From Teaching Math to Saving Lives!

Our Wake County Animal Center Director shares her story and lifetime love for animals

Dr. Jennifer Federico kneels to offer a treat to an expectant dog at the Animal Center
Dr. Federico offers a treat to a canine friend at the Animal Center.

This year, our own Jennifer Federico will celebrate her 10-year anniversary as Animal Services Director. To celebrate this important milestone, we spoke with her about her career, pets and plans for the Wake County Animal Center.

Why did you decide to become a veterinarian?
It was really a crazy path. I never wanted to be a veterinarian. I started out as an accounting major then changed to a math education major. Then, just one semester away from graduating, I had an opportunity to observe an emergency surgery to save the life of a horse. And I thought, “This is the coolest thing I have ever seen!” So, after that, I took the prerequisites for vet school and got accepted.

Even in vet school, I never planned to do shelter medicine. I wanted to do chiropractic and acupuncture on horses. Well, I graduated and never worked on horses because I graduated with so much debt and decided it was better to go into private practice with small animals. I loved my clients, but in corporate practice, there was often a push to see more and more clients and increase revenue. I don’t “sell” very well and wanted to give time to each client, so it just was not a good fit for me, and I quit. With no job, I thought I would go back to school to study nutrition, when a job with Wake County popped open. They told me that they would be my worst client ever because they have too many animals and not much money. And I was, like, “Perfect!” So, I became one of the first contract vets Wake County hired.  I worked with five different directors in less than one year. I had so many projects that I wanted to carry out that I decided to apply for the director job, hoping that I might get to implement some of the ideas I had. I didn’t get it at first. They told me I had no business or budget management experience. But my boss then, and still today, Joseph Threadcraft, PhD, P.E., told me, “I can teach you management, I can teach you budgeting. I cannot teach you veterinary medicine.” He saw the value in having a veterinarian as the director, since every day we are handling animal health and welfare, and he hired me, helped me learn the skills I didn’t learn in vet school about management, and I have been here since (and loving every day!)

It’s a huge shift to change your major at the last semester. Was it scary to make such a drastic change?
I was supposed to go and teach math at my middle school, but I kept meeting people who were coming back to college because they did not enjoy what they were doing, and they were coming back to be a teacher. And I thought, why am I going down a path that I do not think I am going to be happy with and end up like them, coming back to school to do what I want? I really did not know that I wanted to be a vet. But when I observed the colic surgery on the horse, I thought “This is it.” The horse was named Scotch and I will never forget him.

Where did your love for animals come from?
From my parents.  We have always had animals growing up – mostly dogs and cats, but also a ferret, rabbit, and a couple of hamsters.  They also encouraged my love of horses.  My parents allowed me to adopt my first horse for $1 when I was 16 – Willy was 20 at the time.  He passed away in 2010 at the ripe old age of 38! They went on to buy me my second horse, Sammy, when I was 17 – and Sammy was 5.  Sammy is still with me today! I now have 5 dogs (all from WCAC) and 2 horses. 

How do you take care of so many pets?
Animals are very routine. My dogs know what they are doing; they know the routine. My house is dedicated to my animals. They have a couch on a deck, and they can go out and sit on a couch. I do not like to get up in the morning and they all know the command, “Five more minutes!”, which means, “Go back to bed!” And they will, they will not wake me up. It takes me ten minutes to feed them all. Then they go outside. Two of my dogs do not like each other, so we rotate who goes first. They all have their routine. They know that they come in, get their cookies, and go off and do what they want for the day – which is typically sleeping! My dogs are all lazy.   

For my horses, the biggest issue is that my oldest man is 32 and he needs daily medications.  Unfortunately, he will no longer take his meds in his grain.  So, I go out every day and give him his meds in treats – which I must change up, so he doesn’t catch on to it! I love him and he has been with me for 27 years so I will cater to him and his picky, old man ways.  My other horse is younger, 13 years old, and loves one of my dogs so some days the three of us walk around the pond at the farm and it allows me to decompress for the day. It is very relaxing to be with them.

Although I spend a lot of time every day with my dogs and horses, it is always a joy.  I never see it as work and I’m lucky to have them.

What do pets bring into our lives?
Animals have feelings, emotions of their own, and they make us better people in the end because they will love you no matter what. They are excited when you come home, and they do not care if it is every thirty minutes - it is going to be the same excitement. They enrich our lives. Studies show that people will exercise more if they have dogs because they will go out and walk. They are exercise partners that always want to go out. I probably met my best friends because I had animals and met them through animals. I think they are a bridge, ice breakers and really connect people together who have nothing in common but their love for animals.

Dr. Jennifer Federico smiles in the courtyard at the Wake County Animal Center

What is the most challenging aspect in working in the Animal Center?
When I first started, it was getting everything under control and looking at everything from an animal health and welfare perspective. I think the most difficult part now is probably having the community understand what we do - that we are here, that we want to help all the animals we can, and that there are some animals we cannot help.  We reflect our community – all the animals here come from Wake County.  We need our community to partner with us by adoption, fostering, volunteering, advocating, and making sure their own pets are spayed/neutered.  We cannot do this alone.

The Wake County community has already shown us that they are passionate about animals.  We want them to be as passionate about the Animal Center and truly know who we are and what we do.  We have a vet team that provides all the medical care to the animals that come to the Animal Center.  Recently, we had a foster dog come down with a tick-borne illness.  He was very sick and needed blood transfusions and a stay at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine Veterinary Hospital.  The donations from our community helped ensure that he was able to get that care – and he has recently been adopted!!   We have a Volunteer/Outreach Program that holds low-cost rabies and microchip clinics throughout Wake County.  Our volunteers and fosters provide additional love, care, and support to the animals under the care of the Wake County Animal Center. We cannot save as many animals as we can without the support of our community partners and community members.  Our aim is to bring more awareness and understanding of our facility – some people still don’t know we exist, which always surprises me! Our team members work tirelessly to help the animals that come to us – we cannot turn away companion animals because they are too sick, have behavioral challenges or we are full – we take them in and care for them the best we can.  We are the only shelter in Wake County that partners with Animal Control.  All the animals that Animal Control takes in – be it aggressive, sick, injured, cruelty cases, abandoned animals or strays – they only come to the Wake County Animal Center.  We care for them all.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t have a pet of some sort.  Pets bring us together and I hope that our community will come together and support the Wake County Animal Center and what we do for the animals of Wake County. 

What is your ideal world for animals?
My ideal world would be where all animals have microchips so that if they end up here at WCAC, we are able to reunite them with their family.  I would love to have all cats spayed and neutered so we can see a major decrease in the unwanted kittens that come to us every summer. I would love to see all dogs that aren’t quality representations of a recognized breed to be spayed and neutered.  Finally, I really would love for our community to understand dog body language – we could avoid a lot of bad situations if we would just “listen” to what dogs are trying to tell us.  They don’t speak our language but try their best to communicate to us in theirs. 

What are the plans for the Animal Center?
We are hopeful to have a new facility in the next couple of years. It is going to be a huge benefit for animals and for our community because we want to be more of a community center.  A place that we can offer services to help people keep their pets, instead of the pets coming in as strays or surrenders.  We want to make a difference for families – which includes their four-legged (or finned or feathered or scaly) family members.  We want to help Wake County be the best place to live for both people and pets. That’s the vision - we want to do more in our community and for our community.

Pets & Animals