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Celebrating Black History Month (2/12/2021)
February 12, 2021
Dr. Lila Miller

There are so many amazing African American Veterinarians throughout our country’s history who have made immeasurable contributions to veterinary medicine and animal shelter medicine. This week, we will highlight one inspiring Veterinarian who not only opened doors for Black, Female Veterinarians for generations to follow, but made incredible advancements for veterinary medicine in an animal shelter setting. We will also be giving a brief history of African Americans in veterinary medicine and discussing barriers in the industry.

We have linked articles at the bottom and strongly encourage checking them out after our article for even more reading! 

Dr. Lila Miller grew up in Harlem New York and since the age of 5, she had the goal of becoming a Veterinarian. Despite her advisor in high school telling her that becoming a Veterinarian was an “unrealistic goal for a young black woman in the 1970s,” Dr. Miller went on to attend Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine.

There were 65 students in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Cornell in 1973. Only 14 were women and only 2 (including herself) were Black women (2). While in school, Dr. Miller was called racial slurs by classmates and was harshly graded by professors (2). When she visited an advisor on campus to discuss her hardships on campus and express concerns about whether she could finish her degree, her advisor told her, “Lila, you’re a guinea pig in this program. If you don’t finish it, they’re not going to let any more black students in for the foreseeable future. (2)” Dr. Miller had to carry the weight of completing school for herself AND for generations of Black men and women that would come after her - a weight her white classmates simply didn’t have to carry. Dr. Miller once said, “I didn’t go there to make waves or blaze trails. I was just trying to fulfill a childhood dream. (2)” And she did. Not only did she graduate, she graduated early, making her one of the first two Black women to graduate from Cornell (2), and effectively opening the door for many African American students who would enroll after her. On top of this, Dr. Miller went on to work with the ASPCA to completely change veterinary medicine for animal shelters across the nation!

At the ASPCA, Dr. Miller worked to drastically improve the standards for animal care in a shelter setting. She “put new guidelines in place, mandating vaccines, treatment for illnesses and more. (2)” She also wrote the “ASPCA’s first Animal Care Supervisor’s Manual (2),” brought “the country’s first shelter medicine college course to Cornell (2),” taught her “colleagues about recognizing signs of animal abuse (2),” and created “organizations for shelter vets to share their experiences (2).” Her work at the ASPCA inspired animal shelters across the country to adjust their own practices, resulting in “a more respectful world for homeless pets nationwide.” Her legacy in shelter medicine is summarized perfectly in her quote, “The inherent value of the animal should not depend on its ownership (2).” We are honored to recognize Dr. Lila Miller’s contributions to veterinary medicine and animal sheltering in this week’s Black History Month highlight!

In our next few sections, we dive into the history of African Americans in veterinary medicine and also address some of the barriers that African Americans face when working to become Veterinarians. 

Picture Source HERE Dr. Lila Miller (pictured)

Picture Source HERE Dr. Lila Miller (pictured)

Between 1889 and 1948, there is only a record of 70 African Americans graduating from veterinary Schools in the U.S. AND Canada. We saw an increase in the number of African American Veterinarians only after the “veterinary school at Tuskegee (Institute) University was established in 1945” by “Dr. Frederick D. Patterson, Dr. Edward B. Evans, and their colleagues (3).” This new college of veterinary medicine at Tuskegee was “a private, historically black school” in a “rigidly segregated educational system” with “limited financial support” and “no physical facilities (3).” However, Dr. Patterson and Dr. Evans were determined to create a program to “provide an opportunity for an ethnic minority largely denied admission to the existing veterinary schools (3).” To this day, Tuskegee has “graduated about 70 percent of our nation’s Black veterinarians (7).” We honor the contributions of Dr. Frederick D. Patterson, Dr. Edward B. Evans, and their colleagues at Tuskegee college of veterinary medicine for their contributions to the advancement of veterinary medicine!

