Animal care assistant reflects on transformative decision to swap pupils for pets
For more than 30 years, the educational future of generations of youngsters lay in Caroline Saye’s hands.
Now, she is still nurturing and caring, but those she looks after these days are animals, not children.
A life-changing trip to South Africa led to Caroline quitting the job she’d loved for decades and changing tack completely.
Rather than putting her feet up, Caroline saw a Vets Now advert and has found a whole new passion and drive as an animal care assistant at our Witham clinic.
And she says life as an ACA could be just the shake-up needed for others from all sorts of diverse backgrounds.
Caroline started in secondary education but spent most of her career in primary schools, as a teacher and latterly as an acting head.
“I taught everything from nursery all the way up,” said Caroline, who is now 63. “I loved being with the children and I loved the creative side, but changes meant there was less and less opportunity for that.
“By the age of 55, I had really become quite disillusioned.”
Just as Caroline was contemplating what to do, she went on an Easter holiday break to work with a cheetah conservation programme in South Africa.
It was to transform the rest of her life in a way she could never have imagined.
“I felt I wanted to have an adventure and had never been anywhere on my own,” said Caroline. “I came across this project and it seemed like a great idea for a working holiday.
“It was an amazing three weeks and really hands-on. We were helping prepare the food and doing enrichment programmes for the cheetahs as a lot of them had had illnesses or had been run over and were recovering.
“When you’ve got a cheetah sat purring on your lap, it can’t help but change how you feel about things.
“On the plane coming home I was thinking: ‘Why am I still teaching when I really want to do something with animals?
“At that age, I felt I needed to do what I wanted. So, I literally went straight in when I got back and handed in my notice.”
After some time to take stock and get used to being away from the school environment, Caroline saw the advert for an ACA in Witham.
It was the only job she applied for and she admits she was thrilled when she landed the role.
The aim was to spend more time with animals and that has certainly been the case over the past few years.
“I also wanted to learn new skills and do something totally different,” said Caroline, who has always had pets and currently has two dogs, cocker spaniel Charlie and springer spaniel Megan.
“Initially a lot of what I learned was on the job, but there is also a brilliant ACA Development Programme.
“It is such a supportive environment. There is always someone to ask and when people see you are keen to learn they are happy to help.
“The vets are so good at explaining what they are doing and if it’s a procedure you haven’t seen before, they will talk you through it.
“Then the next time you know what equipment to get out or how to assist.
“And you are really looking after the care side of things for the animal and keeping an eye open for things the vet might need help with.”
The training and support has seen Caroline gain confidence and skills over the years.
The ACA Development Programme, open to all animal care assistants within Vets Now, consists of eight modules which can all be completed online.
They include biosecurity, patient handling, assisting with euthanasia and laboratory work.
And Vets Now’s commitment to the development of staff didn’t stop there for Caroline.
“I had noticed that dogs, who could obviously be quite stressed, would show signs before they became aggressive,” said Caroline. “I did research, put together a presentation and went into schools to give dog bite prevention lessons.
“Vets Now sponsored me to get all the literature and materials to do that and it was great to have that support.”
And, fired up by her work at Vets Now, Caroline’s passion for caring for animals didn’t stop when she finished her shift.
Hearing from the vets that animals who sadly didn’t make it could have pulled through if they’d been brought in earlier, she decided to train to become a pet first aid instructor.
“I started doing first aid classes to get the word out to owners about CPR, drowning, minor bites and injuries and signs to look out for that would need urgent care,” said Caroline. “It’s been so rewarding.
“I remember taking a call at Vets Now from a lady and was surprised she was able to give great detail about the dog’s condition and even heart rate and temperature.
“Then I realised it was because she’d been on one of my courses and knew just what to do.”
Although Caroline’s classroom days are well behind her, some of the skills she picked up over the years have come in very useful in her Vets Now career.
“I was used to parents continually pushing to make sure you were doing the best for their children,” said Caroline.
“That can be quite emotive and here I’ve been able to draw on that when you are dealing with owners who are quite understandably stressed because their pet is poorly.”
Caroline Saye Animal care assistant, Vets Now Witham
“It is such a supportive environment. There is always someone to ask and when people see you are keen to learn they are happy to help."
As well as giving her a whole new focus and drive, Caroline has been able to achieve a well-earned work-life balance thanks to the flexibility offered by Vets Now.
She now works alternate Fridays and weekends, so is on shift either once or twice a week having recently reduced her hours to continue to suit her personal circumstances.
Caroline says the decision she made on that flight back from South Africa is one she has never regretted.
“I’m so glad I saw the Vets Now advert and applied,” said Caroline. “After teaching for so long, I knew my job inside out. It was so lovely and refreshing to learn something completely different.
“I’ve had so much support and backing and as a company, you definitely feel they want to engage and look after you.
“I get so much satisfaction from this and it’s incredibly rewarding to contribute to helping an animal.
“I think I’ve shown that you are never too old to learn and you can come from a different background and make a real difference.”
Find out more about our current animal care assistant opportunities here.