FAIRBANKS, Alaska — Growing up in Webster, New Hampshire, in the 1990s, Ariel Cunningham had no brothers or sisters. Her playmates were her family’s pets — 13 dogs and five cats.

Cunningham said her family bred Irish and English setters and took in strays. As Cunningham tells it, the family took in as many animals as they could “without crossing that hoarder line.”

“The five cats, that was my doing,” the 31-year-old said.

Now Cunningham is making her living helping strays as the new manager at the Fairbanks North Star Borough Animal Shelter, reported the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner (http://bit.ly/2bMSMdp).

It’s Cunningham’s job to make sure the shelter — which houses lost and forsaken livestock and pets and investigates dog bites — runs smoothly.

She is a soft-spoken second lieutenant in the Air Force’s inactive reserves with a doctorate in veterinary medicine, a soft spot for ailing cats and a goal to help as many animals as possible reunite with their owners or be placed in a good home.

She started in June and is planning no major changes at the shelter, though she would like to improve the website and boost outreach.

“I’m mostly just getting my feet wet,” she said, “trying to learn the ropes for how everything has been functioning up to this point.”

Cunningham has lived in Fairbanks for a little more than a year after marrying a member of the local PAWS search and rescue group, a nonprofit group whose volunteers train dogs to locate missing people.

She came from Anchorage where she was stationed at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson following veterinary school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she attended on an Air Force scholarship.

When she wasn’t studying, Cunningham took care of multiple cats suffering from feline AIDS.

In the Air Force, Cunningham worked in public health — the human kind — supervising programs involving food safety, occupational health, deployment medicine and disease prevention.

“I was more of a supervisor,” she said. “It was all of my enlisted airmen that were doing all of the work.”

Cunningham missed working with animals. She is replacing Sandy Besser, who retired as shelter manager. Cunningham oversees 18 employees in a job that is mostly administrative; she doesn’t perform veterinary care of the animals. The borough contracts with a local veterinarian for clinical services.

Cunningham is licensed to care for animals in Wisconsin, she said, but not in Alaska.

She is more interested in the public heath side of veterinary medicine, though she has experience caring for animals.

Cunningham studied abroad in Ecuador, vaccinating cattle from foot-and-mouth disease, a severe, highly contagious viral disease of cattle and swine. A few years later, the country was able to eradicate the disease.

Cunningham also tranquilized a buffalo, an experience she described as exhilarating.

Some of Cunningham’s favorite animals are cattle and elephants, she said.

“I think of cattle as large dogs,” she said. “They can be friendly, curious. They have cool personalities.”

Cunningham hopes to maintain the low rate of animals euthanized at the shelter, about 5 percent, she said.

As a public health veterinarian, Cunningham is hoping to focus on things like food safety and disease prevention.

“Growing up with so many animals, I am sure that it led to my love and my care for animals,” she said.


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com