Many of us animal and wildlife lovers are lucky enough to have a non-human family member in our lives. Whether it is a dog, cat, bearded dragon, rabbit, snake, or hamster, our pets hold a special place in our hearts and we would do just about anything for them. What many of us don’t appreciate enough are the other people that help us make sure our animals are getting the best lives, our veterinarians.
They go through years and years… and years.. of school and training to learn how to give the best care, but do we really understand all that it takes and what goes on behind the scenes of these heroes in scrubs and coats. We got the chance to talk to Dr. David Balderrama, a veterinarian out of Washington. His easy-going nature and ability to make anyone laugh is just what you need. Dr. B gave us the truth about the hardships, stress, and much needed comic relief that go into having to take care of the animals, and deal with the owners, while being a vet.
Tiana with Wildlife Tree : What is your name, title, and position?
Dr. Balderrama (Dr. B): Dr. David Balderrama, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. I work and practice at Central Valley Animal Hospital which is located in Poulsbo, Washington. I will have been there two full years in August.
Tiana: Where did you go to school?
Dr. B: I went to Ross University on the island of Saint Kitts in the Caribbean. I went to undergrad at UC Davis and wanted to go to vet school there, but my grades weren’t quite good enough. So after my undergrad I went back home to southern California and remembered about the Exotic Animal Training Program at Moorpark College so I went through that after I got my Bachelor of Science in Zoology from UC Davis. While I was at Moorpark I got to meet Dr. Petty, who is a great man and mentor to me and he knew I wanted to be a vet and helped push me towards veterinary school. I couldn’t get into the U.S veterinary schools which are very hard to do, but I got into Ross University which is a legit University and is now accredited. You graduate with a DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine), but since it is overseas you have to go to one of the U.S veterinary schools for your senior year, and I went to Kansas State. You then have to pass all the same exams as the U.S students and actually even a few more exams because you are considered a foreign student.
Someone once explained it to me as if you are going to go see a movie, but you go in through the side door instead of the main entrance. You still see the same movie, you just have a different experience getting there. I ended up meeting my wife there too so I know it all happened for a reason.
Tiana: When did you know you wanted to work with animals?
Dr. B: Gosh, I feel like most people it goes as far back as I can remember. Especially wild animals. I cannot remember not wanting to go to a zoo whenever I would travel with my parents. Whether it was locally or we went to Florida or Hawaii for a vacation I would always ask if we could go to the zoo.
One event I remember specifically was during 6th grade we went whale watching with a group of like 50 kids, and my dad was a chaperone, and when we were coming back in there were a bunch of sea lions. I guess my dad had said “Where is David? I need to get David, he would love to see this,” and one of the girls from my class rolled her eyes and said “That’s all David talks about. Animals, animals, animals.” That story always just kind of stuck with me and I guess even at that young age I always wanted to work in a zoo. I don’t now, but I do get to help out more exotic animals like bearded dragons, chickens, and rabbits.
Tiana: When did you know you wanted to be a veterinarian?
Dr. B: My parents kind of pushed for it. That was always the stereotype when you tell people you want to work with animals and they tell you ‘Oh you should be a vet.’ Like if you say you want to help people most would say you should be a doctor. For me it was acceptable because I figured well I am smart and I would enjoy being able to come to the rescue. My dad is a Physicians Assistant, I remember many times at family functions people would always call him if someone was hurt or choking, and I always thought that was kind of cool how my dad is respected and had authority as the medical guy. He was important and I liked that people need you and your solving something.
I also always read the books in high school like All Creatures Great and Small and thought it was so cool and that I should be a vet. From that and my parents it kind of just tunneled me towards being a vet and I have no regrets.
Tiana: What advice would you give to people who want to go into the field or be a veterinarian?
Dr. B: I would say make sure you really can’t picture yourself doing anything else. It is a wonderful job, but there is a high rate of suicide, a high rate of burnout, and a high rate of compassion fatigue. It is not something you want to spend that much time, and that much money on all the student loans, just to a few years down the line figure out that you hate it and feel trapped.
