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Thursday, October 28, 2021

“Animal RAs” care for resident cows, birds

It’s 4 a.m. on a weekday, the sun has not even begun to rise and the silent stillness of the night is still present. All students in Tercero dorms are asleep — except perhaps those doing some late night studying. But, just across the street, senior animal science major Vania Leonardes is about to begin her day.

Leonardes is one of four students who lives at the UC Davis Dairy Teaching and Research Facility. In exchange for free housing, Leonardes works full time at the facility, taking care of the animals. At this 4 a.m. shift, just like at her 9 a.m., 4 and 11 p.m. shifts that she rotates with her fellow residents, she cleaned beds, fed cows and their young calves, and made sure no one was sick — a job many college students would not readily volunteer for. But Leonardes, who grew up on a dairy farm, said she couldn’t be happier with her job and living arrangement.

“Honestly, I started working here because I was really homesick living in the dorms my freshman year. I truly missed the cows and taking care of them,” Leonardes said, as she fed one of the young calves her medicine through a syringe.

The Dairy Facility is not the only animal facility on campus that offers this residency program — students have the opportunity to live at a number of different animal facilities on campus. In March of every year, the animal science department posts an announcement on its website and advertises it throughout the department and in animal science classes. Any student interested in the program can apply and go through the interview process. Only a few students, usually up to four, are accepted into each facility.

“It helps if you have experience working with that type of animal,” said Arielle Hines, also a senior year animal science major, who is a resident at the Hopkins Avian Facility, located a little off campus near the University Airport. Hines said she took a few animal science classes in avian science, one of which involved working at that facility, before applying for the job.

Many of the students working at these facilities are also hoping to get experience working with animals for when they apply to veterinary school. Margaret Austin, a junior animal science major who is a resident at the swine center, said this was a driving factor for her.

“I decided that living in one of the barns would be a good way to gain experience for [veterinary] school. I had previously raised pigs for 4-H and I took [a class on swine husbandry] before becoming a resident,” Austin said.

Applying to one of these programs does require a lot experience with the animals you will work with as well as the ability to be responsible and diligent.

“They are always looking to make sure you have really good work ethic,” Hines said. She acknowledged that when she moved in at the end of the summer, she went through about 20 hours of training which included learning all the protocols and rules — especially how to minimize the spread of diseases.

A typical day working at the avian facility is a little more flexible than that of the dairy. Luckily she doesn’t have to wake up at 4 a.m., but throughout the day with the help of the other two residents living with her, has to attend to about 1000 birds that live at the facility, which includes sweeping all 17 rooms, checking and changing water, feeding and making sure they are all healthy.

Hines said that she has learned a lot about bird behavior. Prior to working there, she admits she undermined the intelligence of birds. But working with them on a daily basis has changed her perspective. For example, she taught one of her favorite birds, Valentine, to check her automatic water dispenser herself as Hines walks up to her cage.

Leonardes also conceded that she has a favorite animal as well.

“Everyone has one, even if they won’t admit it. My favorite is Lilo, who I showed in a livestock show my sophomore year. It’s also nice seeing calves you fed freshman year go through the whole process by the time you are a senior,” Leonardes said.

Hines said by far her favorite part about working at the facility is having the privilege of being exposed to the research done on campus. For example, one study involves seeing whether birds can recognize each other via Skype. Another is testing to see whether particular types of birds can smell a compound found in bombs.

“I love working with the researchers when they come and being able to see these experiments first hand,” Hines said.

For Austin, a typical day working at the swine center includes feeding all the pigs, housing out their pens, and processing new litters — ear notching, tail docking, teeth clipping, giving an antibiotic and iron injection and castrating. She also weighs and selects pigs for replacements in UC Davis’ herd or to be sent out to other facilities.

Austin also said that being exposed to research projects is one of the best perks of the job.

“I really enjoy getting to be a part of the various projects. I even got an internship at a lab through a professor who is doing research on the pigs at our facility,” Austin said.

All agree that working at these facilities has exposed them to new and exciting experiences. Hines said she has even tried quail eggs for the first time this past year. She said they are very small and round and taste a little different but actually have a little more protein than chicken eggs and are lower in cholesterol. Hines said if anyone wants to try them, they are sold on at the UC Davis Meat Lab every Friday.

Leonardes encourages other students who are interested in caring for animals to take an animal science class and learn more about it.

“Maybe they too can someday have this awesome job,” Leonardes said.

CLAIRE MALDARELLI can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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