University of Wisconsin–Madison

Wildlife Win-Win

From a badger to bald eagle, new partnership yields advanced veterinary care for the animals of a Wisconsin educational center – and broader learning opportunities for SVM clinical trainees.

As the temperature hovers around 20 degrees on a winter morning outside Poynette, Wisconsin, Christoph Mans and Grayson Doss work alongside staff of the MacKenzie Center to transport a coyote for a medical exam. Walking briskly over the snow-covered ground, they carry the sedated coyote, resting in a dog crate, to a makeshift workspace in a small outbuilding.

After placing the animal on a large table that today will serve as an examination area, they conduct a physical exam, take a close look at the coyote’s teeth, trim his nails, collect blood samples, and administer vaccines.

Examinations of a red fox and red-tailed hawk are also on the day’s agenda for Mans and Doss, clinical faculty of the UW School of Veterinary Medicine (SVM) Department of Surgical Sciences and clinicians in the UW Veterinary Care (UWVC) Special Species Service. They are at the facility for a monthly visit, part of a recently established partnership between the SVM and the MacKenzie Center, an educational center about 30 minutes north of Madison that is owned and operated by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Since October 2016, the SVM and UWVC have been providing veterinary medical care for the wildlife in the center’s animal exhibits — a range of native mammals and birds of prey, including gray wolves, lynx, a badger, bald eagle, turkey vulture, barred owl, and great horned owl, that inhabit Wisconsin’s ecological community.

“The way I look at it, we’re arguably the best possible tool to teach kids to respect and have awe for the animals that are in their backyard,” says Kyle Coker, wildlife technician team lead at the MacKenzie Center.

Mans appreciates that the facility helps visitors build an awareness of species, such as the badger and wolf, that they may not otherwise witness in real life.

“It’s about teaching people of Wisconsin what’s actually out there,” he says. “If you don’t even know what’s in your direct surroundings, why would you care about protecting it?”

All of the animals exhibited for educational purposes were previously injured, orphaned, or raised in captivity, so cannot be released. Explaining to visitors why it’s important to keep wildlife wild, why these animals are at the MacKenzie Center, and why wild animals don’t make good pets provides another learning opportunity, notes Coker.

“Any time we have the opportunity to lead tours and work directly with the public, I think the best thing that comes from it is being able to quell myths or answer questions,” he adds.

‘A Great Opportunity for Everybody’

In 2016, 50,000 visitors explored the center’s wildlife area, museum, environmental education offerings, and more. Nearly 14,000 of those patrons were K-12 students from all over the state.

The shared educational mission of the MacKenzie Center and the SVM makes their collaboration a natural fit. The partnership helps the MacKenzie Center to provide, within a limited budget, an advanced level of veterinary care for the animals, focused on long-term preventive health management. And it allows the SVM to broaden learning opportunities for clinical trainees and students through exposure to novel species and procedures.

“It’s mutually beneficial,” says Coker. “For us, we’re able to receive an exemplary level of veterinary care. And from talking to Dr. Mans, I know it’s especially advantageous for his zoological medicine residents to get more variety in what they’re able to care for.”

In the past, veterinary medical care at the MacKenzie Center had been limited to brief visual exams of animals, annual vaccines, and emergency response as needed. Through this partnership, Mans has now instituted preventive health care plans for each of the center’s animals. This includes creating a medical records system to track the animals, reviewing their diets and vaccination and anti-parasitic protocols, and, for the first time ever, conducting thorough health checks while the animals are under anesthesia.

“In the past, we would have just restrained the animals and done a quick physical exam. Now we’re safely anesthetizing them and conducting a thorough medical exam on each animal, at least once per year,” says Coker. “It’s a night and day difference — we’re able to get ahead of things versus just reacting, and potentially treat things before they become an issue. Working with Dr. Mans and the Special Species team has been very beneficial to the center.”

Outdoor Education

Mans and UWVC zoological medicine residents (veterinarians who are training to become specialists) visit the MacKenzie Center about once a month to evaluate animals, barring constraints due to weather and the outdoor setting. For example, examinations were avoided during sweltering summer days because restraining animals could put them at risk of overheating.

