My Summer at WildCare Oklahoma

Cat Olson, VET Candidate for Doctor of Veterinary Medicine

Thanks to GAPSA’s Summer Internship Funding program, I had the opportunity to spend this summer working alongside wildlife rehabilitators and veterinary staff at WildCare Oklahoma. WildCare takes in over 7,000 animals each year, many of them orphaned or injured native wildlife. The goal of wildlife rehabilitation is to nurture the animal back to health and release it once it is capable of feeding and caring for itself. I worked with all sorts of animals: songbirds and raptors, opossums, skunks, and even bats, to name a few. Oklahoma has many of the same species that we see on and around Penn’s campus, like raccoons, robins, and blue jays, but they also have animals that are found only in the Southern or Western United States. I had the chance to treat roadrunners, scissor-tailed flycatchers (which just so happen to be Oklahoma’s state bird), armadillos, and even a thirteen-lined ground squirrel.   

Wildlife medicine is markedly different from general practice medicine. While general practice veterinarians typically only deal with owned cats and dogs, wildlife medicine runs the gamut, with everything from mice to mountain lions coming through the doors. I had ample hands-on experience this summer examining and treating wild animals for a multitude of ailments and injuries. One commonality between wildlife patients is that many of their injuries are not readily apparent upon initial presentation. Wild animals are particularly good at hiding their injuries, so assessing them presents even more of a challenge than usual when compared with companion animal medicine. We commonly saw cat- or dog-caught birds that would appear fine for the first few days, then suddenly develop pockets of air under their skin or signs of internal injury that were simply not there at the time of their intake examination. Other injuries, such as open wounds, are difficult to ascertain the extent of upon presentation. The body needs time to react to the injury, with damaged tissue dying off over the course of a few days. If you treat the wound too aggressively in the beginning, you may end up cutting away tissue that would have healed if only you gave it the chance. Each patient has to be approached methodically and mindfully lest you fail to pick up on signs of illness or injury.  

In addition to working on my diagnostic and clinical abilities, I was able to take time to focus on my animal husbandry skills. Husbandry is important for any creature under human care, but especially so for wild or exotic animals. Diet, habitat, and feeding behavior varies greatly by species and even by stage of life, and each of those influence how you are going to interact with that animal while it is in your care. WildCare received an abnormally high number of chimney swifts and purple martins this year, along with a preponderance of orphaned doves. Swifts and martins are insectivores that exclusively eat while on the wing, so they will never adapt to eating from a bowl while in captivity. Doves eat mainly seeds, nuts, and grains – hardly any insects at all. Doves also need to be force-fed, but they are given a totally different diet and fed in a totally different manner due to their species-specific eating habits. Doves must be fed a slurry mixture that is syringed directly into their crop rather than into their beaks. If you fed a dove the way you would feed a swift or a martin, they would end up choking on the mealworms or suffering from malnutrition. These kinds of differences are critically important in wildlife medicine, when proper identification of your patient is vital to ensuring they receive the correct care.  

Working at WildCare was challenging and rewarding in equal measure. I would be responsible for the care of up to 50 patients a day, all of which needed to be fed, kept clean, and thoroughly assessed for overall wellness and progression of healing. The neediest patients ended up being some of my favorites though, particularly the Mississippi kites. Despite being native to the Southern United States, these grey-and-black raptors are ill-suited to the sky-high temperatures Oklahoma experiences in the dead of summer. Baby kites, which look like angry cottonballs, jump out of their nests when it gets unbearably hot. With their nests being situated in the topmost branches of the trees, it is nigh on impossible to renest them. Every year, WildCare is inundated with Mississippi kite nestlings and fledglings that try to fly the coop a bit too early. They must be hand-fed until they are old enough to find food on their own, which makes them quite an investment in terms of time and energy. Despite that, they were my favorite patients at WildCare, on account of their comically irascible nature and quirky personalities. Birds-of-prey are known for their intelligence, and kites are no exception. Their smarts make them bemusing creatures to work with, as they seem to think of ways to outwit you as fast as you think of ways to try and feed or treat them.  

Over the course of my fulfilling and worthwhile summer at WildCare, I learned a great deal of applicable, practical knowledge which I will carry with me for the rest of my career, as well as things about myself and how much I am capable of achieving. I will always be grateful to GAPSA for funding this experience and enabling me to pursue my dreams of becoming a wildlife and zoo veterinarian, one step at a time.  

Note: VMD students are served by Penn Vet’s Alumni Career Services, who can be reached here:

This is part of a series of posts by recipients of the 2023 GAPSA Summer Internship Funding Program that is coordinated by Penn Career Services. We’ve asked funding recipients to reflect on their summer experiences and talk about the industries in which they spent their summer. You can read the entire series here.ries here

By Career Services
Career Services