Some people are just meant to do certain things in life. While it takes some people several years to finally figure out what they want to do with their careers, Jennifer Harper is one of the few who never had a doubt.
"I can't even remember a time when I didn't want to be a vet," she said.
Harper, who turns 24 on Monday, has recently been accepted to University of Georgia's prestigious College of Veterinarian Medicine. Regarded as one of the top veterinarian schools in the South, UGA accepted less than 100 applicants this year. Fortunately for Harper, she made the cut.
"I'm excited and nervous," Harper said. "I think applying (for vet school) was the most stressful thing I've ever done."
Harper earned her undergraduate degree at Georgia College and State University in Milledgeville earlier this year. She received a bachelor's of science in psychology and biology - coursework she feels sets her up nicely for vet school. But her love for animals goes beyond the classroom.
Growing up on a 60-acre ranch in Covington, Harper has been an outdoor girl her entire life.
"Ever since I was in first grade, I begged and begged to get a horse," Harper said. "I was so tiny and my parents didn't know anything about horses, and they were terrified to get me a horse, so they got me a dog."
Harper recalls that Christmas she was very upset, even to the point where she called out Santa Claus.
"I told everyone that Santa Claus was stupid because he didn't know the difference between a horse and a dog," she said.
She finally got her first pony, Angel, at the beginning of second grade and says her love for animals has grown ever since.
On any given day, Harper can be seen driving her Ford Explorer around town with her dogs packed in the rear cargo area. If she's not on the roads she's on the farm with her horses. At present, she has four horses including Harley and Spud, her two geldings that live in Covington at her parent's ranch.
Harper doesn't just have a soft spot in her heart for dogs and horses. While she admits she isn't a cat person, she cares for all types of animals as a veterinarian technician at Lakeside Veterinarian Clinic in Milledgeville where she's worked under the tutelage of Sarah Hall.
While in Milledgeville, Harper lives on a 50-acre horse farm with her oldest horse Tequila and Kudos, a 10-year-old gelding. Living on the ranch works well because she gets to enjoy the outdoors and ride her horses while also teaching children how to ride. And Tequila pays the rent.
"He's a working man," Harper said with a smile. "Tequila does enough lessons that I just turn around whatever I make with him and pay my boarding costs".
Harper rents the stables and pasture for her horses along with a roommate. The two share feeding and watering duties for the horses. They both teach riding lessons to children three or four nights a week.
Angel was Harper's first pony, sure, but Tequila is her favorite. At 26 years old, he's been with her since she was 8 and he still works hard.
Harper says Tequila is her most trustworthy horse and works great with children. For the past 10 years, he's had cancer, a condition she says is similar to melanoma in humans. While not operable, the disease hasn't severely affected him. Tequila has outlived his prognosis and is showing no signs of slowing down.
"As long as he's healthy and happy, he'll keep working," Harper said. "This has been a wait-and-see situation with him, but that was 10 years ago when the vet found his first tumor. Besides the cancer, he's in great health."
At Lakeside, Harper sees all sorts of exotic animals. Recently, the clinic took in two fawns that came to them after being separated from their mothers. Jangles, a buck, had been found sitting by his mother who was hit by a car and a rancher found Bella in his dog pen after she couldn't get out.
Currently she cares for the two deer at the clinic and says the fawns will go to a game ranch in northern Georgia on Sunday where they will be weaned off their bottles and eventually released onto the property to live amongst the other animals in a protected environment.
For the next four years, Harper will be in class from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. She is sad to leave her situation in Milledgeville. Tequila and Kudos will return home to Covington and reunite with Spud and Harley. After she graduates, Harper says anything is possible including a possible return to Milledgeville.
"Dr. Hall is planning on retiring in two years and I'm hoping she'll extend that to four," Harper says. "Maybe I can go in with her and maybe buy out the clinic if I can convince her to stay for a few more years."
If she is unable to convince Hall to stick around long enough, she may return to Covington and eventually start her own clinic.
"My goal is to work for a vet for three to five years to learn the business," Harper says. "Everyone tells me to learn from a vet for a while, but I eventually want to open my own practice."
The horses are invited too. Harper says whatever she does she will make sure to include everyone in her extended family.
"I want to get my own land, at least 50 acres," she said. "My poor roommate right now puts up with a lot because I have so many animals. The dogs have a love/hate relationship with each other. But I love all of them."