The quality of the medical care provided at PAWS attracts veterinary students from as far afield as Ohio and Tennessee, and even Scotland and Chile. Each year, several students work alongside PAWS' veterinarians gaining invaluable experience for their future careers in helping animals.
The young Glaucous-winged Gull had been at PAWS Wildlife Center for almost two weeks, showing no signs of improvement. He was unable to bear weight on his swollen and obviously painful left foot. Neither antibiotics nor cage rest had any affect. As Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. John Huckabee and fourth-year student at Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, Kara Van Voorhis examined the gull's latest X-rays, Dr. Huckabee challenged her with a series of questions as the two investigated this medical mystery. Was there a fracture, signs of a bone infection, or a foreign object lodged inside? Peering closely at the radiographs, Kara concluded no. Dr. Huckabee decided it was time to get a closer look and prepped Kara for her first surgery on a wild animal.
Kara followed Dr. Huckabee's instructions, checking her progress with him every step of the way from making the initial incision to stitching it closed. As a wildlife veterinary student extern, her job for four weeks at PAWS was to practice what she learned in school under the guidance of a professional veterinarian. During the exploratory surgery, she and Dr. Huckabee discovered and removed some scar tissue, which most likely caused the irritation and swelling. In the following three weeks, the gull healed fully, and was returned to the wild.
"I have a strong interest in surgery," Kara shared, "so it was an exciting procedure for me. And this was the gull's last option." As a native of Bainbridge Island, Washington, Kara discovered PAWS wild side when she became a wildlife volunteer in 2002. Inspired by that experience, she returned to PAWS Wildlife Center for her externship. "Wildlife rehabilitation medicine is so challenging," Kara explained. "You not only have to think about the individual patients, but their natural history and habitat, all while trying to manage their stress and minimize contact so they don't become habituated to humans."
"Our routine is far from routine," Dr. Huckabee agrees. "That's why this externship program is so valuable to vet students and to the wildlife rehabilitation community. We provide unique opportunities for students to learn about non-domestic species and wildlife rehabilitation that they typically don't find in vet school." Nationally, PAWS is one of just a handful of teaching wildlife hospitals that sees such a wide variety of species, giving the students an even broader range of experience.
This year, PAWS Wildlife Center hosted three, fourth-year veterinary students and has already confirmed five for 2008 and two for 2009. An externship program for veterinary technician students was also introduced this year with four students participating.
The demand to study at PAWS is just as strong from students seeking experience with companion animals, with externships already scheduled as far out as 2009. PAWS' Lead Shelter Veterinarian Dr. Liz Helmer accepts up to nine fourth-year veterinary students a year, who gain experience in spay and neuter surgeries, physical exams, treatment plans, and animal behavior. "It's a great place for veterinary students to learn about everyday illnesses that affect dogs and cats," noted Dr. Helmer. "At vet schools, students tend to see the more complicated and rare cases."
To Dr. Helmer, there is an even greater value for students to gain experience in a shelter setting. When students leave PAWS they carry with them a better understanding and more compassion for homeless dogs and cats, becoming strong advocates for early spaying and neutering, adoption, and helping guardians solve behavior problems in order to keep their pets in their homes. Having colleagues in veterinary private practice who had exposure to shelter medicine as part of their training is essential to creating a community-wide safety net for animals in need.
An aspiring veterinarian, Elizabeth Nordeen developed empathy for animals early in life: to celebrate her tenth birthday, she invited friends to give gifts to the animals at PAWS! Now in her first year at veterinary school at Washington State University (WSU), Elizabeth is extremely grateful for what she learned at PAWS as a Veterinary Assistant Intern and Foster Care Intern at our shelter. She learned procedures such as prepping dogs and cats for surgery, giving vaccinations, dispensing medication, and administering fluids.
"Arriving at WSU, I already knew so much more than my classmates," said Elizabeth. "In one of my first classes, we were practicing drawing blood on plastic animal models and I got it right on the first poke. My professor was definitely impressed." As part of a small group of students in a shelter medicine club at school, Elizabeth continues to help animals at shelters close to WSU, and plans to come back to PAWS for her externship in her fourth year.
Elizabeth's goal as a future veterinarian is to specialize in cancer treatment, where she is sure to bring comfort and a healing spirit to both the animals and the people who love them. PAWS is proud to help train and mentor the animal care professionals of tomorrow—the next generation of people helping animals.