Aspiring Vets Peek Behind the Scenes


The Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA has evolved over the past 54 years from a modest “pound” lacking any veterinarians on staff to a true humane society.

Today, Humane Officers rescue all kinds of animals from dangerous situations and return strays safely to their guardians. Behaviorists socialize timid cats and train rambunctious dogs awaiting adoption. Staff matchmakers greet visitors seven days a week and find loving families for homeless pets. And four full-time veterinarians now address the medical needs of all the domestic and wild animals in our care, treating and saving animals who would not have had a chance in the past.

At PHS/SPCA we are also very fortunate to have a Humane Education department that provides opportunities for people of all ages to learn about the many ways our organization helps animals and how they, too, can improve the lives of animals. Creative planning has resulted in popular offerings such as the Vet Shadow Program for teens. Designed for high school students interested in veterinary careers, this program gives participants an inside look at veterinary medicine in a shelter setting.

Dr. Eleanor Karlsson, DVM, says, “Veterinarians like myself are committed to mentoring and educating young people, in hopes that they will choose to join this exciting and rewarding profession. Our Vet Shadow Program sheds some light on the arduous process of becoming a veterinarian, and encourages these students to study hard and explore the career paths available to them.”  Each June and December, during school breaks, a dozen aspiring young vets arrive at our doorstep. Here’s a look at what they experience.

First, the group is introduced to a PHS/SPCA veterinarian who  talks about her background, the basics of veterinary school, and the experiences that helped shape her career. She explains the differences between working in an animal shelter with several hundred patients and working in a private practice with individually owned animals. Students learn about the vets’ numerous responsibilities and get a sense of what a “day in the life” is like here.

Our participating vets field questions as varied as the animals in our care: Which subjects will best prepare me for vet school?  What do you like most about your job?  How do you handle euthanasia?  What’s the most difficult surgery you’ve had to perform?  How do you figure out the age of a stray pet?  Do you ever get attached to the animals you treat here? (That’s easy to answer; we all do!)

Next, the group enters the Spay & Neuter Clinic, where a second veterinarian is performing surgery. This is a unique opportunity to observe our vet team in action. Dogs, cats, and rabbits from the shelter and from private homes spend a day here to get “fixed”.  Visitors are taught that the operations prevent unwanted births and reduce or eliminate the risk of certain health and behavioral problems. In less than 30 minutes the Vet Shadow students may see a spaying, a neutering, or both – depending on the sex, size, and species of the animal on the table. 

After the color has returned to everyone’s faces, a Veterinary Assistant walks the group through the isolation area for sick cats and explains how animals are cured of common illnesses such as upper respiratory infections. Moving on to the In-House Clinic, she points out equipment used to diagnose disease and treat ailments, including a microscope and centrifuge for lab work, dental tools, and even a kennel supplied with oxygen that may be occupied by an animal in recovery. This behind-the-scenes tour includes a peek inside the X-ray room, where a veterinarian meets with the kids once more to illustrate case studies involving internal organs and fractures.

The final stop in the Vet Shadow Program is our wildlife hospital. PHS/SPCA stands apart from most other humane societies in being able to care for wildlife, exotic species, farm animals, and companion animals all in one location. Our Wildlife Care Center Manager describes how incoming sick, injured, and orphaned wild birds and mammals are examined and treated. The students gain an understanding of the rehabilitation process and the importance of keeping these animals wild so they can be released back into their natural habitats once they are able to survive on their own. 

There’s a lot for Vet Shadow students to absorb from the morning they spend at our shelter. A freshman from Burlingame High school noted, “This was a great learning experience! It helped me get a look at how vets find and solve problems, and made me more determined to fulfill my dreams and become a vet.”  

We plan on connecting kids with their dreams to help animals for years to come. 

NOTE: If you are a high school student interested in the next Vet Shadow Program, please call our Humane Education Department at 650-340-7022 x369 or email

Amy Differding is the Humane Educator at the Peninsula Humane Society & SPCA (, where she runs a variety of public programs for children and adults. Amy enjoys sharing her home with a jumbo hermit crab, polydactyl cat, and three-legged dog.


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