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'SNL' star Kenan Thompson surprises high school students with unexpected message

The star of "Saturday Night Live" and "Kenan" plays a veterinarian in "Clifford the Big Red Dog" — and hopes to see more diversity in the profession.
/ Source: TODAY

As the longest-tenured cast member of "Saturday Night Live," Kenan Thompson has acted in all sorts of roles: host of "Black Jeopardy," O.J. Simpson and Whoopi Goldberg, to name a few. So it’s surprising that he never played a veterinarian until being cast in the upcoming "Clifford the Big Red Dog" movie.

He’s even played a dog. One of the first roles of his career was Toto in a church production of "The Wiz."

“They were casting a play and gave out all the roles and then they saw me sitting there,” he told TODAY. “I was like, ‘What about the dog? Is anybody playing the dog?’ They let me do it.”

Now in "Clifford the Big Red Dog," Thompson plays a Banfield veterinarian charged with treating the comically oversized canine.

It was challenging to work with a CGI character — eye lines and hand placement became critically important — but not to prepare for the role itself. He’s had good relationships with veterinarians who have cared for his own pets over the years, including his late wiener dog, Nathan (yes, like the hot dogs).

“He was a good dude. … That was one thing I learned about having a pet is that you need a good vet because you never know when they’re going to need an antibiotic or something,” he said, quipping, “You just assume you pick up a pet like a toy, and it should just work.”

Now Thompson’s using his experience acting the part of a veterinarian to encourage high school students to consider pursing veterinary careers in real life. On Sept. 2, he made a surprise appearance at the Boys & Girls Club of Whittier in California to talk about opportunities for high school students from underrepresented communities in the veterinary field.

Comedian Kenan Thompson addresses high school students at an event hosted by Banfield Pet Hospital and the Boys & Girls Club of Whittier on Sept. 2, 2021. He plays a veterinarian in the upcoming "Clifford the Big Red Dog" film, which he recently watched with his two young daughters snuggled on his lap. "We enjoyed the whole thing," he told TODAY.Courtesy of Banfield Pet Hospital

Banfield Pet Hospital, which has over 1,000 locations in the U.S., is partnering with Boys & Girls Clubs of America to reach students interested in veterinary careers as well as those who might not have considered it yet. Thompson spoke about the organization’s program “NextVet,” a new paid internship for high school students that aims to strengthen and diversify the talent pipeline.

Roughly 90% of U.S. veterinarians currently identify as white, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“I’m all about trying to spread the word to anybody that was not aware that there might be a lot of opportunities in the veterinary field for people of color,” Thompson said. “This could be a field that could sustain a very comfortable lifestyle if they get through all of the steps that it takes to do so. … If you check those boxes of being an animal lover, this can be a good career for you.”

Thompson, who recently felt like a "kid in the candy store" while attending the 2021 Emmy Awards after being nominated for outstanding lead actor in a comedy series for “Kenan” and outstanding supporting actor in a comedy series for “Saturday Night Live” — which won the award for outstanding variety sketch series — noted that success doesn’t happen overnight. He wants young people to know about the opportunities in veterinary medicine that exist if they work toward their goals.

“There’s a lot of room in the market for diversity, as well as job openings,” he said.

Kenan Thompson enjoyed visiting high school students in Whittier, California.Courtesy of Banfield Pet Hospital

Melissa Marshall, vice president of people and organization at Banfield Pet Hospital, said Thompson was a hit with the students — and veterinarians — in the audience at the kickoff event.

“He has a strong passion for the future generations,” she told TODAY. “He wanted to make sure that each and every one of them left that experience with a memorable thought about, ‘What would I do with my future?’ And he delivered that message in such a relatable way. The kids were so excited, and it really sparked a lot of interest.”

Kenan Thompson bonds with Rollo, an adoptable dog who attended the Sept. 2 event courtesy of Priceless Pets, a nonprofit rescue organization.Courtesy of Banfield Pet Hospital

The NextVet internship is part of Banfield’s nearly $10 million commitment over the next year to support educational pathways for current and future veterinary professionals — which was announced Monday. The organization is also expanding Banfield Pet Academy, which provides mentorship for students with local veterinarians and veterinary technicians, through the partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs of America.

Marshall said there is a “burning urgency” for such programs because recent Banfield research found an estimated 75 million American pets may not have access to necessary veterinary care by 2030, primarily due to a shortage of veterinarians.

With so many households acquiring pets during the pandemic and a need to boost diversity in the profession, she hopes students will participate in Banfield programs and pursue careers in the veterinary industry.

On Sept. 27, Banfield Pet Hospital announced a nearly $10 million commitment over the next year to support current and future veterinary professionals and increase diversity in the industry.Courtesy of Banfield Pet Hospital

High school senior Alison Trujillo plans to do just that. The 17-year-old Whittier resident, teen tutor, "SNL" fan and animal lover hopes to become a veterinarian for marine or companion animals. She was thrilled when Thompson took the stage and said his “exciting energy” made her even more thrilled about her dreams.

“I feel like that talk with Kenan Thompson and the Banfield workers really inspired people to start working in that field because it’s important to know how much these animals need us,” Trujillo told TODAY. “He was funny and joking with the audience, so I thought that was really cool. And when he was talking about veterinary medicine, he was saying how important it was to join the field because not a lot of people are going into that field — there’s a shortage.”

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Trujillo is grateful for the veterinarians who care for her dogs, Daisy and Bruno, and hopes to make a difference in the lives of pets and their people in the future.

“I just think it’s really important for people to know how much our animals need more people in veterinary hospitals and how important it is to give back to the animals, because our animals give us unconditional love,” she said. “I feel like it would be such a fulfilling opportunity for myself and others to be able to give some of that love back to them.”

Find out more information about the NextVet internship program, which opens to applications Oct. 27.