What is uniquely challenging and rewarding about veterinary field medicine?
Thank you to the organizations and donors who fund vital wildlife conservation programs.
World Wildlife Day is March 3rd. It’s a day to recognize the effort of veterinarians, biologists, and conservationists working together to save endangered species and preserve habitat.
According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, “…zoo/wildlife/exotic species veterinarians focus on clinical medicine and the health of individual animals. Free-ranging wildlife veterinarians focus on the health of wildlife populations and ecosystem health.” Many zoo veterinarians do both.
Dr. Karl Hill worked in zoo medicine for 20 years. He has volunteered and worked in endangered wildlife conservation for 15 years. Dr. Hill has two favorite programs: California condors and Channel Island foxes. He also traveled to Baja Mexico to serve with the Peninsular Pronghorn Recovery Project.
Endangered species conservation programs are multi-entity collaborations. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brings all the different constituents together. “We work with a range of public and private partners to protect important habitats and increase species’ populations and reduce the threats to their survival so that they can be removed from federal protection,” states USFWS.
Wildlife biologists partner with veterinarians for routine and emergency medical care in a variety of settings. With the California Condor Recovery Project, teams repel down cliffs to reach their patients. Condor chicks have their medical checks right in their rocky nests. The teams take special care to prevent the chicks from imprinting on humans. This involves covering the chicks’ heads and administering supplemental oxygen to prevent hypoxemia during the exams. Sick and injured birds are brought to a rehabilitation facility for further treatment.
Preventing a condor from imprinting on you is only one of the challenges of field medicine. Dr. Hill commented, “It’s more difficult to work in nature without tables, lights, electricity, heat, or air conditioning.” He continued, “Everything you need has to be carried in a backpack. And you have to bring it all back out with you.”
There is another challenge besides the lack of normal facilities. Supplies and equipment are regularly stolen from remote field stations, such as the one in Mexico. Biologists have to be especially careful not to leave anything of value behind. These programs have limited funding to replace stolen items.
Responding to a call for help for an injured fox requires taking a helicopter or small plane out to one of the Channel Islands. Wildlife biologists take turns living at the field station to monitor endangered foxes. The facilities are minimal – a bunkhouse, a small laboratory, a holding area to care for sick or injured animals, and an office. Internet and phone service are limited. “You can only take so much in your backpack, and you would never take your logbook out of the hospital,” Dr. Hill says. “You have to write down everything that you do in the field and then record it in your PIMS and logbook when you get back to the hospital.”
Dr. Hill has performed emergency surgery kneeling on a concrete floor. Why is he willing to work under such unusual conditions? “I enjoy getting to work with endangered animals and being outside in nature. I’m helping to support the preservation of endangered species.”
Pictured in the thank you graphic from top left: Dr. Hill checks samples at a field station; Dr. Hill descends for a condor chick exam; Dr. Hill listens to the chick’s heartbeat; bottle time at the Peninsular Pronghorn Recovery Project in Baja; a biologist releases a California condor after an exam.