College course enjoys some animal magic

Animal Care has grown to become one of Borders College's most popular course areas with applicant numbers rising.

Friday, 23rd June 2017, 1:00 pm
Students Lucy McDougall from Galashiels, Safari Mason from Kelso, and Nicole Crawford from Dalkeith, with newly hatched chicks

Students, some of whom travel from Midlothian, can expect to learn about and handle animals from across the globe, from as near as the Scottish Borders region to as far as Argentina.

The Animal Care courses combine academic study, practical experience and centre excursions, providing students with the education and training they will need for a career with animals. Work experience is particularly valuable – Borders Pet Rescue help to provide the students with real experience of caring for the rescue dogs and cats, and college staff also occasionally bring in their own pets, including Meg the dog, who recently qualified as a ‘Thera-pet’ and visits the college’s Galashiels Campus as part of the Students’ Association’s wellbeing initiative.

The courses, operating from the Newtown St Boswells Campus, aim to help students discover where their interests lie. Past students have gone on to work as veterinary assistants, in pet shops such as Pets at Home, and even set up in business for example in pet grooming.

Lecturer Fiona Steel, who previously worked as a vet for 10 years in Lancashire, began working at the college five years ago tasked with bringing animals into college, as prior to this no animals were kept on site – it all started with one guinea pig!

Fiona explained that the Introduction to Land-based Industries/Animal Care course, “covers some of the basics to give people who aren’t certain which area to focus on, the chance to experience a taster programme, which includes Animal Care.”

“The ‘Intro’ students become familiar with the routines of the animals, and with the staff. They get a good overview – some may go down an agricultural line, others animal care. This is a great option for Schools Academy students who perhaps want to leave school as it helps them to make an informed choice, as well as making the transition from school to college much easier – familiarity is important to many of the young students,” added lecturer Gert Riddell.

Staff try to incorporate animals that will appeal to all, not just the typically furry or ‘cute’, finding that this attracts a wider range of applicants. Fiona continued: “The variety of skills we teach our students is intended to expose them to the widest range of potential job opportunities out there. This can include caring for animals from chickens, cats and dogs, to reptiles and amphibians.”

As part of the reptile and amphibian unit, students must experience looking after two types of reptile and two types of amphibian. Animal care technician (and lecturer covering another staff member’s maternity leave) Megan MacMillan said: “There is a new trend of people keeping reptiles as pets, but they don’t always have a full understanding of how to care for them. We hope to provide our students with the experience to go forward and support these people.”

Megan, who previously worked as a presenter at a college zoo, introduced the department’s newest resident – an Argentine black and white tegu named Leia, who arrived last month. She added: “Tegus are incredibly intelligent lizards so the students will be training her in a variety of behaviours, including how to walk on a harness and lead.”

The animals are kept in the best possible environment. Staff ensure optimum conditions, and regularly go the extra mile to ensure the health and wellbeing of the animals – resident Horsfield’s/Russian tortoise Holly hibernates a large part of the year. This year in order to keep Holly’s temperature stable, Megan kept her in a fridge, with the temperature set to remain consistent unlike in a natural, changeable environment.

Level 2 student Nathan Pearson said: “I always knew that I wanted to work with animals. I studied the introductory course and then moved onto level 2 and I’ll be moving up to level 3 next year. My long-term plan is to study Zoo Management at Reaseheath College in Cheshire following level 3, and hopefully find employment as a zookeeper.”

Due to the subject’s increasing popularity, two National Certificate (NC) classes will begin after the summer, which is a practical course prioritising hands-on experience over written coursework. To find out more about Animal Care at Borders College, visit