Taylor Winkleman, Germany, University of Georgia, May 19, 2014

May192014_1Let’s be honest. Being a vet student is hard. Especially on Mondays. But on the Monday you wake up in your hotel in Hannover and begin your two-week public health tour through Germany, it’s a good day to be a vet student. Especially when that tour is one of your clinical rotations. It’s one of those moments where you really feel like you’re winning at this whole vet thing.

We started with a German Frühstück at our hotel. The dining room was a charming miniature restaurant with very German things in it- a cuckoo clock and traditional German art, tablecloths and food. Lots of food. The typical German meal is rather heavy with rich meats and lots of bread, and Frühstück is no exception. The spread we had to choose from had Brötchen (big bread rolls, so tasty), several different kinds of sliced bread, hard boiled eggs, many different kinds of cold charcuterie, and a couple different Würste (sausages), plus pastries, juice, coffee, tea, fruit, and sliced tomato. Thus (quite heavily) fortified, we set out on our first official day in Germany.

The first thing we did was go to Tierärztliche Hochschule Hannover (the vet school in Hannover), and we got treated to a meeting with the President of the school. He gave us a talk about the history of the school (it’s a private school) and how it had come to be a doctoral school. The Hannover vet school is the oldest vet school in Germany, and was founded in 1778. The president told us about how very much changed the face of veterinary medicine is- how it has come to be a female-dominated profession (with two men and ten women on the trip, we were quite representative of it ourselves), and how he sees change being a very positive thing as we continue to grow and change with our profession. We are students, but we were welcomed to the school and treated like VIPs.

Our next order of business included a familiar face: Professor Hackbarth had given us a walking tour of Hannover on Sunday, teaching us the history of one of Germany’s less touristy and more interesting cities. After the war, almost all of Hannover was destroyed (there were literally two buildings left untouched), because Hannover was on the Allied bombing route to Berlin. So the Allies would drop any unused munitions on the city, leaving only the newspaper office building and one of the churches intact by the end of the war. So the Hannoverians took the opportunity to redesign their city, leaving some of the bombed out sections to revert of forest, resulting in a park that stretches throughout the city, crisscrossed with walking and running and biking trails, a beautiful man-made lake,and modern, wide streets that are relatively easy to navigate. Several of us on the trip tried out the running trails, and it was a surreal and incredible experience, to jog 50 meters from the hotel and end up in a cool, green forest with some of the best-maintained and softest dirt trails I’ve ever gotten to run on. But I digress.

On Monday, Professor Hackbarth gave us an overview of animal welfare in Germany. Possibly the most revealing thing the professor told us was, “In Germany, we have a rule for everything.” This applies to all areas of animal welfare, from the tracking system for livestock (you can track your meat from the supermarket back to the individual animal) to shelter medicine. Perhaps the most interesting subject (for me, anyway) was the overview of how shelters are run. In Germany, all of the animal shelters are state-run, so there are no private animal rescues. The implications were interesting, to say the least. Without private shelters to take the burden of rescue, and with very strict leash laws, Dr.Hackbarth told us that we would not see any strays while we were in Germany.

This, despite the fact that spays and neuters are considered largely unnecessary and are not routinely performed. Professor Hackbarth was right- we didn’t see any strays. The stray problem is well controlled, and while we didn’t ask for specific numbers, he implied that the euthanasia rate is very low in the shelters. The euthanasia rate in some counties in Georgia can be upwards of 70%.

All too soon, it was time to get some lunch at the mensa, the cafeteria at the vet school. Yep, that’s right. The vet school has a full-service cafeteria where the students can go and get a hot lunch every day. I had the chicken with mango sauce and the potatoes and green beans with a salad for lunch- and was pleasantly surprised. Lunch was tasty- but it was also rushed, because we had to get to our next stop of our first day. The zoo!

I’ve been working with exotics for three years now, and the zoo is endlessly fascinating to me. It’s always a balancing act between the individual and the species- we ask these animals to be the ambassadors for their kind, to teach people about themselves and inspire conservation efforts. It is impossible to recreate the conditions of the wild, and we are still learning so much about all of these species, so the face of zoo medicine is constantly changing. For example, these days, you will almost never find zebras and giraffes and rhinos housed as individual species. More often, they are housed together, so that they can interact with each other more naturally. The Hannover zoo is also working towards better welfare, and our tour showed a side of veterinary medicine that many don’t get to experience.

Oftentimes we can forget that veterinary medicine is as much about people as it is about animals, and I think zoo animal welfare is one of the most poetic illustrations of the intersection of human and animal health. The fences are there to protect both sides from each other.

By the end of the day, we had explored the zoo, which included a wonderful collection of elephants (my favorite animal), a petting zoo, and a river ride that took us past several of the animals. We wound down with dinner at the zoo restaurant, where many of us had the “snail wurst,” or one of the coiled sausages with sauerkraut and potatoes, and also got one of the best apple strudels I’ve ever had in my life. Day one was in the books and it was illuminating and wonderful.