It is early morning at the Telford calf shed and the RATs are out.
Not the rodents but the rural animal technicians (RATs) studying at the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) -Telford campus near Balclutha.
Covid-19 put a damper on last year’s intake – there were only six enrolled – but with 15 this year and Telford recovering from a shaky few years under previous tertiary providers, numbers were healthy and interest was strong.
Millie Clarke and Jasmine Gilder were two of those students, out on work experience with Clutha Vets. The South Otago-based veterinary practice has long been partnered with Telford to provide practical experience for students.
The calves moo enthusiastically when vet and academic adviser to Telford Steve Butler turns up.
He has brought SIT-qualified rural animal technician Kim Bastiannsen with him so that the students can continue to see how a technician and vet work together.
“We take on vet students too (for work experience).
“I think it’s important the vets learn to be vets and technicians to be technicians and to learn to work together.”
All four of them get mobbed in the pen. The calves go unerringly to where they think the milk should be with single-minded determination. A strong smell of eau de calf permeates the air.
Working with students is an aspect of the job that Butler (34), originally from North Canterbury really enjoys. He has been with Clutha Vets for 12 years since he graduated from Massey University.
“It’s one of the strong points of difference that Telford has over other institutes, access to real-life farms, which is built into the course.”
It was an area in which the practice was committed to seeing succeed, he said.
Clutha Vets provided 60 hours a year classroom tuition and 10 weeks’ full-time practical experience over the course.
“It has to work in with the farm calendar, so that they have lots of different experiences and experience different things, at the right time.”
Telford provides on-site training in dairying, sheep, beef and equine, and off-site with the 60-70 host farms where students can go for work experience. Clutha Vets had been part of that journey for much of its 113 years in practice.
The training was helping feed the demand for workers at certificate and diploma level, with courses designed to make them leave the institute work-ready, he said.
The rural animal technician field had definitely opened up at the practice, which may have employed only one or two 15 years ago, to the six or seven it had now. It took on one or two Telford-qualified students each year.
Students were useful team members to help with labour-intensive activities, however, because much of the work experience was client-based, the professional standard level of care had to be high.
“We really make sure that the standard is not compromised, and find them the right role to get experience without affecting the outcome so that it is still a useful learning experience.”
The district abounded with opportunities in the field because of the wide mix of animals.
“South Otago definitely has that so that’s why I stayed so I can be the vet I want to be. It’s home now.
“I really enjoy working with the students. For me it’s seeing them gain skills and applying them, and that’s great.”
He also found the students’ individual journey an interesting aspect.
SIT-Telford rural animal technician students Millie Clarke and Jasmine Gilder. Photo / Mary-Jo Tohill
Animal-mad Milly Clarke (23) was born in Auckland and grew up in Meadowbank.
She wanted to be vet, but her aptitude was more suited towards the arts and media.
After leaving high school she took a gap year and worked for Camp America. On her return she went to university to study for a bachelor of communications.
“But I quickly realised it wasn’t what I wanted to do with my life at the time and dropped out after one week.”
More travel followed and stints as an au pair and horse trek leader in Canada.
She came home in November of 2019 with the intention of spending the summer working in New Zealand before going to Europe in 2020, but Covid happened and that plan had to be scratched.
Clarke spent most of last year working as a nanny, swim teacher and lifeguard at her local YMCA before deciding she needed to study.
In February 2021 she found out about the RAT course at Telford and decided this was something she wanted to do with her life.
“In the future I can see myself potentially doing some further study and being qualified as a vet nurse as well so I have some more options career-wise. And I would like to take my qualifications overseas and gather some experience on farms and in vet clinics around the world.”
Jasmine Gilder (20) was enjoying a change from humans to animals.
She was born in Southland and grew up on a lifestyle block just outside of Gore.
“I grew up surrounded with a variety of different animals including pigs, goats, sheep, chickens, alpacas and especially horses.
Growing up, she was not 100 per cent sure what she wanted to do.
“During school and in the holidays, I worked on the farm and this is when I realised I wanted to work in the outdoors and with animals.”
When she first left school, she went to nursing school for a year “and didn’t enjoy it so I left and worked on a farm before I came to Telford”.
She was loving her studies because of the strong practical aspect, and was keen to work in a vet practice.
“I’m finding it easier for my learning style to solidify the experience with getting hands-on experience.
“It is so much easier to do study when you enjoy it.”