February 3, 2012

There’s more to government than Congress…

By Tonie Domino

Pop quiz! What are the three branches of the federal government?

If you said legislative, executive, and judicial, you’d be correct. Here’s a slightly trickier question–which branch employs the most veterinarians?

It’s the executive branch! You probably already know that the President is part of the executive branch. But did you know that federal agencies like the USDA and FDA are also part of the executive branch? I certainly didn’t; not until my visit to the offices of APHIS (the Animal and Plant Health Inspective Service), in Riverdale, Maryland, a short drive from Washington, D.C.

There I met with Dr. David Ashford and Dr. Eloisa Jones, who both work for the office of International Services (IS), and Dr. Gary Egrie, who works for the office of Veterinary Services (VS). APHIS is a regulatory agency, meaning one of its jobs is to write rules and regulations. The regulations become part of the Federal Code of Regulations, which is the basis for enforcement of the laws passed by Congress. There are several offices other than IS and VS, but every office supports the mission of APHIS, which is “protecting and promoting U.S. agricultural health, regulating genetically engineered organisms, administering the Animal Welfare Act and carrying out wildlife damage management activities.”

All three veterinarians have had very interesting career paths. Dr. Ashford’s undergraduate degree is in international agricultural development, and after veterinary school, he went to work for the Epidemic Intelligence Service (EIS) at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Dr. Jones majored in English and Spanish Literature, and worked as a translator for five years before attending veterinary school. She has worked in APHIS-IS offices in Panama, Guatemala, China, the Dominican Republic, and Egypt. Dr. Egrie worked in aquaculture for many years before joining APHIS-VS as the farm animal welfare coordinator.

All three veterinarians shared the desire to do good in the world or make a difference in some way, and they feel that by working as part of the government, they can make the most difference. But the moral of the story isn’t that everyone who wants to make a change should go to work for the government—I think the real thing to focus on is how varied their careers have been. It’s easy to get attached to the idea that we already know what we want to do, or to envision a perfectly orchestrated career path, one that travels logically from A to B to C and so on. The stories I heard demonstrate to me two things, which we hear all the time in vet school—both clichéd, but both true. First, keep your mind open, because you never know what this career has in store for you next. Second, you can do anything with a D.V.M.