Dr. Vernard Hodges, veterinarian turned TV star, talks about how success was hard to come by but well worth the journey
Interview by Malinda Larkin
Dr. Vernard Hodges has made a name for himself in the veterinary profession but may be better known as part of the “Critter Fixers” duo. He and his partner and friend, Dr. Terrence Ferguson, star in the Nat Geo Wild television show, which debuted in March 2020 and was renewed for a third season debuting this spring. The Tuskegee University veterinary graduates own and operate Critter Fixer Veterinary Hospitals, located 100 miles south of Atlanta. The two are shown working around the clock with their staff on everything from emergency visits to farm calls throughout rural Georgia.
Dr. Hodges was one of the keynote speakers at the AVMA Veterinary Leadership Conference, Jan. 6-9, in Chicago (seekeynote story). AVMA News sat down with Dr. Hodges, who was raised in Fort Valley, Georgia, to talk about his background, how he and Dr. Ferguson built three veterinary hospitals from practically nothing, how the name “Critter Fixers” came to be, and how easy it is to find minority kids interested in veterinary medicine—you just have to know where to look.
The responses have been edited for length and clarity.
Q. What drew you to veterinary medicine as a kid and specifically to aquaculture?
A. Growing up in the rural South, animals were a part of our daily lives. I lived near a creek and played with animals. There was always a stray dog. A lot of times, we didn’t know about veterinary medicine and didn’t have money to take our animal to a doctor, so we’d figure out ways, like old wives’ tales, to try to fix animals and make them feel better. There was a guy who had a cattle farm, and I would help deliver calves.
As for getting into aquaculture, my stepdad was Japanese, and he always had koi fish, so I was raised learning to care for them and developed a lifelong passion for aquaculture. My undergrad (degree) was in fish biology, and my adviser, Melinda Davis, PhD, she helped me write up a project where we’d use carp to feed a village in the developing world. So here I am, a country kid headed to Nepal. In that part of the country, they needed a cheap source of protein, and it doesn’t get much cheaper than fish. So, we had the carp eat phytoplankton, which you don’t even need to feed.
Q. You went to Fort Valley State University for undergraduate studies and Tuskegee University for veterinary college. both are historically black universities. What made you pursue that kind of higher education?
A. The beauty of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities) is they give you a chance. Back then, some of the bigger universities weren’t going to give an average 2.0 (GPA) kid a chance. I also knew from friends of mine and school visits that HBCUs provided a nurturing experience for young Black kids, and I needed a place where I could grow and mature as I learned.
I didn’t have the best SAT score or best grades, and I failed ninth grade, but knew I couldn’t give up. There wasn’t a “what if?” There wasn’t a foundation to go anywhere else. You keep going. Even on the bad days, you keep going.
Nothing could be worse than picking peaches for 25 cents a bucket in the hot Georgia summer. I knew I didn’t want to do that anymore.
Dr. Davis, she pushed me and said: “I believe in you. Maybe you got a C, but I believe in you. Keep fighting. We’ll get you internships.”
Q. Who else inspired you?
A. Dr. Earnest Corker (a veterinarian who was a professor at Fort Valley and later a practitioner) taught me that anything was possible.
In the South, you talk to all these kids, and a lot say they want to be a celebrity, or a big-time basketball or football star, but no one says they want to be a hockey player. That’s because they don’t see it. You got to be able to see it. That’s the beautiful thing about the platform I have now. They can see a veterinarian in action and say, “Mom, I can be like him.”
Q. What was veterinary college like for you?
A. Deer in the headlights. I was a marginal student at best. I’ll never forget Dr. Hari Goyal, my first instructor, walking in with a push cart full of books. It was the syllabus. I took one stack out of its rubber band, and it was only one of the syllabi. This thing had to be 10 inches. I thought, “OK, you’re not in Kansas anymore.” Obviously, it was one of the weed-out classes—gross anatomy.
There’s a lot of times minorities don’t get a chance to prove themselves. I am sure I was in the bottom third of my class the first two years. I even had advisers asking if I’m OK. But in the third and fourth years, the lights flipped on. Instantly, I was the kid teachers would go to on ambulatory. I got more senior awards than anyone in my class. I was not the best academic student, but if you want your animal to live, I’m the guy to come to.
Q. What did you do after graduation?
A. Right after vet school, I worked for Dr. Corker. His practice wasn’t really thriving. So my partner, Dr. Ferguson, and I started our own practice eight months later. It was in an old paint shop, 800 square feet. We physically built an exam table and exam rooms.
We drove to Alabama in a truck with no air conditioning to the mountains. This guy was going out of business, so we bought cages, an old anesthetic machine, and—I’m not kidding—a World War II–era X-ray machine. This thing was so heavy. But that was our practice.
Q. How did you come up with the name “Critter Fixers”?
A. I told Terrence, “We got to have a name.” He said, “We’ll be Veterinary Associates of Byron, Georgia.” I let him sleep on it. Then I said, “Bro, can you see we ain’t associates? Let’s be ‘Critter Fixers.’” He said, “That’s super country.” And I said, “We country!” That’s how it was born.
Q. What was it like in those early days?
A. We always teased each other. I was his overeducated, underpaid receptionist, and he was my overeducated, underpaid kennel help.
I can remember going to the grocery store and buying a loaf of bread and turkey. That would be our lunch for a week. I remember our first bad check: $75. And we needed that money. We had the carbon paper with the different-colored pages, not a computer. That was our filing system. You never would have thought we’d make it.
But we were providing excellent care, and people believed in us. That’s as grassroots as it got. We had no receptionist; we answered the phone. After six months, we hired our first employee.
