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Lots of young people who love animals want to be veterinarians. But vet school is demanding, and it's expensive. And the work is less cute and cuddly than many realize. Perhaps the biggest problem of all is that those who do graduate find that the number of vets out there far outstrips need. Dan Carsen, of member station WBHM in Birmingham, Ala., reports on a hands-on vet camp that may be part of the solution.
DAN CARSEN, BYLINE: It's not every day you see a Ph.D. in a cowboy hat dismantling a horse's leg for 10 wide-eyed high school students.
RAY WILHITE: So this is the medial (unintelligible). So that's going to come to the medial side down here. Can somebody hold that leg up kind of like that for me?
CARSEN: Ray Wilhite, of Auburn University, teaches animal anatomy at this summer camp for aspiring vets. Preserved digestive systems sit on nearby tables. Between this lab and the necropsy room, the odors and gore are intense, but that doesn't bother high school senior Maria Lorge.
MARIA LORGE: I've known ever since - I remember, like, kindergarten it was like dress-up and what you wanted to be, and it was like always a vet year after year. I guess just my love of animals kind of helped that a lot.
CARSEN: That kind of love adds to an oversupply of vets in the workforce. A first-of-its-kind report from the American Veterinary Medical Association estimates the supply exceeds the demand by the equivalent of 11,000 full-time vets.
CHRISTOPHER BYERS: There is a palpable tension.
CARSEN: That's Christopher Byers, of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine.
BYERS: Right now, as a profession, we have so many veterinarians who are not being utilized to their full capacity. And now, it is our job to figure out why that is, and to come up with ways to rectify that.
CARSEN: He says vets don't have high unemployment, but the underemployment is significant. More than half say their practices are not at full capacity. And for the past three decades, U.S. schools have cranked out tens of thousands of new vets.
BYERS: There are a lot of veterinarians having big red flags go up in their head, questioning why we have more opportunities for veterinary training when the demand isn't there.
CARSEN: So now, the schools are in a bind - tuition money on one side, market realities on the other. Dan Givens, an interim dean at Auburn, says veterinary medicine is a calling that attracts people no matter the economics. And he says, given public health threats, too much talent in the workforce has upsides.
DAN GIVENS: If we had a new foreign animal disease come into the United States, the excess capacity would be a great blessing for us because we would be prepared for this huge surge in need.
CARSEN: One solution to the imbalance would be prosperity because when times are good, people have more pets and take better care of them. There are also federal loan programs encouraging vets to go into less glamorous specialties like livestock or to live in rural areas where there are still vet shortages. And finally, camps like Auburn's reinforce some people's desire to be vets, but they also show them what they're getting into and filter some out. High school freshman Lauren Allen says it's not easy.
LAUREN ALLEN: If you're interested in being a vet and you're young, it's not all cuddling animals. It's actually - they - you see them hurt, and you can see bones and sticking out where they're not supposed to be.
CARSEN: Despite all of it, there are still lots of smart, passionate young people who want to be vets, and that's unlikely to change anytime soon. The veterinary workforce study predicts supply will exceed demand at least through 2025. For NPR News, I'm Dan Carsen in Birmingham, Alabama.