In between visits, Mans also conducts frequent phone and email consultations, offering advice on everything from nutritional needs to ways to reduce and repel biting flies.

“We’ve picked Dr. Mans’ brain every opportunity we can and received advice regarding just about every facet of care here over the last year,” says Coker.

Each visit to the center begins with a blank slate, Mans explains, requiring a multitude of supplies to be packed and loaded into a minivan. “We work in an empty room there, so we need to bring everything — every syringe and needle, the right vaccines and blood tubes, dental probes for dental exams,” he says. “And then we have a box of anesthesia drugs, another box that has fluids and scales, and we bring medical records to see what happened last time.”

“It’s almost like doing field work. We have a building and electricity, but that’s about it,” he adds. “It’s a challenge; I enjoy that. And I think it helps my residents to learn that it’s not always shiny rooms that you walk into and everything is ready for you.”

Aside from the center’s wolves and lynx (additional planning is underway for these species due to the increased difficulty in handling them), every other animal and bird has now received a thorough physical exam, blood testing, and preventive health care.

Specialized Service

In several instances, these exams have revealed broader health issues requiring follow-up — opportunities for additional UW Veterinary Care teams, ranging from dentistry to soft tissue surgery, to lend their expertise. For example, when it was discovered that several teeth would need to be extracted from a coyote and river otter, Christopher Snyder, clinical associate professor of dentistry and oral surgery, and Molly Allen, an anesthesiology resident, joined Mans on one of his visits to the center to conduct these procedures.

“That’s the exciting thing about this — we’re trying to make a lasting impact for all the animals by guiding the center to better nutrition, care, and enclosures, but we’re also then making an impact on individual animals,” says Mans.

The school also responds to more urgent needs, either at the MacKenzie Center in coordination with a local ambulatory veterinarian who has a longstanding relationship with the facility, or at UW Veterinary Care for cases requiring more complex equipment or services.

One of the center’s foxes, ailed by lameness due to a ruptured cruciate ligament in his knee, received TPLO (tibial plateau leveling osteotomy) surgery performed by Susan Schaefer MS’88, DVM’92, clinical associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, to help stabilize the knee. “He’s doing great – bouncing around the yard with the other fox,” says Coker.

The center’s second fox also visited the veterinary medical teaching hospital in September after sustaining an injury to his lower jaw, and is recovering well after the wound was repaired by Ellen Scherer, a resident in dentistry and oral surgery.

Teachable Moments

Zoological medicine resident Lily Parkinson says every experience with MacKenzie Center animals has been memorable, but she especially enjoyed being part of the river otter’s care.

“I got to work with her at the center, where we discovered that ‘he’ was a she and we also discovered that she had extensive dental disease. We were then able to get our dentistry service to help her,” says Parkinson. “Next, when she wasn’t feeling well, we discovered a splenic tumor and were able to remove it. Even though the cancer didn’t have the best prognosis, we undoubtedly helped her live longer and feel better in her last days by removing her spleen.”

The chance to work in partnership with the MacKenzie Center has helped to diversify Parkinson’s residency experience, she says. “We also work at a large zoo and a wildlife rehabilitation center in our residency, but MacKenzie is specifically for teaching the public. This gives us a different set of unique circumstances to consider and a different type of patient population.”

Pursuing these types of partnerships has been made possible through the school’s recent hiring of new Special Species faculty and residents, says Mans, and he is grateful for the support that has allowed for this growth.

His long-term goal is to integrate student training into visits to the MacKenzie Center and other sites, and to establish an ambulatory service that would visit zoological and wildlife facilities in Wisconsin to offer the specialized veterinary services only available through the SVM and its three board-certified specialists in zoological medicine.

“There are places out there right now that don’t get the veterinary and preventive health care they need. That’s why we are growing — in order to make our services more available,” says Mans. “In the future, with more support, we hopefully will have the opportunity to cover more places and bring students. It’s about making our expertise and services available to the people of Wisconsin, improving the lives of the wild animals in captivity, and giving trainees opportunities to learn.”

Meghan Lepisto