It is important to note that throughout the history of veterinary medicine, the contributions and successes of African American Veterinarians are not fully appreciated or documented (3). Many texts and publications leave out details about the advancements of veterinary medicine attributed to African American doctors (3). This “omission of significant facts provides neither a continued interest nor the broad view necessary for a full appreciation of the impact, past and present, of minorities on the veterinary medical profession (3).” For even more reading on African Americans in the history of veterinary medicine, we have linked several articles at the bottom!

Picture source HERE "Figure 4: The first faculty of the School of Veterinary Medicine with President F.D. Patterson. Front row L-R: Drs. W.H. Waddell, E.B. Evans, F.D. Patterson, E.G. Trigg; back row L-R: Drs. G.W. Cooper, L.B. Mobiley, T.G. Perry (not pictured: Drs. T.S. Williams and W.A. Ezell)."

When we look at the demographics of Veterinarians in the United States in 2020, out of the 83,000 Veterinarians employed in the U.S., 91.9% are white and 0.0% are black (5) - yes, 0.0%. That percentage is down from 2.1% of Veterinarians being Black in 2016 (4). Despite most veterinary colleges having a section on their website titled “Diversity and Inclusion,” “Diversity Recruitment,” or some other variation of this, there aren’t more African American Veterinarians. Why?

To start, college recruitment strategies don’t address systemic racism. Are schools passively vowing to accept Black students if they apply or are the colleges and universities working directly with public school systems to provide STEM programming, career exposure, and career counseling opportunities for young children? Eugene W. Adams argues that veterinary school “recruitment efforts  (of African American students) have been less than successful because little attention has been given to developing race-neutral policies that disproportionately benefit students of color, just as race-neutral policies of the past, such as requiring standardized tests, have disproportionately penalized these students (3).” 

Also, animal care deserts exist, limiting exposure to veterinary medicine as a career option in the first place. A TIME article notes that one doctor, “Dr. Will Draper,” “didn’t live near vet clinics or animal shelters while growing up in a predominantly Black community (4).” As a result, he didn’t even  know he wanted to become a Veterinarian until visiting his father’s alma mater, Tuskegee and learning about the College of Veterinary Medicine (4). Dr. Tierra Price argues in that same TIME article that these deserts create a two fold issue when veterinary schools require “applicants have hundreds of hours of clinical experience working with animals and licensed veterinarians (4)” to be accepted. Because most of these hours of experience are unpaid, this requirement from veterinary schools makes acceptance “tough for applicants who don’t live near clinics or shelters, especially if they have to work to support themselves or their families (4)” and don’t have the “‘luxury of forgoing income (4).’”

Even after receiving their doctorate, African American Veterinarians experience obstacles in practicing their profession (3). Dr. Draper, who owns his own practice, notes in the TIME article that “at least two have refused his service (4)” once they saw that he was African American, that he has been called ‘“the colored doctor (4),”’ and that he has been mistaken for the Veterinary Technician or Assistant often at work (4). Whether facing obstacles while obtaining their degree in an industry “stifled by homogeneity (4)” and “a culture of leaders often inflexible to change (4),”  while managing clients in a world still struggling with implicit and explicit bias, or often both, there is clearly still a lot of work to be done. 

There are organizations like the “National Association for Black Veterinarians” (8) working to provide networking opportunities, mentorship, and other resources to African American Veterinary students and Veterinarians (8). Programs created during the Obama presidency work to increase access to STEM education for students in an effort to keep up with the increasingly demanding workforce (especially for Black and Latino students who historically receive less STEM programming) (6). Thousands of amazing teachers, community leaders, and school leaders are all working to make Veterinary school a reality for more and more African American students within the constraints of their schools budgeting and curriculum requirements. But, even with these efforts, 0.0% of our Veterinarians are African American (5). 

As stated, these barriers are just the tip of the iceberg. We encourage you to do research further into these topics and have linked all referenced articles at the bottom as well as an additional article for reading on the topic. 

It is so important as a pioneer in animal sheltering and shelter medicine that we are intentionally ensuring that bias does not influence our hiring or adoption approval decisions. We also strive to consistently improve our workplace culture so that it is one that makes everyone feel welcomed, heard, and valued. Part of our mission is education - both for ourselves and our community. If we ignore the history, nothing will change.

Author: Sarah Meding