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Cloquet native takes love of animals to new heights

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Cloquet High School graduate Meghan Johnson grew up in a family that included multiple dogs, a parrot, several ducks, numerous fish and "whatever I could catch from the pond!" she added. It was little wonder, then, that she developed a heart for animals at a very young age. The fact that she's now parlaying it into a career in veterinary science has led her in directions she never dreamed of before.

Johnson grew up in Cloquet, the youngest of three girls, and was always very involved in extracurricular activities in school, such as tennis, softball, Madrigals, band, choir, National Honor Society, chess club, math team and Knowledge Bowl.

"I was lucky to grow up in a family that highly valued education," she attested. "My parents had high expectations of us that you couldn't help but try to meet. Not only did I receive a great education, but all of my teachers were highly supportive of my goals and dreams, doing whatever they could to help me prepare for the next steps I was going to take. In addition, Dr. [Don] Goebel and the other veterinarians and staff at Crow-Goebel Veterinary Clinic were extremely influential in helping me gain the experience and support I needed to become a successful applicant to veterinary school."

Johnson, 24, said veterinary medicine was something she wanted to pursue for as long as she can remember, and she could often be found tagging along with her aunt, Diane Parkhurst, to Friends of Animals events or spending time volunteering at the shelter.

"As I went through high school, I got away from the idea for a while," she said, "but it always seemed to linger in the back of my mind."

When Johnson graduated from high school in 2006, she was set on studying political science and working her way into the realm of public policy and international relations. With that in mind, she chose to go to the University of California-Berkeley for her undergraduate education, since the campus has always been a hotbed for politics and foreign relations.

"It wasn't until midway through my sophomore year, however, that I had an epiphany," she admitted. "I was taking an elective about finding the right vocation, simply because it fit in my schedule and fulfilled a requirement, when I realized that I was, indeed, pursuing the wrong vocation. As soon as I completed that semester, I switched my major to integrative biology and never looked back."

True to form, Johnson jumped into it full bore, volunteering frequently at Berkeley Animal Care Services, the local shelter.

"It helped me stay focused on my goal of getting into veterinary school while I was muddling through my core classes like physics and organic chemistry," she said.

She also spent time directing a program called "Bears Beyond Bars," where Berkeley students teach literacy skills to inmates at the local county jail. In addition, she belonged to the Biology Scholars Program, a group that promotes the success of students from economic, gender, ethnic and cultural groups historically underrepresented in biology. In her free time, she played ultimate Frisbee and intramural softball.

After graduating in 2010, she decided to take a year off so she could work on her application to veterinary school and strengthen her skills as a veterinary professional. She moved to Minneapolis and began working at Lake Harriet Veterinary, a local holistic clinic, and began shadowing a large animal vet in the Rochester area. She was accepted into Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine's Class of 2015 and began school there last June.

While there, she has become involved in clubs such as the Student Chapter of the Disaster Animal Response Team (SCDART), the Student Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care Society (SVECCS), the Pain Management Club, and the Shelter Club, all the while continuing to play softball on the vet school intramural team.

Though Johnson's life was busy and full, toward the end of her first semester at Mississippi State, she grew excited after hearing a student presentation about a trip to South Africa through a program called Wildlife Vets. She and a number of her classmates decided to go there themselves.

Johnson finished her spring semester May 1 and drove home shortly afterward to see her family and drop off her dog and cat before she left. Her flight left from Minneapolis May 11, and after nearly 24 hours of traveling she arrived in Johannesburg, South Africa, where she met up with the rest of the group. From there, the 12 students took a four-hour bus ride to the place they would stay for most of the two weeks - the Terra Luna Lodge on the Ngongoni Private Game Farm in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga (Province), South Africa.

"The program's goal is to teach veterinary students about conservation medicine and allow them to gain hands-on experience in the field," explained Johnson.

Before the students went out on any calls or clinical procedures, they would have an in-depth lecture the night before on the tasks they were going to perform the next day, the drugs they would be using, the capture method, and any other useful material they may need to know.

"We rotated tasks between procedures so that all of us could get an opportunity to gain hands-on experience with a variety of animals in a variety of situations," said Johnson. "Since most of the wild animals in South Africa are cared for on specific reserves or farms, we did a lot of traveling to reach specific animals."

