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Kamilla Shmakalova
College of Veterinary Medicine

Class of 2014

Never-ending lines for loaves of bread. Dogs and cats roaming in the streets. The selling of family belongings in preparation for a secret escape. The long and melancholy train ride from Gorky to Moscow before the flight to the United States. At the young age of nine, Kamilla Shmakalova DVM ’14 witnessed the collapse of the Soviet Union, but she also glimpsed a new and distant life.

Now 29, the third-year veterinary student links her interest in shelter medicine to her memories of stray animals in Russia.

“I wanted to rescue every single one I found on the street, but my parents were afraid of infectious diseases,” she says with a faintly rueful smile.

Shmakalova, who speaks with a slight accent, has adjusted very well to life in America. Growing up among immigrant communities in Brooklyn, she developed a taste for different kinds of food and an appreciation for other cultures. She excelled in school and graduated cum laude from Brooklyn College with a major in biology and planned to become a doctor.

But—on the verge of medical school—doubt struck. “Before taking out a bunch of loans and making a huge commitment, I needed to be sure I wanted to be a doctor. The most difficult decision for me was to actually take time off,” she says.

Must love cats

As she tried to discover what she loved to do, she started living out what she loved. Biding her time as an office manager in a paralegal firm, she eagerly responded to a Craigslist job posting that said “must love cats” and soon found herself gleefully employed as a receptionist and veterinary assistant at Manhattan Cat Specialists, a small, upscale clinic with a staff and clientele made up of fellow feline aficionados. Shmakalova also began volunteering at the New York Aquarium, where she cleaned cages and hand-fed buckets of fish to ever-hungry fur seals, otters, penguins, and walruses.

As busy and exhausted as she was at that time, Shmakalova felt a deep sense of fulfillment. Under the mentorship of the Manhattan clinic’s founder and head veterinarian, Arnold Plotnick (whom Shmakalova describes as having a “profuse knowledge” of feline medicine), she was inspired to pursue veterinary studies. Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine was her top choice since Tina Waltke DVM ’07, a former lawyer-turned-veterinarian who had joined the clinic soon after graduating from the premier school, strongly encouraged her to apply.

Looking back, Shmakalova explains that the choice of becoming either a physician or a veterinarian was not really a mutually exclusive proposition. “As veterinarians, we are serving people and serving the animals at the same time,” she says, citing the parallels and intersections of human-animal medicine and the ways in which pets increase the vitality and joy of their keepers.

Serving animals and people

A member of Veterinary Students as One Culture and Ethnicity (VOICE) at Cornell, Shmakalova believes that understanding different cultures and social contexts is critical for the profession. “We need to know and understand where people come from and not make assumptions or judgments when it comes to animal care or welfare,” she emphasizes.

Last summer she joined a team of doctors and students from across the nation to provide free animal care at a remote and impoverished Native American reservation in South Dakota. As a volunteer for the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association-Rural Area Veterinary Services program (HSVMA-RAVS), she was at first dismayed to find dogs and other pets living outside of houses, exposed to the elements. However, Shmakalova later realized how much the owners treasured and cared for their animals, especially in light of their own medical needs and lack of resources. She was touched to see how community members waited patiently for a chance to have their pets examined and treated, often forming lines very early in the morning when the clinic’s doors were still closed.

In Ithaca, where she works as a part-time medical staff member for the Tompkins County SPCA, Shmakalova passionately advocates for pet adoption. “We have so many animals in the shelter, and people need to know that these animals are not diseased and dirty. They’re great and perfectly adoptable,” she says.

Shmakalova’s belief in the immeasurable value of pets is evident. While she explores internships and externships to help her specialize in shelter medicine and focus on the treatment and care of small animals, she only offers praise for these special creatures. “They offer us unconditional love,” she says. “They are our companions for life.“