Leon looks to Fossil Rim for lone externship

Tye Chandler :
Posted October 13, 2017

Juli Leon really needed her veterinary externship to be a positive, productive experience, so she chose Fossil Rim Wildlife Center.

She trained at the facility as a veterinary preceptee from Sept. 4 to Oct. 6. Born in San Diego, Leon was raised in Greensboro, North Carolina and attended college at Elon University in the state to earn her Bachelor of Science degree in biology. Leon, who held a zoo-oriented internship as an undergrad, then worked for a year-and-a-half as a veterinary technician before beginning veterinary school. She will graduate in January 2018.

Veterinary preceptee Juli Leon observes the ultrasound on a cheetah being performed by Dr. Julie Swenson. Leon enjoyed her month at Fossil Rim and returned to Tennessee with her eye on graduation this January.

“I’m a St. George’s University student in Grenada, West Indies, but I’m completing my clinical year at the University of Tennessee,” she said. “I was in my first year of vet school when I started shadowing a veterinarian in Greensboro named Sam Young. He did an internship at Fossil Rim when he was attending NC State. He told me if I really wanted to pursue zoo medicine, I should really think about applying to Fossil Rim.

“A year-and-a-half later, it was time to start thinking about what internships I wanted to do. I’d heard good things about White Oak (Conservation in Florida), too, but I ended up coming to Fossil Rim. As far as graduation, it’s exciting to think about being able to stop borrowing money.”

She looked at Fossil Rim’s website and liked the variety of the animals, but Leon said she did not know a lot about the facility when she arrived.

“I knew there were two vets, which I definitely liked because that meant multiple people to learn from,” Leon said. “The way Fossil Rim is run has really impressed me. The animal care staff is great, and everyone here is very educated on what they’re doing. The level at which animal health and animal care work together here is excellent.”

Leon shared some of her most memorable moments from the preceptorship.

Juli Leon feeds “Uhuru” the black rhino to keep him occupied while veterinarian Dr. Julie Swenson draws blood for a routine checkup.

“Feeding ‘Jiwe’ (the white rhino calf) is pretty awesome,” she said. “The giraffe anesthesia – placing an IV catheter in ‘Nyla’ is something I may never get to do again. Seeing the whole process and how many people it takes for a giraffe procedure was memorable.

“I would also mention the opportunity to administer cheetah cub vaccines. I’m a cat person.”

On that note, Leon said cheetahs are her favorite Fossil Rim species.

When the time came to decide on a project and ensuing presentation to staff and volunteers, Leon thought about what would benefit her audience.

“I was looking for a particular case to help other people learn about, but nothing particularly jumped out at me,” she said. “I decided, instead of focusing on a case, to do a presentation on neonate exams after we’d done so many. They are supposed to be done within five minutes, so the process has been streamlined with a checklist. I wanted to explain what we do and why, because I thought it would be beneficial for both the animal care staff and other staff that may not even be aware we do neonate exams.

“I went through the exam steps, why we do it, what we are looking for, some congenital defects we can find – why they are significant and how they can be treated. Some of the staff is aware that we look for evidence of passive transfer, but I wanted them to know what all that means.”

Prior to an endoscopy procedure, Juli Leon and Fossil Rim Veterinary Technician Allyssa Roberts (left) hook up monitoring equipment on a maned wolf named “Marli.”

In the interest of learning, Leon appreciated being casually quizzed along the way at Fossil Rim.

“(Dr.) Julie (Swenson) always talked to me during the (veterinary) van rides, asking me taxonomy questions,” she said. “She and (Dr.) Holly (Haefele) would also talk about whatever animal we were going to see at the time and problems we often see in that species. We did some journal club with published articles, which I found very helpful.

“The vets here know what is most important for veterinary students to get out of this experience. They did an excellent job of focusing on making this an effective, educational opportunity for me.”

She enjoyed the learning opportunities alongside animal care staff, as well.

“I got to ride around with (Hoofstock Curator) Adam (Eyres) a fair amount,” she said. “He’s very knowledgeable about these animals and their behaviors. He taught me how to properly assess body condition scores on these animals. As a veterinarian, you have to know why you are doing certain things to these animals, and to see that from the animal care side is helpful.”

Juli Leon holds a sable calf for a neonatal exam, which was the topic of her presentation to Fossil Rim staff and volunteers.

After her final day at Fossil Rim, it was back to school in Tennessee to finish strong for graduation.

“This was my only externship,” she said. “It sounded like a long time to be there, but now that I’m leaving it seems short.”

In the short term, Leon plans to begin her career as a small animal veterinarian.

“I want to gain experience and build a foundation,” she said. “I would love to work for a zoo with exotics later on. Delving into taxonomy here should help me long-term.

“Understanding an animal’s closest fellow species helps you in its treatment. I also learned about some commonly used drugs I hadn’t been taught in school.”

Juli Leon makes sure this cheetah cub is doing alright after he was vaccinated. Leon said cheetahs are her favorite Fossil Rim species.

Leon suggests fourth-year vet students interested in exotics take Fossil Rim into consideration.

“It is definitely worth the time, especially if you want a career in zoo medicine,” Leon said. “You have to pursue those opportunities. I would’ve loved to go on a student trip to Africa, but I knew this experience will be much more beneficial in the long run.

“Plus, you don’t get the 2-1 vet-preceptee ratio at a lot of facilities. This is a quality place to be!”

-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate 

Juli Leon pointed to bottle feeding the white rhino calf “Jiwe” as one of her favorite memories of Fossil Rim.

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