I would get as much experience as you can before in the veterinary field as well as other fields or whatever your passions are. It’s a great job, but if you think you could be just as happy and in less debt working at the humane society or opening up your own pet shop or anything, you should look into that. Make sure you want to do it for the rest of your life. I have been a vet for almost 20 years and I am even thinking about how much longer I want to do this. I am getting kind of bored, and I have been bored for a while. There are only so many ear diseases and cases of yeast infections and spays and neuters. After a while, I need challenge and excitement, but that is also just my personality.
I would also say make sure that you like people. Don’t go into it thinking you just want to play with animals because if you're not good at dealing with people you are going to be miserable. Try not to get burnt out.
Tiana: What is the best thing about your job?
Dr. B: My answer has probably changed throughout the years, but right now I really work at a great clinic and have a great staff. My hours are awesome right now too with not having to work weekends or holidays. The staff is usually kicking me out the door. Not every clinic is like that, but we have a lot of fun at work. There is a lot we have to deal with including having to euthanize animals, mad clients, people not understanding tests we have to do, but the staff really make it fun. If it wasn’t for them I would be really bored. Where I am right now, the best part is definitely the staff.
Tiana: What is the hardest part about your job?
Dr. B: I don’t know if it counts, but I would say the debt. Going to veterinary school, you accumulate a high amount of debt. Thankfully you can make a decent amount of money, but you are still dealing with all the debt which has hindered me from buying a house. The debt is for real and can inhibit your quality of life.
Tiana: What has been a highlight or best memory of your career?
Dr. B: Honestly, I don’t think I am a good vet. I don’t mean that in an ethical sense, more in terms of I feel like I am getting older and I am forgetting things. My fear is if it is the right treatment or if I am thinking about all the options. I just don’t want to make a mistake, so the good part of my job is when people actually compliment me and tell me I am a good vet. The best part is when people affirm you are in the right job and remind you that you’ve made the right decision.
I did get to do an exploratory surgery on a monkey which was really cool. I worked briefly in South Carolina and my job was to help keep the monkeys at the facility healthy and one of them had a mass. We had to do a surgery to find out what was wrong. It ended up being a tumor, but it was really cool to be able to do.
Tiana: If you weren’t a veterinarian, what would you want to do?
Dr. B: I would definitely say something to do with more exotic animals. My goal was always to be a wildlife educator because I like people, I really do. Being able to educate them on wildlife and conservation and throw some jokes in there. I love kids and educating kids.
The close second would be a nature show host. I am kind of getting to do that in my own way now with my YouTube channel. I remember I got to meet Jack Hannah and later I was talking to one of my professors in the EATM program, Gary Wilson, and I asked him how I could get involved in that industry. This was before YouTube was really big and all of that, but he said I would have to shoot a demo reel, edit it, and submit it to Discovery Channel or wherever. I thought that sounded like a lot of work so I decided to go to veterinary school instead.
So nature show host, or wildlife and exotic educator. I miss the live interaction with an audience.
Tiana: If you had to compare yourself to any animal, what would it be and why?
Dr. B: I would say an otter. Not a sea otter, but a river otter. I think because of the stereotype on how they like to have fun. You always see them sliding around and it just looks like they take things easy. I don’t like to take life too seriously. There is too much sadness and pain in the world. I am the type of person in the intense meeting that will crack a joke and pop the tension bubble. I like the playful animals and otters look like they are always having fun.
The next time we take our pet for a checkup or procedure, we will definitely give an extra thank you and show our appreciation to all the amazing staff that dedicate their lives to taking care of our animals. We don’t always know everything that goes on behind the scenes and we want to say a big thank you to Dr. B for taking the time out to chat with us and give us the honest trust of everything that goes into becoming a veterinarian. If you are near Poulsbo, Washington, definitely take your furry or scaly friend to Dr. Balderrama. You can also find him on YouTube at his channel, Trust Me, I’m a Reptile Doctor to get some fun and entertaining veterinary advice and awesome animal facts.
I think you would be great at educating the public on the care of reptiles. What I would like to know is what kind of experience you could share about the care of birds?