She was excited upon being accepted as Fossil Rim Veterinary Fellow in 2019, but as she prepares to depart Texas, Dr. Lauren Schmidt has become a full-fledged fan of the wildlife center, its animals, and the staff she has worked hard alongside.
The native of Deerfield, Illinois arrived at Fossil Rim on July 2 last year and her last day as veterinary fellow was June 30, 2020.
“I’ve always liked animals and I would pick them up if they were injured or lost,” she said. “Later on, I found an interest in veterinary medicine, which led me down this path. I have a passion for conservation, which really aligns with Fossil Rim’s mission.
“I found out about this opportunity when I was in my previous internship at Oklahoma State and I was looking for a zoo setting to do additional training with exotic species. I applied, interviewed, and was selected.”
Schmidt did her undergraduate studies at Miami University in Ohio and then graduated veterinary school at the University of Illinois in 2017.
As she traveled to Fossil Rim last summer to begin her veterinary fellowship, what was Schmidt expecting?
“I think this year was better than I possibly could’ve imagined,” she said. “I got so much experience and hands-on training with such a diverse group of species. The mentorship was unbelievable – very focused and helpful. It was a really good team to work with and an unparalleled opportunity.”
Schmidt talked about some of her most memorable experiences that she will be able to recall decades from now.
“Managing a (foot) fracture in an adult cheetah, ‘Meadow,’ and the challenges therein definitely comes to mind,” she said. “With time and great teamwork, we had a good outcome. My first gastronomy was a surgical procedure on the cheetah, ‘Bria,’ which ended up being another great outcome.
“Next, I would mention the use of injectable, constant-rate-infusion anesthesia. This is something I took from my small animal experience and extrapolated to these exotic species. Utilizing this technique helped smooth out some of my anesthetic protocols, which was exciting.
“I also really enjoyed using dissolvable and absorbable antibiotic beads in my patients for infected wounds. I found a way to sterilize them here with our own equipment, which made them a lot more cost effective. I would implant them for an abscess or infections and then we wouldn’t have to catch and immobilize that animal over and over for wound management. It was rewarding seeing quick resolutions in these patients.
“Also, having the opportunity to do these immobilizations in the field setting is rare in (the veterinary) community. This is one of only a few zoological institutions in the country that offers these types of opportunities. The ability to learn about that here and hopefully translate that to my future experiences has been a huge benefit for me.”
Does she have favorite animals at Fossil Rim?
“Meadow because I’ve worked with her so much,” Schmidt said. “It is not mutual. If she sees me, she growls. But I adore her. I’m very partial to the rhinos here, but picking a favorite species is a tough choice.”
Even though she is early in her veterinary career, Schmidt often played the role of teacher to veterinary preceptees and veterinary technician interns.
“I really liked having that opportunity to teach students,” she said. “I can offer them my experiences and things I’ve been taught here and translate it to them. The students bring some ideas that may be brand new here, so I learn from them, as well. Many of the students are really excited to be here and work with us, which is energizing.”
On some days of the week, Schmidt worked alongside Dr. Holly Haefele.
“Holly is a breadth of knowledge,” she said. “She is so smart and very experienced with the species at Fossil Rim. I’m grateful she shared so much of what she’s learned with me. She is really good at guiding me to make good choices.
“Maybe I haven’t thought of something myself, but if Holly sees something that can be improved, she’ll help without telling me directly what to do. Her patience in guiding and teaching me has been appreciated.”
Other days, Schmidt worked with Dr. Julie Swenson and often with both of the resident vets.
“Julie has a really broad clinical sense and a lot of outside-the-box thinking that I really like using,” she said. “It’s great to bounce new ideas off of her and come up with a strategy for how to do something or to modify the plans I had. I could never choose between Holly and Julie.”
The other primary member of the animal health team is Veterinary Technician Allyssa Roberts.
“Allyssa is the best,” Schmidt said. “She’s so reliable and helps guide my ideas and validate them to build my confidence.”
Over the course of the year, Schmidt also came to know many members of the animal care team well.
“A really impressive aspect of Fossil Rim is the good balance between animal care and animal health,” she said. “Everything is really collaborative and the animal care team is so helpful. We share a common goal, which benefits the animals.
“They will help make modifications to our recommendations to accommodate the needs of their species, as well as make alterations to their habitat or routine to benefit their animals when we are managing their medical needs together. They are so easy to work with and I will miss them a lot.”
As she prepares for her next adventure, what are some ways that Schmidt improved her veterinary skill set during her time at Fossil Rim?
“Hoofstock anesthesia – I feel so comfortable with it and field immobilizations, or as much as you can because you never stop learning,” she said. “Working with cheetahs was something I didn’t have much experience with beforehand, but I feel more comfortable now. Interpretation of diagnostics in such a range of species and finding the resources to validate them with outside-the-box thinking has been crucial; the cases I’m seeing are much more diverse than domestic animal medicine.”
Over the course of the year, Schmidt did a number of video and blog interviews with the Fossil Rim Marketing Department.
“I had no experience doing interviews for videos and blogs before coming here, but I definitely feel more comfortable now after all of the opportunities with marketing in case that is part of the experience at the facilities I work at in the future,” Schmidt said.
What’s next for the veterinarian?
“I’m going to take a month off and focus on writing some research papers,” she said. “I’m interviewing for a few different jobs and hope to end up at a facility where I can continue work similar to this. Long term, I want to build a career with zoo wildlife exotics. Eventually, I want to pursue my board certification in zoo medicine.”
Does Schmidt have some advice for those who will pursue the veterinary fellowship after she is gone?
“Always keep an open mind,” she said. “Don’t say ‘no’ to an opportunity that is presented to you. There are different paths to the same goal. Take risks; if something is outside your comfort zone, it is still worth trying. Don’t be afraid to travel the country for good opportunities in this field to pursue your dreams.”
What might Schmidt tell her family and friends who have never visited Fossil Rim?
“This is a very unique facility,” she said. “We are proudly AZA-accredited (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), which is a huge honor that is hard to achieve. In these wide-open spaces, you can almost imagine yourself being in the animals’ native country across the ocean. Visiting here really takes you on a journey.”
Last, but not least, Schmidt wanted to share her dislikes.
“I don’t want to leave, and I don’t like driving the vet van,” she said. “That’s my whole list of dislikes. As long as the temperature stays under 100 degrees, I’m okay.”
-Tye Chandler, Marketing Associate