UAH students and aspiring veterinarians Chelsey McClung and Emily Hughes spent the summer as interns with the Greater Huntsville Humane Society.

Michael Mercier | UAH

Emily Hughes wouldn't describe herself as a cat person, but after spending the summer as an intern at the Greater Huntsville Humane Society (GHHS), she's beginning to see the appeal. "I've gained a lot of experience with cats and I have a new appreciation for them," says the senior biology major at The University of Alabama in Huntsville (UAH). "And it's kind of hard not to get attached to kittens!"

The position was a new one for the GHHS, which is blessed with hundred of volunteers but was looking to launch an internship program for college students. "We wanted to foster a learning environment for someone going into health care or veterinary medicine," says Danielle Eliser, Event and Volunteer Coordinator for the GHHS. "So we opened it up to all the local colleges."

But while the original plan was to select just one intern for the summer, the GHHS ended up with two: Hughes and fellow UAH student Chelsey McClung, who was already a longtime volunteer at the Decatur Animal Shelter. "We couldn't choose," says Eliser. "Chelsey is a great people person, loves to be social, and will jump on any task, while Emily can be focused, organized, and very driven."

It’s a well-rounded education that gives you medical experience and helps you develop your knowledge base.

Chelsey McClung
UAH student and GHHS intern

A junior psychology major, McClung - like Hughes - is a student in UAH's Pre-Health Professions program. Both women are planning to pursue a career as a veterinarian, which made the GHHS internship a perfect opportunity to get hands-on experience caring for animals. Though perhaps neither anticipated just how multidimensional and immersive the experience would be.

"The internship is like volunteering on steroids," says Eliser with a laugh. Whereas volunteers are not allowed to handle anything medical, both Hughes and McClung were trained to give vaccinations, draw blood, and perform routine tests on the animals. "I've learned how to do heartworm tests and feline leukemia tests, and how to distinguish round worms and hookworms on slides!" says McClung.

They were also familiarized with the many non-medical tasks required of running the no-kill facility, including how to interact with people there to surrender their pet to the GHHS rather than adopt a new one. "The emotional preparedness is not something that can be trained," says Eliser, "but you have to learn how to process how you will feel about difficult situations that have no answers."

It was something both women struggled with. "I didn't think it would affect me like it did," says McClung. "I'm glad we have a place for animals to go but I wish the owners would realize it's not just, 'I'd like to have a pet for a month.' I think of my animals as family. So you definitely have to be strong emotionally to be able to handle the public when those situations arise."

Cat in bag.

A GHHS resident on the lookout for an adoptive family.

Michael Mercier | UAH

On the flip side, of course, were the adoptions, which were always an occasion for celebration. "It's nice for them to find homes, especially when they get adopted by someone where it just fits and you can tell they're going to be happy," says Hughes. That was the case for Charlie Boy, though as one of McClung's favorites, it was still hard to see him go. "I was very happy for him, but I cried!" she says.

With three dogs, a cat, and a horse between them, however, neither Hughes nor McClung ended up adopting a new pet of their own. But what they did leave with was a greater understanding of what will be required of them as future veterinarians. "It's a well-rounded education that gives you medical experience and helps you develop your knowledge base," says McClung.

Hughes agrees, adding that the GHHS offered a less "hardcore" introduction to the field than would a vet clinic. "It was a more friendly environment to learn basic animal care," she says. And that includes handling cats! "I saw Emily become far more confident with that," laughs Eliser. "By the end, she was picking them up when before she would have danced around and tried treats."

Both women's success, moreover, ensures that the internship program will continue - though those hoping to land the coveted position next summer needn't wait until then to gain experience and lend a hand to the GHHS's four-footed residents. "You can volunteer, you can donate, you can adopt, you can shop at our thrift store," says Eliser. "Everyone has a role to play if they'd like to."



Greater Huntsville Humane Society