Wild, exotic species benefit from UF’s zoological medicine expertise

By Sarah Carey


A tiger is shown receiving an endoscopic procedure at the UF Small Animal Hospital in 2012. (File photo)

Panthers, tigers and bears may not visit UF’s Small Animal Hospital on a daily basis, but the treatment of those and other potentially dangerous species by clinicians with the hospital’s zoological medicine service is routine – and increasingly unusual among veterinary schools.

“We are one of the few veterinary schools that will continue to see these species,” said Dr. Ramiro Isaza, an associate professor of zoological medicine in the UF College of Veterinary Medicine’s department of small animal clinical sciences.

Although most of the animals seen by UF’s zoological medicine service are exotic pets – birds, reptiles, small mammals such as hamsters or ferrets, fish, amphibians, and even some inverterbrates – the service has the capacity to see almost any type of species considered non-domestic.

A good percentage of animals treated by the service are injured wildlife, spanning such diverse species as alligators, gopher tortoises, song birds, raptors, otters, black bears and Florida panthers.

“We literally see everything from mice to elephants,” said Dr. Darryl Heard, an associate professor of zoological medicine and service chief. Heard performed two residencies in anesthesia and zoological medicine at UF prior to accepting a faculty position in 1994.

“There are no classes of animals that we will not see,” added Isaza, who also performed his residency in that discipline at UF.

Dr. Heard with blue macaw

Dr. Heard with blue macaw

“By and large, we are responsive to the diversity of demands,” Isaza said.

The University of Florida has one of the oldest zoological medicine programs housed within a veterinary academic health center in the United States. Its history and the diversity of species it sees set it apart from many other academic programs.

The very first Florida panther to be seen at UF was named “Big Guy.” Hit by a car on Alligator Alley, he was transported to and treated through the zoological medicine service in 1988. He survived and was taken to White Oak Conservation Center in Yulee, where he lived out his life.

Dr. Elliott Jacobson, now a professor emeritus at the college, was UF’s first zoological medicine resident and started the program in 1979.

“Since then, there have been a number of residents, many of whom work in major zoos around the country,” Heard said. “The zoological medicine service grew out of the laboratory animal medicine program because of a perceived need.”

More than 2,500 D.V.M. students have received exposure to exotic animals and numerous wildlife species through the zoological medicine rotation, which, although now elective, was required in the professional curriculum for many years.

Dr. Ashley Zehnder, a graduate of the college’s Class of 2005, is one of those students. Named by Veterinary Practice News as one of the publication’s “25 veterinarians to watch” in 2013, Zehnder is currently a post-doctoral fellow and Ph.D. candidate at Stanford University, where she is working on novel therapeutic strategies to target altered signaling pathways in epithelial cancers.

Board certified in avian practice, Zehnder completed a residency in companion avian and pet exotic medicine at the University of California/Davis. She said her UF rotation in zoo medicine reaffirmed her commitment to exotic animal medicine.

“The contacts I made there made it possible for me to get a competitive internship and the residency I wanted at UC/Davis,” she said. “The faculty were very supportive and clearly loved and were excited by their profession. The students were exposed to a wide variety of clinical practice – companion exotics, zoo and wildlife – allowing us to see if any of these aspects seemed worth pursuing.”

She added that she would never forget the day spent at St. Augustine Alligator Farm and being asked to help restrain 8-to-10-foot alligators.

“It makes restraining dogs and cats seem not so daunting,” she said.

Dr. Erin Holder, a 2002 graduate of the college, is the owner of FloridaWild Veterinary Hospital in Deland and an adjunct professor at UF. While a veterinary student, Holder received the prestigious Lerner Family Wildlife Conservation Award, the Bird Fanciers Scholarship and placed 1st in United States in the National American Association for Zoo Veterinarians Manuscript Competition.

She furthered her studies at the Houston Zoo in Texas, the Busch Wildlife Sanctuary, the Exotic Bird Hospital, Lubee Bat Foundation and White Oak Plantation in Florida. Her medical articles have been published in the Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine and Exotic DVM.

“The wildlife ward was where I spent all of my free time,” Holder said. “I was one of those lucky students who got many wildlife rotations. I fought for them. Dr. Heard is my friend and mentor and truly inspired me.”

Among her memories are bottle-feeding a fawn and baby tiger on her first rotation, helping to save a group of confiscated Ortilia turtles that took many months to rehabilitate, and performing surgery as an assistant to remove eggs from a 10-foot snake.

“My stories can seriously go on and on,” Holder said. “The UF CVM, the wildlife department and Dr. Heard changed my life forever. I love going back every year and getting the chance to teach there.”

In addition, the program has provided many veterinarians focused on exotic animal medicine with the additional training they needed to become board-certified specialists.

Board-certification is a valuable, if not essential, tool in procuring jobs at zoological parks, aquariums and other facilities or organizations where exotic animals are housed and cared for, and approximately 30 of the 150 or so board-certified Diplomates listed in the American College of Zoological Medicine received their residency training at UF.

UF-trained zoological medicine veterinarians have worked at such facilities as Fort Worth Zoo, the National Aquarium, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and many other parks and attractions.

Aside from its educational and patient-care aspects, UF’s zoological medicine program’s faculty expertise in zoonotic diseases provides a key resource in the area of One Health research.

“If you’re a human researcher and you want to go look at diseases of animals in the wild, you need people like us who understand how zoonotic diseases work in animal species,” Heard said.


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