Empathy & Education in Vet Med

Mary Helen Gillespie, Boston, Massachusetts

ArticleLast Updated December 20223 min read
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Gowned and gloved, Dr. Jill Ayres stood at the surgical table, waiting for anesthesia to take effect, while answering questions from the inquisitive, young students in the audience.

It seems Beary the Stuffed Bear (think Paddington without the hat) wasn’t feeling well. He had an extensive workup that included x-rays and blood work at the new Whiskers and Tales exhibit at The Children's Museum of South Dakota in Brookings, South Dakota. After reviewing all the tests, the children in the audience agreed with Dr. Jill: Beary, like so many dogs and cats, swallowed a rock. And it had to come out.

A Community Affair

Ayres, a small animal veterinarian in Brookings, has enjoyed many museum visits over the years with her husband and 3 daughters, and more recently, their 2-year-old grandson.

Spurred by her professional commitment to community education, Ayres served as a volunteer consultant to the museum as it prepared Whiskers and Tails for its summer 2022 debut. To launch the permanent exhibit, a play clinic that includes stethoscopes, scales, and even a reception area, Ayres presided over several live interactive presentations, during which children excitedly peppered her with questions about animal health and listened intently to her answers.

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“I find it very rewarding to step out into the community this way, and especially with children’s groups. It’s just so much fun,” said Ayres, who has worked with school and scout groups since she first started practicing veterinary medicine after her graduation from Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

Engaging & Educating Youth

Her messages to children center on responsible pet ownership, especially spaying and neutering, as well as positive exposure to careers in veterinary science.

“I’m a big advocate for client education. There is a great deal of potential to engage younger children,” she said. “Pet ownership is a beautiful thing but there are requirements that come with it.”

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Ayres encourages her veterinary colleagues with an interest in adding this element of client education to their practices to reach out to children’s museums, school districts, summer camps, community organizations, and animal hobby clubs such as hunting groups.

Ayres explained young people are waiting to hear how to project the values they carry in their own lives—food, shelter, health, love, compassion—with animals, she said.

Showcasing Empathy in Vet Med

Beary’s surgery was a success. Dr. Jill picked up a surgical tool and made a careful incision along the path she first cut open before the presentation to install the injurious mass. She then removed the rock to the delight—and relief—of the captive audience.

Kerrie Vilhauer, the museum’s director of marketing, said when Whiskers and Tales first opened, the staff was delighted to see the changes it made to other exhibits throughout the rest of the building. “Our grocery store [exhibit] now stocks cat and dog treats, and the chickens, cows, and horses from the farm mosey over to the veterinary office for care.”

“The veterinary clinic also brought a lot of empathy to the play experience,” she said. “The exhibit brings out a lot of stories from guests, whether it is about an animal they always wanted, a childhood best animal friend, or even a lost cat they helped.”