Each year, the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine admits only 72 students from a pool of nearly 1,000 applicants, so it’s no accident that our students are extraordinary people. They are not only selected for their good grades, they also have demonstrated a passion for the profession through service projects and volunteer work with animal welfare agencies. Jeff Popowich is just one of those students.
Unlike many veterinary students, Popowich did not want to be a veterinarian when he was a kid. He wanted to be a fireman or a police officer. “I did not have my mind made up from an early age,” he says. “And the path that has led me here was not the most direct route.”
After finishing high school, Popowich worked as a painter, motorcycle tour guide, construction worker, emergency medical technician, dog caregiver, veterinary technician, and animal sanctuary manager. The last three were all at a sanctuary run by Best Friends Animal Society, a non-profit animal rescue and advocacy organization.
He discovered Best Friends while attending an event in Los Angeles called a ‘super adoption’, where the society provides a venue for all the local shelters and rescue groups to adopt out their animals. “The thing that impressed me,” says Popowich, “was that Best Friends managed to find placements for all the dogs and cats from city shelters, so none of the animals had to go back. By the end of the weekend, over 600 animals found new homes.” In fact, he was so impressed, he drove to the Best Friends headquarters in Kanab, Utah and volunteered to work at their sanctuary. Soon after, they offered him a job as a dog caregiver. Popowich had found his calling.
He began working his way up the ladder at Best Friends and was eventually promoted to Animal Care Senior Manager. “My role was to oversee the day-to-day operations involved in care of the 1,700 sanctuary animals, and work with all the animal departments to ensure that best practices were used for animal care, enrichment and housing,” he says.
While at the sanctuary, he was actively involved in their emergency response department. “In 2005 I was part of the first team sent to New Orleans after hurricane Katrina,” says Popowich. “My co-workers and I spent the next nine months in Louisiana and ultimately helped rescue 6,000 animals.”
His time in New Orleans was both challenging and rewarding. “I feel fortunate to have been given the opportunity to go down there. Every day was a chance to help animals in need, and periodically we were also able to reunite them with their families.” He also learned an important life lesson while there. “I learned to never judge people you don’t know,” he says. “We saw so many animals left behind, some left in precarious situations, that it was difficult at times to not get frustrated with the people who left the animals behind. But when we were lucky enough to reunite a pet with their family, and hear their story and what they went through, most of our preconceived notions were proven false.”
Popowich participated in many other animal emergencies including the rescue of 800 cats in an institutionalized hoarding situation dubbed the Great Kitty Rescue. “I set up the medical component of that operation.” He also led a Best Friends team that assessed the fighting dogs removed from the estate of NFL quarterback Michael Vick. “When the court awarded 22 of the dogs to the sanctuary, I organized their transport from the east coast out to Utah.”
All these rescue operations put Popowich on the front lines with veterinarians volunteering their services for animal welfare, and that made a big impact on him. “I worked with private practice vets, state vets and shelter vets,” he says. “I was impressed by the fact that there was always a veterinarian, or hospital, willing to help.”
Along the way, Popowich realized that he most enjoyed the jobs where he was giving back to the community. Whether setting up and running free spay/neuter events on the Navajo reservation, or reuniting a cat with a man who lost everything to a hurricane, those experiences steered him toward veterinary medicine as a place to make a difference and led him to apply to the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine where he was accepted into the Class of 2018.
Popowich is graduating in June 2018, and despite the high cost of veterinary college, he knows he made the right choice. "As a practicing veterinarian I will continue to give back to the animals and their people. One area I intend to focus my efforts is with spaying and neutering. I believe strongly that affordable spay/neuter can effectively mitigate the problems associated with pet overpopulation, and I want to do my part to make a positive difference. I know that being a veterinarian is what I am going to do for the rest of my working days.”