You may recall reading this past summer about a Dr. Lauren learning on the job at Fossil Rim.
Dr. Lauren is still here learning during her year as a fellowship veterinarian, but now it’s Dr. Lauren Pudenz, who has taken the reins from Dr. Lauren Schmidt since beginning her term at Fossil Rim on July 1.
“I didn’t know Lauren (Schmidt) well when I started here, but at this point I do,” Pudenz said. “She still comes in to help on Wednesdays until she starts her new job in Florida. ‘Lauren’ is now the official name for the veterinary fellowship.”
A native of Lincoln, Nebraska, Pudenz did her undergraduate studies at Iowa State and was able to remain there for veterinary school through the Nebraska UNL-Professional Program. How did her life steer in a veterinary direction?
“I had some cats that we were able to catch at my grandparents’ farm and tame, since they were all feral,” she said. “I was an ‘always planned to be a vet’ kid. When I found out that was possible, it became my goal. As far as getting into zoo medicine, I credit Dr. Sam Rivera, who is a vet at Zoo Atlanta.
“I worked with him for a couple of weeks when I was in high school; he got me involved in everything they were doing, including allowing me to see what the keepers do for the animals, which was a good perspective. I met an owl named ‘Quincy’ who had lost his vision due to complications from West Nile virus. He was being force-fed medicated rodents.
“As bad as that might sound, it was so much fun taking care of him and I was hooked. Quincy is actually still at Zoo Atlanta and doing quite well; it was very good to see him years later.”
The chance to become Fossil Rim’s fellowship veterinarian came onto Pudenz’s radar years ago.
“I found out about this opportunity at (an American Association of Zoo Veterinarians) conference in 2017,” she said. “I talked to (Dr.) Julie (Swenson) and she was very nice. That put Fossil Rim on my radar and the opportunity to work with so many hoofstock species sounded like a lot of fun. Fossil Rim was at the top of my list in 2019, so I was really lucky to land this fellowship this year.”
Nearly three months into her year at Fossil Rim, how is the experience going?
“So far, this has been fantastic,” she said. “I wasn’t super sure what to expect, but even the hoofstock experience I was expecting has exceeded my expectations. Everybody is lovely here, plus it’s great to gain experience outside the traditional zoo setting.
“I’m learning from some people with many years of experience who have evolved in their methods over time. It’s very interesting to see some of the things the staff can do with their knowledge and training, as well as that experience.”
Early on, what are some of her standout experiences? Surprisingly, one of them involves a native white-tailed deer.
“We found her on property, skinny and walking oddly,” Pudenz said. “We darted her and discovered that she should’ve fawned weeks earlier and they’d actually gotten stuck and died. We performed a C-section. She was in rough shape, but she lived and is now the only tagged white-tailed deer we have.
“Helping save that deer is definitely one of the best experiences so far. While this white-tailed deer was extremely sick and euthanizing her would certainly have been a fair decision for her, we decided to give her a chance. The fact that she managed to survive surgery in the condition she was in is a true testament to the skill and expertise of our staff here at Fossil Rim.
“Their dedication is also demonstrated by the fact that this procedure took place outside of normal working hours, but everyone pitched in to do the best we could for this doe. I was actually the one to perform the surgery, and I make sure to throw her some feed pellets when I see her now. Performing a C-section was very valuable experience, because the need for me to do it again will come up on collection animals someday.”
A feline fan dating back to her childhood, Pudenz also referenced black-footed cats (BFC) in her experiences thus far.
“BFC kittens are so adorably small and yet so angry,” she said. “It was really fun to be involved in their first couple rounds of vaccines so far.”
Part of being a fellowship veterinarian is the opportunity to teach veterinary preceptees.
“I’ve had students in the past going back to my first year out of vet school and was fortunate to gain a lot of teaching experience,” she said. “Teaching at Fossil Rim is fun because I get (vet students) for a little longer and one student at a time. I see where I can fill in the gaps and hopefully give them some valuable information to use later on.”
From teaching to learning, how is that side of the coin going?
“Lauren (Schmidt) told me ‘you won’t find better mentors anywhere’ soon after I arrived,” she said. “I agree already. (Dr.) Holly (Haefele) and Julie are very good about giving you opportunities to learn. I wouldn’t call it a hands-off approach, but they encourage you to come up with your own plan and own ideas, then help you to refine it through the lens of their experience.
“In other words, they give me leeway to try things, but don’t let me fail. There are so many different ways to do things in veterinary medicine, and they help me pick which one is best in a particular scenario.”
Pudenz also works with Fossil Rim Veterinary Technician Allyssa Roberts.
“Allyssa is fantastic, too,” she said. “She is brilliant and has been great about teaching me how to do tests I haven’t done before like the McMaster Fecal (Egg Counting Technique) and how to use a hemocytometer. I had a basic lab background coming in, but there is a need to know more here and I’ve learned a ton from Allyssa already.”
As the weeks go by, Pudenz is getting more teamwork with various members of the animal care department.
“I’ve been fortunate that animal care departments have been very friendly at the places I’ve been,” she said. “It is interesting to watch some of our more experienced animal care staff teach some less experienced staff members, and you can tell that’s a goal. Teaching is going on all the time here.”
With all of that teaching and learning going on, how is her skillset progressing?
“I’m already a lot more comfortable with hoofstock immobilizations, as well as my darting and drug adjustment proficiency,” she said. “I’ve learned how parasite treatment is done here – it’s different from zoos and varies by herd (size) and species.”
Does she have a favorite Fossil Rim species yet?
“My favorite animal tends to change based on the most recent animals we have handled,” she said. “That white-tailed deer is pretty high on my list. I’ll always keep an eye out for her.”
What is the day-to-day schedule like within the animal health department?
“Our days are a shifting schedule of possibilities,” she said. “Hoofstock immobilizations aren’t the (grand) production here that you might see at other facilities since the staff has so much experience with them, but that is one of the procedures we try to schedule a day in advance. Over the course of the week, other things are going to come up, so we bump things based on priority. There are always 5-6 things to do, and you chip away at your to-do list as best you can.”
Pudenz will continue working hard to the benefit of Fossil Rim animals until her term wraps up at the end of June 2021.
“Ideally, I’m targeting full-time zoo work or a residency somewhere without (harsh) winters,” she said. “I’ve heard Texas winters sort of happen, but in small doses, so I look forward to that.”
She has some thoughts to share with future fellowship veterinarian prospects.
“This position is geared toward candidates coming out of at least one specialty internship with a foundation they are looking to build on,” Pudenz said. “We are very busy operating quickly and efficiently, so it helps to have a rough idea of what you are doing without being told. It’s a phenomenal program set up at an interesting institution different from traditional zoos. This makes you wish there were more semi-free-ranging facilities, because that’s definitely what I prefer at this point.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate