So, no internship. Well, there went the first step of the aquatic vet path. Well, practicing for a year with no internship guidance would still be okay, right? As part of our deal, if I had been selected for an internship, boyfriend had the option to move with me wherever I landed. With no landing set, I let him decide where he wanted to move. I’d lived in New England all my life and wanted to get out. The west coast was calling, and he picked Santa Cruz, CA. Known for its surfing, he had a bunch of college buddies who had ended up there and had traveled several times for vacation. I jumped. Packed up the house, car, and cats and off we drove across the country! I’d take the morning shift, since I’m a morning person, and then he’d take the afternoon. The cats slept the whole way there; big surprise.
We landed in Santa Cruz and found an apartment. Both of boyfriend’s jobs had transferred to our new location, so he was all set. As for me, I started to apply to every veterinary job opening close to us. Got a few interviews and one very sad offer over a six month period. Thought about offering relief veterinary service and wasn’t sure my skill set would be enough. I was depressed and not thrilled with the culture of Santa Cruz. I looked back at my AQUAVET days and the mentors who had inspired me. How did they do it? Where did they get started? I had gotten to spend a few weeks doing private practice with my idol, Dr. Helen Sweeney, of Aquatic Veterinary Services of Western New York, who runs a mobile aquatic veterinary practice in addition to her small animal and exotic clinic. Well, maybe I could start my own mobile business? My father started his own business running hydrographic software on a Windows platform, something that was unheard of 30 years ago. Looking around, I found several local fish clubs and no competition. A spark started to burn.
If this was going to work, I needed to be prepared. Back to Dr. Sweeney I went, asking how she started her mobile business and if she could give me any advice. In return, I got a flash drive with hundreds of fish articles and a complete list of mobile aquatic veterinary supplies. Thank you! It turned the little spark into a tangible business model. Next, I turned to my Dad for the practical business stuff: lawyers, accountants, filing paperwork, etc. I found a great lawyer who helped get all my corporation paperwork in order, filled out the veterinary practice paperwork myself, including a long explanation letter about my type of practice, since I was sure they’d be confused, and found an accountant. On March 13, 2013, I got word from my lawyer that all the paperwork had been filed with the state and I was a legitimate corporation. Game on.
I started very slowly and not too confidently. I was undercharging for my services and learning on the fly. To this day, the hardest part of my job is communicating to people that yes, there are fish veterinarians out there to help you with your pet fish, and no, I’m not kidding. It’s an emerging veterinary field that I joined not in its infancy, but it is still not accepted with even other veterinarians. We are working hard to change that, and I hope to make a significant impact with my company’s drive and vision for the future.
Overall, my company started because I failed. I failed to get an internship and then failed to get a “real” veterinary job. But, guess what? Without those failures, I would not be who I am today and would not have a company of which I am extremely proud.