A veterinarian in the UF College of Veterinary Medicine is one of the top five finalists in the 2016 Hero Veterinarian Awards, sponsored by the American Humane Association.

Dr. Natalie Isaza’s dedication to shelter animals led her to create the Veterinary Community Outreach Program with UF, she said.

The program allows students in UF’s vet school to gain hands-on experience with patients and perfect surgical skills before they graduate, she said. Her work began at the Alachua County Animal Services, but the program moved to UF’s vet school to service more animals once the program took off.

Her work has since expanded to six other shelters and the St. Francis Pet Care Clinic, located at 501 SE Second St., which Isaza co-founded to provide veterinary care for pets of low-income residents. The clinic is open every Tuesday from 8:30 a.m. to noon.

Students enrolled in the Veterinary Community Outreach have the opportunity to practice veterinary medicine at clinics and shelters in Gainesville and the surrounding areas during their third or fourth years of vet school, Isaza said.

“The biggest reason that students take our rotation is the hands-on surgical training,” Isaza said.

The program does most of the spay and neuter surgeries in the area, which allows students to gain experience that gives them an advantage when they go to practice medicine, she said.

“Spay surgeries are major abdominal surgeries,” Isaza said. “As (students) get more accustomed to the surgeries, they gain confidence, so it becomes easier for them.”

Each student is completely in charge of these procedures, but a veterinarian is always in the room to watch and make sure the procedure is done correctly, she said.

Melissa Glikes, who worked as a technician in the program, nominated Isaza for the award after seeing the effort she put into animal welfare, Isaza said.

Isaza said she hopes the nomination brings awareness to the work that shelter veterinarians do.

“People having their animals spayed and neutered is really going to decrease the workload of shelter veterinarians everywhere,” Isaza said. “I think we need a lot more education in our community about spay/neuter and how important it is to do that so that we don’t have unwanted animals in our system that get euthanized.”

Isaza began mentoring Dr. Kelly Harrison in 2005 when Harrison started volunteering with the program.

“I feel so lucky to not only have met her but to have worked under her mentorship for as many years as I have,” Harrison said.

Voting for the 2016 Hero Veterinarian Award ends July 21 at noon PST. Voters must be 18 years or older and can vote once per day at herovetawards.org until the contest is over.