Veterinarians on the “moo-ve”

17 Sep 2019

Veterinary medicine makes headlines, if ever, when a raccoon gets a pacemaker. But the profession deserves more attention. It’s a demanding job with many surprising facets. No wonder most veterinarians view their work as a vocation.

It’s five in the morning, and the light in the sheds and stables is subdued. With their rubber boots and overalls on, students are milking the cows, cleaning out the stalls and feeding the animals. They have a herd of 300 cattle, including 130 dairy cows and their calves, and some 900 pigs (including piglets) to look after, and everyone here knows what needs to be done. For this is LMU’s Experimental Farm, dedicated to teaching and extending the capacities of veterinary science. For the students, this is part of their compulsory practical class in agriculture. “Much of the veterinarian’s training focuses on livestock,” says Thomas Göbel, Dean of Studies in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s important to emphasize this from the very beginning, and I must say that our students love this course.”

For most students, the very idea of being up at this hour is unlikely to evoke enthusiasm. But Angelina, who is now in her fourth semester and has already completed this practical, has very happy memories of weighing calves. “I’m a city kid, and to me and most of the others, the idea of weighing calves sounded like fun. That was before we realized that a calf can weigh up to 100 kg. And on that day few of them wanted to be weighed at all! It took a lot out of us, and we were relieved when it was over, and could start cleaning the sheds.” Angelina is from Moscow, and she studied veterinary medicine there. “In Moscow there are five schools of veterinary medicine, the same number as in the whole of Germany. But there is far less emphasis on the practical side than there is at LMU. So I’m very happy to be able to study here,” she explains.

“Veterinary medicine is a vocation” Angelina is studying one of the most challenging subjects on the LMU curriculum. The first few semesters in particular are chockful of stuff that must be learned – Anatomy, Chemistry, Physics, Biology, Animal Welfare, Animal Husbandry and much, much more. During a brief break, she describes a typical weekend shift on Instagram: “I spent this Saturday in the lab, isolating DNA and doing PCR-based diagnostic tests with the samples. But instead of taking time out to relax, I’m now learning. No free weekends, constantly learning, an exam every week – and all that just for the sake of some happy moments in the company of these marvelous creatures? Yes! I love it! Thomas Göbel is no stranger to this sort of enthusiasm. “Over and over again, one comes across the same story in CVs: ‘I have wanted to become a veterinarian since I was 6 years of age.’ Most applicants never mention any other option.”

That holds for Laura too. She has completed her studies and is now enrolled in a graduate training program at LMU’s Small-Animal Clinic, which will give her an extra qualification. Unlike Angelina, who lost her heart to livestock, Laura is especially devoted to dogs. “I want to be able to ‘talk’ to the animals, and I’m good with small animals.” She vividly remembers her earliest encounter with canine anatomy in her course. “It’s true that one is thrown in at the deep end. During my second week, I was confronted with my first dissection, a dog’s leg.” Nevertheless, anatomy was one of the subjects that she enjoyed most. “Things get really interesting from the 5th semester on,” she explains. This is when the lectures and courses become more specialized, and every student does a rotation, which takes in all six veterinary hospitals. For example, we had to do a course on milk and another one on cheese, since all animal products have to be inspected by a veterinarian. The course on cheese ended fittingly – with a wine and cheese party.

It is striking to see how much Laura enjoys talking about her profession. But she emphasizes that veterinary medicine requires intensive study. “One must really put one’s heart and soul into it,” she says. “We follow the same procedures and employ the same tools as in any other type of hospital,” says Thomas Göbel. “We work in accordance with the highest standards and we perform the most complicated surgical procedures on patients of all sizes – from small fish to elephants,” says Göbel. And this enormous range is reflected in the breadth of training required. In the latest QS subject-based ranking, LMU’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine is in the Top 25 overall, well ahead of its peers in Germany. To ensure that this placing can be held, the Faculty’s infrastructure must keep up with the pace of technological change. And change is very much in the air. When the Faculty agreed to move lock, stock and barrel to the new campus in Oberschleissheim, the Süddeutsche Zeitung called it a ‘once-in-a-century’ decision.

Tradition makes way for modernity Oberschleissheim is noted for its imposing 18th-century palace. It’s also the site of Germany’s oldest airfield and Bayern Munich’s training school for talented young footballers. “In the medium term, LMU’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine will be transferred from its current location in the heart of Munich to a new campus here, which is unique in Europe,” says the Dean of the Faculty, Reinhard Straubinger.“

Munich’s Veterinary School traces its origin to an institution which was set up in Schwabing in the year 1790, and the Faculty celebrated its centenary in 2014. Its rootedness in the city does much to explain why it continues to cherish its traditions – the long-established annual grill party with faculty members and students from the École Nationale Vétérinaire in Toulouse, the gowns worn during graduation ceremonies, and the mortarboards crafted for successful doctoral candidates by their juniors. Needless to say, many of those who earned their spurs on the historic site on the edge of the English Garden have mixed feelings about the move. One of the things that Angelina will miss is the chance of taking a quick dip in the Eisbach. “The Institute in the English Garden was like a small village in the middle of the big city,” says Laura. “But I did my Finals in the new lecture theater in Oberschleissheim, and I must say that the facilities are first class.” Its state-of-the-art facilities ¬– the Library, the Skills Lab for students, the clinics and its research infrastructure – are indeed one hallmark of the new campus. And its links with the public transport network will no doubt be improved to cater for the needs of some 1600 students, 300 doctoral students and 450 staff.

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