That clinic was doing OK, so we started a second one nine months later. It probably was not the smartest thing to do. That’s when we learned about credit—we had none. But that ended up working to our advantage. If we had started with a million dollars, we would have one practice with a million dollars and debt. We started with zero (dollars) and made a million-dollar practice, and we don’t owe anyone. That’s what sweat equity was.
Now, I have many employees who’ve been with us 20 years. We provide a good salary. I take pride in them being able to buy their own house. Some are single mothers providing for their families, some white, some Black. It’s an amazing feeling.
Q. What else would you say contributed to your success?
A. I was in rural central Georgia; I had to think about my clients. I had to figure out a way to make a living. I wasn’t leaving and going to Atlanta. I was going to stay and become the first Black veterinarian who was going to be successful (in my area).
Even though we are a little more segregated than other areas of the country, everyone loves their animal. At end of the day, if you can save Fluffy, that’s all they care about. You can get paid for saving Fluffy.
With some of the white guys who would come to my practice, they would be nice with my receptionist, and then they see me, a Black man who is their veterinarian. We’d be in a 6-by-6 room with not a whole lot in common, but I learned to pick up on cues.
A lot of guys wear their (car) racing hats with a number. So every Sunday, I would read who won that race so would have something to talk about with them. You’ve got to find commonality.
I also learned to use resources. And I took my time. I would (make it a point to) talk to drug reps. People do business with people they like. For the drug rep, maybe the guy down the street didn’t have time for him, but I’d invite him in, and we’d be friends, and they became a resource. Those relationships are make or break. They have a choice who they want to make a deal with or which staff to take out to do certain things.
Even in 2017, all these people were asking me for tips for starting and running successful businesses, so that’s why I wrote a book, “Bet on Yourself.” I broke it down from being a kid who started out with not a lot, who wanted to make a mark on this profession, to being fortunate to have three successful practices that do very well.
I’ve had 60 to 70 veterinarians of color who have come through the clinic and go on to practice or work for me, and hundreds of technicians do the same.
None of this was easy, but if you work hard and get good at it, opportunities are there.
I say: “Listen, it doesn’t matter where you are. If you are good at what you do, they will find you.” That’s when Nat Geo reached out to me. They found me.
Q. What do you love most about the profession?
A. A lot of times these kids ask, “Is this the right profession (for me)?” And I’ll be first to tell them it’s the most amazing profession ever. It’s what you make of it. I may get in at 9 a.m. and be an obstetrician and do a C-section, then 25 minutes later become an internal medicine guy, and even within that hour, I may diagnose cancer, so I become an oncologist.
You are all these different, amazing things. Just make sure people appreciate that. You should charge your worth. That’s one of the biggest challenges—quality of life and making a good living. But we have all the tools and resources (to do that).
Q. Talk about the importance of mentorship to you.
A. We get so many people who ask about mentorship. A lot of corporations, they will say, “We can’t find these kids” (from communities of color). They just aren’t looking in the right place. They are there, I guarantee you. I put stuff out (about mentoring) and had to stop because we had too many people.
We had 50 kids on our Vet for a Day program in five different states (this past June). The first half of the day, they got to talk to college advisers. We want them to know it’s not just petting dogs; you have to get your grades up and get competitive. We tell them to go volunteer at a clinic. If the clinics says no, keep asking (elsewhere).
The second half of the day, they got to hang with the Critter Fixers and see us do surgery. Idexx donated some Snap tests. Zoetis gave book bags.
My thing is, I want to use these partnerships to help. I want to be a good steward of the profession and what God’s given me. I still want to do the show but use that also to leverage some great things for kids so they can be the next Dr. Vernard Hodges.
Q. What, to you, makes a good veterinarian?
A. Even with veterinary school, you gotta look beyond grades. We always talk about getting from the “no” stack to the “yes” stack. You might have a whole stack of 3.7 (GPAs), and they are probably smart kids, but what about the 3.0 kid whose mom and dad have never been to college? Who is working at a local hardware store or flipping burgers? They don’t have car, they’re trying to get to school, trying to pay for college, and don’t know if they can pay rent, or maybe they’re paying their mama’s rent. They may get a 3.0, and the person with 3.7 had no obstacles.
Vet colleges have got to start looking at whole individuals. That’s what got me in, going to Nepal. Oftentimes, socioeconomic factors are part of the minority community. Who is worrying about studying if you can’t get something to eat?
You can’t have a profession made up of the same people. There should be people with different experiences. You have to open the door, and everyone has to be open (to it).
Honestly, I have one of the top TV shows in the world as a veterinarian. I have started multimillion-dollar practices. I have achieved a level of success in veterinary medicine, but sometimes, when I go to these conferences, and they have these huge ballrooms, and no one there who looks like me, and I get my coffee, I go back to the days of feeling inferior and wondering if the person next to me sees that I belong. (It feels like) everyone is watching and looking at you like, “Who is this Black guy?” I get nervous, even though I’ve achieved a level of success, I still wonder if I’m good enough. But I can only control what I can control. I have to tell my story, and hopefully people see me and say: “Wow, this kid is from a trailer park. A kid who failed a grade and had to figure it out and had to say, ‘I want my dream, and I’m going to do what I can to get that dream.’”
Q. What’s next for you?
A. I’m always looking for things to stimulate my brain, what new can I learn.
My latest endeavor is I bought a 150-acre cattle farm. I’m a farmer now, raising black Angus, so I’m testing my old AI (artificial insemination) skills and delivering calves. It’s very relaxing riding out in the truck and looking at the cows, then going at midnight and looking at someone else’s. It’s (farming is) another area where diversity is really low. Black farmers make up maybe 3%-4%. I just read and try to become good at what I do.
I’ve enjoyed this ride. I just need people to believe that Black people can be amazing vets. The profession needs them. Let’s get more in.
A version of this article appears in the Feb. 15, 2022, print issue of JAVMA.