A snapping turtle who swallowed a fishing hook. A fox with severe mange. A baby owl who fractured a leg after falling from the nest. These are just a few of the nearly 4,000 animals served annually by Dane County Humane Society’s (DCHS) Wildlife Center with assistance from UW Veterinary Care’s Special Species Service.
The Wildlife Center provides comfort and care to injured or orphaned native wild animals with the goal of releasing healthy animals back into their natural habitats. For the past five years, the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) has assisted in these efforts by delivering medical care to the animals, in turn training veterinarians to be better prepared to care for wildlife.
At least once a week, UW Veterinary Care faculty, veterinary residents, and fourth-year veterinary medical students visit the center to examine and treat patients. Procedures range from wound management to soft tissue surgery to endoscopy of internal organs. Between visits, the team consults on cases almost daily by phone or email. Occasionally, especially complex cases are transported to UW Veterinary Care.
“We’ve improved our veterinary care dramatically through this program,” says Erin Lemley, wildlife rehabilitation coordinator at DCHS’s Wildlife Center.
Lemley is a Certified Veterinary Technician and Certified Wildlife Rehabilitator — a dual perspective that she draws on frequently during rounds with SVM students, delivering bits of wisdom about the intricacies of various species (in 2018, the center admitted 158 different species).
“It’s a big plus for students that Erin can share so much,” says Anna Martel DVM’15, then a third-year resident in zoological companion animal medicine.
The experience lets students “see the nuts and bolts of wildlife rehabilitation medicine, which they wouldn’t get in the normal curriculum or under our normal hospital service,” says Kurt Sladky DVM’93, a clinical professor of zoological medicine. Practicing veterinarians, whether in general or specialized practice, are likely to encounter many types of wildlife as patients, so “there’s a student drive to get exposed to wildlife rehabilitation medicine,” he adds.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship. We train future veterinarians and make sure that animals at the wildlife center get the best possible veterinary care.”
Galya Fedderly DVM’19 visited the Wildlife Center on multiple occasions as a fourth-year student and appreciated how Lemley and the SVM veterinarians “made the time there didactic,” she says. “They gave us information about these wildlife creatures and their needs for rehabilitation, and they helped us work through solutions for each case to prepare us for making our own decisions out in practice.”
During a visit in March, Fedderly and classmates helped to treat a goose, a great horned owl, and two big brown bats and Virginia opossums. One of the opossums (pictured top left) required surgery to repair exposed bone on the tip of her frostbitten tail.
When an owl with a diseased eye at DCHS’s Wildlife Center required a CT scan to help guide her treatment, a special fund helped make the otherwise out-of-reach diagnostic tool a financial reality. Imaging confirmed that surgery to remove the eye was a viable option and ruled out any other illnesses or complicating factors.
The scan was made possible by the Juliette N. O’Malley Wildlife Compassion Fund, which supports UW School of Veterinary Medicine efforts to advance the health and well-being of wildlife animals through outreach programs, patient care, training opportunities, and research.
Elizabeth Dill and her husband Chris Rowbottom provided a gift to initiate the fund in 2018, naming the fund in honor of a beloved cat. “Cats and dogs often get the attention and treatment,” says Rowbottom. “We wanted to give wildlife the same support afforded to domesticated animals.”
The fund has already made an impact by allowing for advanced diagnostics and treatment for select, medically indicated cases while reducing any financial barrier for the groups caring for the animals.
“We are passionate about the care and well-being of wildlife and are proud to support those who share a similar kinship with these animals,” says Dill.
As the surgery was nearing its end, Lemley encouraged students to look at the opossum’s pouch, a space behind a fold of skin on the abdomen where babies nurse and are held for several months following birth. “You’ve got to see it,” she said. Once opossum babies outgrow the pouch, they cling for another few weeks on their mother’s back — one of the reasons, Lemley explained to students, that the animal needs a strong, healthy tail. The opossum’s prehensile tail can grasp and wrap around things, aiding balance.
Each season at DCHS’s Wildlife Center brings a new wave of patients. Spring means lots of baby bunnies and birds, while summer is heavy on turtles.
As turtles seek out nesting sites to lay eggs, they often cross roadways and are struck by vehicles, suffering damage to their shell. Turtle shell fractures can be repaired with metal plates and stainless steel screws, similar to mending a broken bone. Having UW Veterinary Care available for these shell repairs “is a huge advantage,” according to Lemley.
“That’s an area we have advanced with a very good outcome,” says Christoph Mans, clinical associate professor of zoological medicine.
Looking to the future, the school hopes to pursue additional opportunities to provide teaching and outreach related to wildlife medicine.
“It’s a symbiotic relationship,” Mans says. “We train future veterinarians and make sure that animals at the wildlife center get the best possible veterinary care.”