December 26, 2021

Veterinary Preceptorship Experience

My name is Rachel Conway, and I just recently finished the veterinary preceptorship program at Fossil Rim. This is a 6-week program designed specifically for veterinary students in their final year to gain clinical experience at a zoological institution, and count as credit for their clinical rotations.

I wasn’t that kid who knew always they wanted to be a veterinarian- but I was the kid who as soon as I could talk was always wanting to go to the zoo and see all the animals (especially the elephants). My parents always indulged and encouraged me – meaning every birthday and every family vacation included a trip to the local zoo. Between this and growing up in my home state of Colorado where I gained a love of the outdoors, my path was set early on working in conservation.  For a long time, I thought this would mean pursuing a degree in zoology and wildlife biology, and that was where I started off in my undergraduate degree. However, during my undergraduate career I learned that medicine was pretty amazing too- and you can do a lot with it. So all of this led me to pursue a career in zoo and wildlife medicine. After a year off working at Denver Zoo as a keeper intern in the elephant barn, I was lucky enough the be able to enroll in veterinary school at Colorado State University. 

A veterinary student is drawing blood on a young kudu, while the veterinary technician looks on.

LVT Allyssa Roberts assists student Rachel Conway during a blood draw on a young kudu.

The final year of veterinary school is entirely clinical rotations, no classroom- which means that there is time to complete rotations outside of the hospital as well, which many students interested in zoo medicine take at zoos. Fossil Rim, with its semi-free ranging set up and focus on conservation, was a perfect choice for me. I also have a special love of hoofstock, and with Fossil Rim’s huge collection of hoofstock species I figured I would get an amazing and diverse experience. Most importantly, it came highly recommended to me by both my mentors at CSU and Denver Zoo, so I knew I was going to a program that was well regarded and with an amazing team who would be good mentors.

And that certainly turned out to be true. The veterinary preceptorship program here is incredibly well set up to ensure the students are well involved and getting hands on clinical experience. While here I was able to participate in more than 15 immobilization procedures, everything from routine pre-shipment exams in kudu to treating rattlesnake bites in cheetahs. Throughout all of these I was able to monitor anesthesia, practice blood draws and scrub in to procedures. 

A group of veterinary staff running tests on an anesthetized cheetah.

Routine preshipment exams are commonly performed on cheetahs at Fossil Rim. Students assist with monitoring of anesthesia during these procedures as well as obtaining blood samples.

While I loved getting to live my dream of working with such incredible animals, what I loved most about Fossil Rim was its people. The two primary veterinarians, Dr. Julie Swenson and Dr. Holly Haefele are a one-of-a-kind team and possess a wealth of knowledge. The basic medicine of zoo animals is pretty similar to your dog-cat-horse-cow medicine; they all get stomach and respiratory bugs, diabetes, kidney failure and cancer- however how you actually practice it is a lot different. First, you usually have to fully anesthetize your patients to be able to examine them properly and run the necessary tests to properly diagnose them, which requires quite a group effort, and more importantly it is an additional risk to an already sick or injured animal. This means you are running a very different risk-reward analysis for what is the best for diagnosis and treatment of the animal in question. The other challenge of zoo medicine is that there is a lot less information on what’s a normal white blood cell count in a cheetah than your average house cat. Julie and Holly did an incredible job showing me the ropes on how they tackle these challenges every day, which involves lot of researching in books and journals, as well as reaching out to colleagues. On top of this they also did a great job teaching me the nuances of diseases specific to their animals of their care, and the natural flora and fauna of Fossil Rim- our van rides would usually consist of lectures on a medical topic sporadically interrupted with exclamations upon seeing a road runner, armadillo or special native plant. 

The other members of the veterinary team, Fellowship Veterinarian Dr. Zack Dvornicky-Raymond, and Veterinary Technician Allyssa Roberts, were just as incredible. Zack, whom I knew previously from Colorado State, was a fabulous teacher, and always took the time to show me everything he was doing and explaining why he was doing it that way. He (as well as Julie and Holly) was also great at getting me involved in procedures and pushing me out of my comfort zone in a really good way. Allyssa was also excellent - I am early in my clinical year and am not quite as confident with a lot of my clinical skills, so she helped me a lot with my blood draws, injections, and catheter placements, and was always happy to answer my questions (of which there were many!). 

Student Rachel Conway takes the heart rate of an anesthetized kudu bull.  While one animal care staff member holds the horns and another stands by ready is assistance is needed. In the background you can see a staff member and emus.

Student Rachel Conway takes the heart rate of an anesthetized kudu bull. Monitoring anesthesia is an important task for students to learn during their preceptorship.

Last, but not least, was the amazing Animal Care staff at Fossil Rim, who always made me feel welcome and were patient with me while I was learning during procedures. They also were happy to answer all my animal husbandry (daily care) questions and taught me a lot about what it’s like to work at a semi free-ranging facility. Fossil Rim has an amazing sense of community, and all the parts of its staff work really well together to give top notch care to all of their animals, and it was awesome to work with such an incredible team. 

As I leave Fossil Rim, I am headed back to Colorado State for a cardiology rotation, then I will head up to Alaska for a program in rural medicine. Later this year I will be going to the St. Louis Zoo for a similar preceptorship program, and I am excited to see how different a traditional zoo setting vs a conservation center like this is run. My eventual goal is to follow the path of a zoo residency and become a boarded zoo veterinarian, with wildlife projects on the side. I am incredibly grateful for the amazing opportunities and connections I have made while at Fossil Rim, and know they have all prepared me for a great future and career ahead.

-Rachel Conway, Veterinary Preceptee


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