- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Two 30-something veterinarians are bringing something extra to local animal care, and it’s not just their relative youth. Early next month, Dr. Nia Malika Perkins and Dr. Elton Vyfhuis will open Paws, Purrs & Exotics Animal Hospital, the first animal care facility run by blacks in Alexandria and one of the few in the Greater Washington area.

Dr. Perkins, 33, a native of Chicago, and Dr. Vyfhuis, 34, who grew up locally, met as students at Tuskegee University’s veterinary school in Alabama. They went their separate ways after graduation but have reunited to partner on a new kind of practice that puts pets at the center of the community.

Pets and animal welfare have been a lifelong passion for both.

“My first pet I had when I was around 7 or 8,” Dr. Perkins says. “It was a parakeet I called Rocky. Animals have been a part of me for as long as I can remember.”

As for Dr. Vyfhuis, his first friend had fins: “I think it was a goldfish, but then I ended up adopting a dog from my aunt.”

Because the two understand from personal experience the special bond between animals and children, they want to be role models to the next generation of animal caregivers.

“I’ve had black and white kids come up to me and say, ‘I want to be a vet,’ ” says Dr. Perkins, who has a young son.

According to Lisa Greenhill, associate executive director of the Association of American Veterinary Medical Colleges, black enrollment at vet schools is “very low.” She says black students accounted for just about 2.5 percent of the 2009 graduating class.

Ms. Greenhill says having an animal clinic run by racial minorities in a “diverse” community like Alexandria is a welcome change because “our research indicates that blacks have different relationships with animals than whites and don’t take their pets to the vet as much, so black kids don’t get exposed to veterinary medicine as a career. This is very encouraging.”

“Before I met these doctors, I don’t think I had ever met an African-American veterinarian,” says Alexandria Mayor William D. Euille. He participated in a kickoff event for the hospital over the weekend that raised money for the Washington Humane Society, which will be a key partner of the practice.

“It’s a very historical moment for us, and considering the high number of dogs and dog parks we have in Alexandria, very significant for children to see this as a profession for them,” Mr. Euille says.

In addition to inspiring the young, Dr. Perkins and Dr. Vyfhuis think it’s important for veterinarians to understand the emotional side of what they do.

When asked how he handles the difficult task of euthanizing family pets, Dr. Vyfhuis says, “You have to detach yourself, but I’ve had to talk to the kids sometimes, and it’s very hard, but I’ve learned how to explain that Sparky is suffering and is in a better place.”

Both doctors would like to add grief counseling to their practice, especially for children, whose first interaction with death is often the loss of a pet.

Their South Peyton Street practice will act as a community center, with obedience school, grooming, boarding and affordable care for dogs, cats, small mammals and exotic pets. For more information, visit www.pawspurrsand exotics.com.

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