Kristen Crouch, Ross University
Life as a Vet Student, Winner
I have always grown up having a passion for the Earth and all of its wild creatures. Having wildlife biologists as parents and growing up just a short bike ride away from to a local wildlife rehabilitation center called Southwest Wildlife fostered my interest in wildlife and conservation medicine. When I was younger, I was able to meet and shadow Dr. Dean Rice, former Phoenix Zoo veterinarian, at the local zoo. This background with both free-ranging and captive wildlife helped prepare me for my visit with a company called Wildlifevets in South Africa. Being able to actively participate and apply what we’ve learned to field conservation medicine was the best experiences I could have hoped for and an experience I will never forget.
While with Wildlifevets, I was able to learn more about and refine my rudimentary wildlife darting techniques, proper drug use and how to calculate appropriate dosages for various species, post-immobilization techniques, and transportation of immobilized wildlife. Reading texts and journal articles and observing captures are nothing compared to the practical experience of working with free-ranging wildlife.
While in South Africa, I had the opportunity to participate in the large-scale capture, immobilization, and translocation of buffalo, immobilization and translocation of individual nyala as they were spotted in the bush, and immobilization and dehorning of rhinoceros to significantly decrease their exposure to being poached. I also attended lectures, practicals, and a post-mortem examination of a buffalo calf to further enhance the learning experience of this opportunity. Lectures included the obvious veterinary topics, but also included information on the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), wildlife management techniques, and the roles of tourism and hunting in managing Africa’s vast wildlife species.
Unlike North America where wildlife belongs to the public and is managed in the public trust, in South Africa, wildlife is owned by the landowners and managed as the landowners see fit. This leads to a much more intensive management as wildlife is generally restricted in movements due to high fences (albeit these are enclosures spanning tens or hundreds of square miles). It also leads to a greater need for application of conservation medicine to ensure health of herds, genetic diversity, treatment of individual animals (injuries, orphans, and illness) and protection of habitat.
While translocating certain species may not seem to have strong ties to conservation medicine, it is actually core to the process. Another experience I was lucky enough to participate in was a mass capture of impala. They are herded using helicopters or other machinery into V-shaped bomas, or enclosures, and when pushed into the final “corral” enclosure, they are stressed, some injured, over-heated, and exhausted, requiring veterinary care. I also got to help translocate buffalo from one farm to another. All must be immobilized, and once immobilized, closely monitored. They are placed on sternal recumbency, have their eyes covered, and have their body temperature and respirations monitored until release. Their blood is drawn for disease testing and general health assessments are conducted. If injured, injuries are assessed and treated if possible, although severely injured individuals may need to be humanely euthanized. Sometimes calves are hopelessly separated from their mothers, or the calves are trampled during darting. These orphan calves are transferred and sometimes raised by people. This was the case for us. Although exhausting, it was also fun to be able to bottle feed these orphans throughout nighttime shifts. We named our buffalo calf “Rossie,” and I’m happy to report that he will be reintroduced into a new herd sometime in the near future.
As many people know, rhinoceros are highly endangered in large part due to poaching for these magnificent animals’ horns. People in Asia and other countries believe their horns are practically magical for their aphrodisiac and medicinal qualities. National Parks in Africa are discouraged from removing horns from living rhinos, because tourists expect to see rhinos with horns. Rhinos living on private land holdings may be darted and immobilized to have their horns removed. Rhinos with no horns are of little interest to poachers, leaving these dehorned rhinos looking a bit odd but alive to continue to reproduce. However, there is still a risk that the poacher will be angered from tracking an already dehorned rhino and still shoot the animal to avoid tracking a wrong path again. Besides removing horns, special care is taken to collect genetic markers. The horns must also be specially marked and carefully catalogued to comply with government regulations and CITES. While sedated, the rhino’s horn is carefully sawed off, the animal is closely monitored for complications from capture (capture myopathy, overheating, respiratory issues, etc.), blood samples taken, saline administered intravenously to ensure hydration, and antibiotics are administered to prevent infection. The horns are micro-chipped, and while we were there, a government official had to be present during both rhino dehornings that we participated in.
Working in South Africa meant working with many different landowners, each with their own perspective of wildlife management and conservation medicine. I traveled outside South Africa to Swaziland, a country ruled by as a true monarchy with no democracy. Here, I also got to witness the challenge of translocating wildlife from one country (Swaziland) into another country (South Africa). The amount of effort Wildlifevets went through to obtain all permits was daunting, and extremely frustrating, but eventually successful.
My experience in Africa has furthered my interest in conservation medicine opportunities. I also firmly believe that working with the large variety of species, people of different cultures, and less than ideal conditions makes for a better veterinarian, even if one chooses to become a veterinarian for companion animals. I will never forget the valuable lessons I learned from this experience, and I will treasure it always. I cannot wait to return to this wonderful country again in the future, and I am truly inspired to follow my passion for a lifelong career in wildlife veterinary medicine.