Jenn Wilcox, the first staff veterinarian at the Pima Animal Care Center, examines a German shepherd mix with a bad case of kennel cough. The county facility’s animals will finally get the care they deserve from Wilcox, a dedicated shelter vet.

Kelly Presnell / Arizona Daily Star

A decade ago, Jenn Wilcox was a doctoral student with an expertise in bacterial genetics.

It was a visit to an animal shelter that changed her life, with Wilcox going back to school for another six years to get her veterinarian degree.

Friends and family members warned her against becoming a professional student but understood her passion for helping animals.

Last week, Wilcox left her job with the Humane Society of Southern Arizona to become the first staff veterinarian with the Pima Animal Care Center.

She is dedicated, saying she is prepared to see man’s best friend at its worst, coming through the shelter’s doors battered and broken.

These animals, she said, need a doctor. “I think these animals need that care more than owned animals,” she said.

A dedicated shelter vet at PACC can offer a new lease on life for many dogs and cats whose long-term outlook was grim if they were too sick to treat or if their treatments were too costly for the shelter. A broken leg, for example, could be a death sentence in some cases.

Wilcox is optimistic.

“There is nothing to say that things won’t become really good, really fast. Everyone here is really supportive,” Wilcox said.

The Pima County Board of Supervisors voted with its checkbook last year to make a number of changes at the 50-year-old shelter, putting up a $400,000 infusion in funds to build a tent city to expand the facility as well as hire new staff members.

Wilcox, one of several new PACC staffers hired in the last six weeks, notes that she was able to order a series of medications that was not carried in the past due to limited resources.

The job can be brutal — a daily mix of heart-wrenching sights of animals who are sick and suffering. But there is vindication in seeing them on the mend, she said.

Her first case after starting her new job didn’t have a happy ending.

“She was fluffy, so it was impossible to see she had gotten really thin,” she said about a cat in the last stages of renal failure. There was little she could do to save it.

But Wilcox is practical — saying some of the animals can’t be saved despite her best efforts.

“There are some animals that deserve to let go because they are suffering to some extent,” Wilcox said.

To accomplish her goals, Wilcox will need buy-in from the community. From everything from donated rubber gloves to treat animals and hopefully, support for issuing bonds to build a new shelter.

“Ideally, we need a facility. This facility wasn’t set up to handle infectious-disease control,” Wilcox said.