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October 13, 2010

Externs in Action

Working with wildlife at The HSUS' Wildlife Care Center

  • This pelican was treated at The HSUS' SPCA Wildlife Care Center in Broward County after having swallowed a fishing hook. Stefan Harsch.

by Julie Hauserman

Alycia Monopoli had never seen a pelican up close. And she certainly had never put her hand in a pelican’s giant beak and reached down into the stomach.

But, with the bird under anesthesia and Dr. Stefan Harsch supervising her, she did just that—and plucked out a bothersome fishing hook so the bird could heal and return to life in the wild.

Monopoli is among a parade of veterinary students who rotate through "externships" every four weeks or so at The Humane Society of the United States’ SPCA Wildlife Care Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"It is an amazing experience," said Monopoli, a third-year veterinary student at the University of Georgia. "Anything I got to do hands-on with the animals was new. At school, there’s so much classroom information that has to be crammed into our heads that our experience—especially with exotics—is very minimal. And it's wonderful at the wildlife center because of course they are supervising us every step of the way."

Monopoli found herself dispatched one day to Home Depot to pick up screws to knit a turtle’s shell back together. She got up close and personal with bats, snakes, raccoons—the "anything and everything" that’s the hallmark of South Florida's wild lands and urban areas.

Clarifying career plans

"The students get to see a large variety of species and a large number of cases every day," says Antonia Gardner, staff veterinarian at the Wildlife Care Center. "The goal is to give these students an appreciation for wildlife medicine and rehabilitation and to possibly help them choose whether or not to include wildlife practices in their choice of career." 

There’s a small apartment on site that can house one student at a time. Students have come from across the United States and from Germany, Australia, Ireland, and Canada.

Monopoli was so impressed by her experience that she’s coming back to the Center for another stint for school credit, and she's updated her career plans.

"I intend to go into wildlife medicine," she said. "Originally I was more interested in zoological medicine, but my undergraduate background in conservation and ecology has caught up with me and I’d like to incorporate that into my career."

The students perform rounds with the veterinarians, learn basic diagnostic skills for animal care, sometimes assist in surgeries, and write short research papers on different aspects of wildlife care. They learn about the common diseases encountered in wildlife medicine, how to write medical records, and how to handle varying species.

"The first couple of weeks for the students represents a steep learning curve, but once they get used to the fast pace they really start to contribute," Gardner said. "They become very trusted and help our staff. They become one of our team."

The Wildlife Care Center also invites undergraduate students who show an interest in animal medicine as interns. Michael Eichner, a University of Florida animal science major who plans to go to veterinary school, interned this summer.

"I’d never really worked with wildlife before, and it was a new, interesting, and unique experience for me," he said.

When a marine bird called a brown booby showed up coated with oil, he assisted in the painstaking process of cleaning and restoring the bird's waterproofing before a successful release back to the wild.

"Everybody there was willing to take the time to teach me, and having that one-on-one attention was really cool," Eichner said.

Need for wildlife vets

Gardner said she wishes she had had an opportunity like the one offered at the Wildlife Care Center when she was in veterinary school.

"The students benefit because there are very few program like this," Gardner said. "Our caseload is probably the largest in the country. I think if students understand how to work with wildlife, they will be more likely to do it in the future."

"There are a lot of areas that don't have any veterinary resources for wildlife and there are a lot of veterinarians who help wildlife on the side," Gardner said. "Hopefully, our students will be the type of veterinarians who choose to do that."

Learn more about events and opportunities at the Wildlife Care Center»

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