Pre-veterinary fellowship offers an Italian perspective on animal sanctuaries for student Anika Rao
“Italy. Animals. Sounds like my kind of thing.”
The decision to apply for the Doctors in Italy Pre-Vet Fellowship Program last summer was not a hard sell for Virginia Tech student Anika Rao.
Rao, a sophomore in the School of Animal Sciences in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a student worker on the Animal Care for Education team at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, spent two weeks in Italy helping care for animals at sanctuaries while also visiting many cultural attractions in and around Rome.
Rao, from Northern Virginia, said she found out about the fellowship program through the Pre-Vet Club at Virginia Tech, and she “applied with no expectations,” quite surprised by her advancement to an interview and then her acceptance.
Rao traveled to Italy previously, so she already knew how much she loved the sights such as the Trevi Fountain, her favorite attraction in Rome, and Italian food such as her favorite dish, black truffle ravioli.
“The mornings were primarily spent at the sanctuaries,” Rao said. “And then the afternoons and evenings we had to explore the city and just travel, because it was Rome. It was a really unique experience and balance of being with animals and then just traveling.”
While Rao said veterinary clinics in Italy are similar to those in the U.S., the way Italy organizes its animal sanctuaries was quite a surprise to Rao, more Noah’s ark than a typical American animal shelter.
"In these sanctuaries, they just had all these animals together, which they would never do in the U.S.,” said Rao. “There was no separation among species, and it was really interesting to see how they coexisted together. I've never seen that in any sort of zoo or any type of sanctuary in America. It was very fascinating. That was the biggest shock to me.”
Marta Bonsi, pre-veterinary program coordinator and veterinary surgeon for Doctors in Italy, said Rao was passionate and detailed in her work at the shelters.
“Anika participated with great enthusiasm in all the activities during the fellowship program,” Bonsi said. “In particular, she enjoyed assisting me during a procedure on a sheep, where I had to perform a surgical treatment of an auricular wound. On the days that followed the operation, Anika volunteered to clean the sheep's wound under my supervision. During this task, she showed great dedication and an excellent ability to apply the principles of wound management that she was explained during the previous days.”
Doctors in Italy is a health care company launched by Bocconi University. The Doctors in Italy program was created to introduce students to the culture and practice of health care internationally early in their academic careers.
The fellowship combines 40 to 80 hours of clinical rotation with immersion in Italian culture.
Doctors in Italy for many years has offered fellowships for two to five weeks for students of human medicine, offering the chance to work alongside doctors in Italian hospitals and clinics.
Recently, the program added a pre-veterinary fellowship for two weeks, which gave Rao and other students aspiring to be veterinarians similar opportunities.
“Students learn about animal welfare and behavior, basic clinical examination skills, animal nutrition, comparative anatomy, zoonotic diseases, and the importance of human-animal interactions among various other topics,” Bonsi said.
Bonsi said the pre-veterinary program also aims to “foster a culture where animals are considered sentient beings and not products.” She said Rao was already well-attuned in that regard.
“Anika displayed a natural attitude in approaching animals in a humane way,” Bonsi said. “During the fellowship, she demonstrated to have already a good knowledge about animal welfare, a matter toward which she is particularly sensitive.”
The experience has already carried over into Rao's work caring for animals at the veterinary college.
“Anika's passion for animal care is evident in the everyday work she provides to the ACE animal instructors,” said Virginia Edwards, collegiate assistant professor in the veterinary college and service chief for the Animal Care for Education (ACE) program. “She approaches her work with the confidence and competence of someone who has a diverse understanding of animal husbandry, which was likely developed during her internship. We most definitely benefit from her keen eye and passion for providing great husbandry and care to our horses, dogs and cows.”
Rao said the experiences in Italy and at the veterinary college have shifted her emphasis a bit. “I initially wanted to do small animal medicine,” Rao said. “But I really love working with horses. And, so, I'm thinking of doing a mixed emphasis.”
“Thanks to the activities conducted at the sanctuaries, Anika discovered a passion about equines, especially donkeys, and mentioned that in the future she would like to work with equines,” Bonsi said.
The Doctors in Italy program is conducted in English with translators from Italian, so being bilingual is not necessary, though Rao said her knowledge of Spanish was helpful given the similarities in the two languages.
“I thought that traveling around Italy without knowing Italian would be difficult, but it was not as difficult as I thought it would be,” Rao said. “I took some Spanish all throughout high school, and the two languages are very similar. So I was able to navigate my way around pretty easily.” She said only one sanctuary overseer didn’t speak English.
Besides learning about veterinary care and Italy, the program helps students grow through working with a diverse team and in achieving more independence. “During the program, students definitely get out of their comfort zone and learn to be independent,” Bonsi said. “That is very important for their development.”
Rao is looking to stay stateside this summer, but planning to satisfy her veterinary career preparation by working in a small animal veterinary clinic and her travel bug by visiting Acadia National Park in Maine.
“I gained a lot of independence from this experience,” Rao said. “I've never traveled alone. And I thought that was very good for me in building self confidence that I can just do things on my own, as well as just a perspective on the cultural differences between here and Italy, and those within the vet practices as well.”