On one of their first days in South Africa, the students were tasked with collecting data on a captive population of Nile crocodiles, collecting blood samples, weighing, measuring and sexing each of the crocodiles.

"These particular crocodiles were being used in a study of a particular parasite that infests crocodiles and other animals," said Johnson. "The researchers are trying to determine more about the life cycle of this parasite and methods of transmission. Once the crocodiles were sufficiently sedated, we used electrical tape to close their mouths and cover their eyes, for precaution, when we worked on them."

One day the students worked on a giraffe that had injured one of its feet and had developed an infection. In order to work on the wound, they had to dart the animal with a tranquilizer and safely restrain it .

"My particular job during this procedure was to draw blood from the giraffe so that we could better analyze the animal's overall health and detect if there were any more internal problems," said Johnson. "Once the wounds are treated or the procedure is performed, the animal is woken back up, supervised until it is deemed not to be a threat to itself or any other animals, and then re-released back into the wild."

Another day, the team spent an entire day driving around a rhinoceros reserve looking for rhinos with extremely long horns that needed to be dehorned.

"This procedure was done in order to prevent and discourage poachers," Johnson said. "The procedure we performed is completely non-invasive and non-painful. That day, we dehorned six or seven rhino. I took turns monitoring respiration, recording data, and treating dart wounds by cleaning them and administering injections of antibiotics to the site."

Back at Terra Luna, the veterinary students took turns taking care of an orphaned white rhinoceros named Valentino who needed to be bottle fed every three hours, around the clock. His mother had been killed by poachers, so the vets and staff were taking care of him until he was old enough to be released onto a reserve.

"One important part of conservation medicine in South Africa," said Johnson, "is to keep the populations on each reserve at a sustainable level so that the vegetation isn't overgrazed, conditions are not overcrowded and do not promote disease transmission, and genetic diversity within and between populations is maintained. In order to attain this goal, animals are often mass captured and transferred from one reserve to another. We gained experience doing this first on an individual basis, moving one male sable antelope from one reserve to another, in order to facilitate genetic diversity."

After that experience, the team took a trip to Swaziland for three days in order to mass capture and move impala from one overcrowded reserve to a less populated one.

"In order to capture so many animals at once, we had to build a boma, which is basically a large funnel and, by using a helicopter, herd the animals onto the truck, explained Johnson. "This was one of my favorite experiences, because we got to know and work with a few of the locals that were working for Wildlife Vets. They taught us techniques for properly setting up and camouflaging the boma, as well as a few phrases in their local language, Tsonga."

Another day, they got to treat some zebra who had sustained injuries from being captured and moved across the country.

"Since they are wild animals, it can be a very stressful time for them," related Johnson. "We do our best to reduce the likelihood of stress and injury and then treat anything that is sustained, despite our efforts. During this procedure, I monitored respiration and gave injections of vitamins and antibiotics."

Many of the animals in South Africa are in danger of extinction.

"South Africa, in particular, is interesting because most of the animals are owned and kept on specific farms or reserves," she said. "Even with these segregations, poachers are still a very real danger for animals like the rhinoceros and elephant. In addition, many poachers set up snares to catch smaller game like impala and kudu. However, sometimes instead of catching the game they intend, animals like lions and elephants get caught in their snares. This usually results in severe injury or death of that animal."

Johnson said her experiences in South Africa taught her a great deal about wildlife and conservation medicine.

"Not only did I learn about specific animals and diseases endemic to South Africa, but I gained experience working in the field, learning how to think on my feet and be able to react quickly to any situation that may arise," she said. "Skills such as preparedness and quick thinking are things that can be brought back and easily applied to anything I do in my training in the U.S. and beyond."

Since her return from South Africa, Johnson is spending the rest of this summer living in Minneapolis and working at Lake Harriet Veterinary again. Her fall semester starts at the end of July, so it won't be too long before she has to head back to school once again. She said she now feels especially well-equipped, however, to tackle whatever comes her way.

"I feel very lucky to have grown up in Carlton County," she reflected. "Growing up in a small community like Cloquet and Carlton County allowed me to develop strong moral values and a hard work ethic that I have been able to take with me wherever I go. In this day and age, such a supportive and involved community is hard to come by!"