On a recent afternoon after the class bell had rung at 2:30, animal science teacher Michael D’Abruzzo was calmly assessing his classroom. There was a lot to clean up that day. His students had given Bella, the cute Maltese Shih Tzu, a shampoo, cut and blow dry and her hairs were all over the floor. There were other items, too, that needed to be put away, including the microscopes that students had been using at their desks, as well as an assortment of paperwork that required his attention.
To Mr. D’Abruzzo, who was hired last spring to teach the Animal Science Program, it wasn’t a big deal. He’s in his classroom most days until 4:30. He says it’s really all in a day’s work.
The friendly former Iraq vet and licensed veterinary technician believes his students must get as much hands-on experience as possible in the handling of animals.
The Garrison resident is a certified animal trainer, behaviorist, and a skilled dog whisperer. He is particularly adept at handling aggressive dogs. His business, K9-1 Specialized Dog Training, provides training for dog owners as well as rehabilitation for over-aggressive and fearful dogs.
He regularly works with law enforcement agencies and various security companies, and he also runs an online program for student dog trainers.
“I want there to be at least one dog here that the students can practice on,” said Mr. D’Abruzzo, the father of two. “My goal is to produce graduates who really know how to handle themselves around difficult animals,” he added.
Prior to bringing real dogs into the classroom, Mr. D’Abruzzo uses a stuffed animal with a muzzle on its mouth so the students can practice the proper restraining techniques.
“It’s like a chess game,” he explained, referring to the steps that handlers must take around certain animals. “First, you put a muzzle on, then you must use the proper restraints. These are the two steps that must be taken before a bite could happen.”
Learning the proper handling and care of animals is an important part of the two-year Veterinary Science program.
“I really want the students to live the curriculum,” Mr. D’Abruzzo said.
Other skills they acquire include measuring heart rate and temperature, collecting and analyzing samples, using a microscope and other veterinary tools, performing dissections, and learning the science behind the various animals.
Students are given specific tasks to perform each day on a variety of animals, including cats, dogs, ferrets, fancy rats, guinea pigs, rabbits, a hamster and a chinchilla. Some of it includes feeding them and husbandry, but Mr. D’Abruzzo routinely encourages the students to pick up the animals so that they are familiar with each other.
Toward the end of a recent class, a cute ferret was nestled on a student’s nap and about to fall asleep. Mr. D’Abruzzo said it’s important that mutual trust is established between the students and the animals as proper humane handling is important.
Beyond those basic skills, Mr. D’Abruzzo integrates other, equally important, elements into his classroom instruction. Becoming familiar with an animal’s body language and having empathy toward that animal is also important, he said, if students are serious about working in the field of veterinary science.
“It’s not technically in the curriculum or on the NOCTI test, but I put it in there because I think it’s important,” he said, referring to the exam that tests students’ proficiency in career and technical education subjects and that all of them are expected to take before graduation.
Since the beginning of the year, he has been asking students to write in journals posing as the class rat. The journal entries are essentially a conversation with the journal itself, describing what it might feel like to be a rat in one of the classroom cages. The exercise, he explained, is intended to raise awareness of the animals and to understand what life is like from a rat’s perspective.
Mr. D’Abruzzo has extensive experience in animal research, having worked on primate research at New York University’s former LEMSIP (Laboratory for Experimental Medicine and Surgery in Primates) facility in Tuxedo, N.Y. He particularly enjoyed his study of HIV and chimpanzees.
“I actually found it kind of sad, but it was a good experience seeing firsthand the importance of the caretaker in making the most of these chimpanzees’ less than ideal life,” he said.
Perhaps it’s due to his military training, but Mr. D’Abruzzo is adamant about maintaining a fair, yet disciplined classroom.
Each student is expected to live up to his daily expectations and they are graded daily on their performance. If for example, they walk out of the classroom before the bell goes off, they get an instant zero. If they take out their cellphones without being asked to, such action also warrants a zero.
However, students are given the chance to redeem themselves. Mr. D’Abruzzo explained that if they earn three leadership points, they can cancel out the zero.
If a student fails a test, he or she is expected to retake it. “I don’t accept failure,” he added.
Mr. D’Abruzzo said there are a lot of life lessons that students can learn from working with animals. As a teacher, he hopes he can instill those.
Graduates of the program can further their studies in animal science at two- or four-year colleges or work as assistants at veterinary clinics.