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From Art Student to APHIS Veterinarian, Dr. Karen James-Preston on World Vet Year

Hello, I’m Dr. Karen James-Preston. I’m work for USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, or APHIS, as Director of the Veterinary Services’ National Center for Import and Export, Animal Products. My staff and I work every day to make sure animal products are safely imported into the United States. We also work to facilitate the export of animal products to other countries. My job is fulfilling because I’m part of the team that’s protecting the domestic livestock and poultry population from disease, as well as helping our agriculture industry move products abroad.

My path to becoming a veterinarian was non-traditional, to say the least. My undergraduate degree is actually in Art Education. Even though my plan for college was math, I somehow ended up in the art department. While I was at Howard University, I got my first pet, a toy poodle named Oatmeal. After a while, my friends asked why I didn’t want to become a veterinarian… and I didn’t have a good answer. Now I wasn’t a great artist, so I decided to pursue a veterinary career. I needed additional science courses to get into vet school, but luckily I was able to take those classes at University of Maryland and get into the vet school at Tuskegee, Alabama.

After graduation, I completed an internship for small medicine and surgery at Michigan State University. I then went into private practice where I practiced in various small animal clinics in the Washington, D.C. area. While being accredited by USDA, I became interested in what USDA had to offer in the field of veterinary medicine. In 1985, I came to APHIS when a job opened up as a field veterinarian medical officer (VMO) in Maryland. I spent the next 18 months doing many things, including spending a lot of time doing animal welfare (animal care) inspections and working with the Laurel racetrack handling contagious equine metritis (CEM) quarantines for international horses coming there to race.

I came to the import/export staff, first on a detail and then took a permanent position and worked my way up over the years. I’ve spent a lot of time working on animal importation issues, especially on the equine side. For international horse shows, the imported horses had to be quarantined for CEM (just like at the racetrack). That meant strict procedures for all personnel entering and exiting the quarantine area. I remember one owner who wanted to enter and didn’t want to put on booties or use disinfectant on his shoes. But the rules exist to keep animals healthy, so if he wanted to visit his horse he had to follow the rules.

My veterinary career has provided a wide range of opportunities, including the opportunity to travel overseas to approve quarantine facilities and negotiate import regulations. It’s been an interesting journey through the years, and well worth it.

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