Shane Burgess was undeterred in his bid to bring a veterinary medical program to the University of Arizona, even when a May National Research Council report concluded that there was no shortage of veterinarians in the United States.

He said the report mirrored what he already knew and had been arguing in the 18 months since he became dean of the UA College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

There is no shortage of vets who specialize in companion animals - the mostly cat-and-dog care that employs 70 percent of the nation's veterinary doctors.

There is, however, a lack of large-animal veterinarians in some rural counties and growing need for veterinarians in public health, disease research and food safety - areas Burgess said would be the strength of the UA's new school.

He said his college's proposal, if it wins approval from the governor and the Legislature, will "revolutionize veterinary medical education" in the United States.

It will allow more Arizona students to pursue veterinary medical degrees, spend fewer years getting that certification and graduate with half the average debt load.

A bid for $3 million to study the concept and take the program to full accreditation was approved by the Board of Regents last year, but was not included in Gov. Jan Brewer's 2013-14 budget request.

Burgess took his case to the Senate Natural Resources & Rural Affairs Committee Wednesday. At the end of that hearing, Committee Chairman Steve Pierce, R-Prescott, urged his colleagues to include money for a study in this year's budget. Burgess estimated an initial study would cost about $250,000.

Tried before

You might wonder why a land-grant institution in a state partially built on the cattle industry hasn't had a veterinary medical college before now. Arizona is the second-largest state without one. (New Jersey is the largest.)

Eugene Sander, the longtime dean of the College of Agriculture who recently served as interim president of the UA, said the reason is partly economic and partly a reflection of the state's wide-open spaces. For a long time, cattle ranching in Arizona meant small herds over wide ranges, Sander said. Now, with feed lots and dairy farms, the need for large-animal veterinarians has increased.

The UA's bid for a school comes at the same time that a private college announced one in the state. Midwestern University announced plans last year for a College of Veterinary Medicine in the Phoenix area.

Kathleen H. Goeppinger, Midwestern's president and CEO, said in an email that it will start with a class of 100 students at its Glendale campus in August of 2014.

Goeppinger said she would "welcome another program in Tucson, as the shortage of veterinarians in our state is critical in many regions."

Sander said he pushed for a college a couple times during his tenure at the University of Arizona and was most recently turned down by the administration of UA President Robert Shelton.

Sander didn't bother reviving the plan after Shelton left. "The year I was president, the state was still too broke to do it," he said.

Sander, who encouraged Burgess to apply for his former job, said, "He has an advantage the old dean didn't have. He's a veterinarian."

Sander also said Burgess' plan is "far superior to what we were proposing."

Burgess wants to streamline the undergraduate veterinary sciences program for well-qualified students. Those who emerge from a competitive first-year program in a new School of Animal and Comparative Biomedical Sciences would enter a year-round veterinary medical program that would lead to a D.V.M. degree in as little as three additional years.

The program would be unique in the United States but is common elsewhere in the world, Burgess said. He earned his D.V.M. in New Zealand "44 months after graduating from high school."

Students who don't make the cut for veterinary school would still be positioned for careers in the burgeoning biomedical field, Burgess said.

Crushing debt

The program would provide more opportunity for Arizona students to become veterinarians and would cut down on a crushing debt load that isn't matched by high salaries in the field, said Noble Jackson, a veterinarian, professor and adviser to undergraduates in the Department of Veterinary Science and Microbiology.

Just getting in is hard. The veterinary college at Colorado State selects 138 students each year from an applicant pool of 1,600, Jackson said. The odds are just as tough at the 27 other schools in the United States, and most give preference to home-state students.

After four years of undergraduate education and four years of veterinary school, new doctors have, on average, $70,000 in debt, Jackson said. Arizona subsidizes some students, but the $1.4 million it sets aside will aid the tuition costs of only 11 new students this year.

Jackson remembers a plan some 20 years ago to start a veterinary medical school at UA. The price tag, which included building an animal hospital, was $200 million.

The current plan is based on a "distributive model" in which students would meet their residency requirements at the state's private veterinary centers and clinics.

The rest of the infrastructure is in place, Jackson said.

Existing resources

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences operates a ranch, an equine center and a Food Products and Safety Laboratory.

Mark Killian, a member of the Arizona Board of Regents who has ranching roots, said he hopes that the plan finds legislative support and that it addresses the shortage of vets in rural Arizona.

The National Research Council study does not hold out hope for that outcome. It found that the perceived need for large-animal vets in rural America is not matched by a need for services. The 1,500 or so U.S. counties that have no vets simply can't support one economically.

Jackson thinks the native Arizonans who enter the program with the goal of working in their rural communities might be able to make that sacrifice if this new program makes it possible to earn a D.V.M. without a mountain of debt.

Public health

The role of veterinarians in public health and bioterrorism is growing, said Chuck Sterling, who heads the Department of Veterinary Sciences and Microbiology.

He will head the new College of Animal Science and Comparative Biomedicine.

Sterling spends many of his summers in Peru, where he researches zoonotic diseases that can leap from animals to humans.

According to the One Health organization, 70 percent of emerging or re-emerging infectious diseases are zoonotic or have an animal vector in the chain of infection.

Multi-species medical knowledge is needed in many biomedical specialties, said David Besselsen, director of University Animal Care.

Besselsen is a veterinarian, a pathologist and director of University Animal Care, where he oversees a team of veterinarians.

He said the knowledge of comparative-biology veterinarians have is crucial, not just caring for animals but in the research itself.

Many biomedical research projects need that expertise, he said:

"There is a national shortage of veterinarians trained in veterinary pathology, in academia and industry."

"There is a national shortage of veterinarians trained in veterinary pathology, in academia and industry."

David Besselsen, director of University Animal Care

Contact reporter Tom Beal at or 573-4158.