Guardian of the Wild - A Veterinarian's Story

Ask A Biologist Podcast, Vol 132
Podcast Interview with Sara Wyckoff
Sara Wyckoff - wildlife veterinarian with captured allegator

Dr. Biology:

00:01

This is Ask A Biologist, a program about the living world, and I'm Dr Biology. We recently had Dr. Gary West on this podcast. It was the first time we had a veterinarian on the show, and he was a special type of veterinarian because he's the one that takes care of thousands of animals at the Phoenix Zoo. But when most of us think of veterinarians, we think of the local pet veterinarian. We have one for a pet cat, you might have one for your dog, pet bird, or maybe some type of reptile. It turns out that there are many types of veterinarians. There are vets for livestock, which could be cows, pigs, sheep, or goats. You might also find veterinarians that specialize in horses. 

00:51

Today we have a guest who is yet a different type of veterinarian, one who spends her time working with wildlife animals, large and small. Our guest today is Sara Wyckoff, a wildlife veterinarian at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. She's also an alumna of Arizona State University. That's where she got her bachelor's degree in biological sciences, followed by veterinarian school at Midwestern University. That led to her getting her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine. Today we get to sit down with her and learn about the role of a wildlife veterinarian and the animals she works with and the challenges she faces. 

Welcome to Ask A Biologist and welcome back to ASU Sara. 

Sara::

01:45

Yes, thank you. I know back to my old stomping grounds from, gosh, it seems like forever ago now. 

Dr. Biology:

01:51

Yeah, did the campus look different to you? 

Sara:

01:53

It does. It looks different. But then I see some of these buildings I'm like, oh, I remember I took plant sciences there. I remember the lab was in here and so very nostalgic at the same time. 

Dr. Biology:

02:03

I guess we could start with an overview because I talk about veterinarians and I think, like a lot of people, you have one stereotypical veterinarian in your mind and what I've learned from the time that I spent in this space is that there are a lot of different kinds of veterinarians and a lot of different roles that they can play. Can we talk a little bit about a wildlife veterinarian, just like the thousand-foot view? 

Sara:

02:31

Yeah, so a wildlife veterinarian. What that means is that any wildlife veterinarian deals specifically with wild animals. So, we're not going to have any domestic animals, pets, anything like that, under our care. We work strictly with wildlife, so the things you see outside and it's kind of split into a few different areas of interest so you can have your wildlife veterinarians that work at a wildlife hospital where maybe you found an injured animal, you looked up a rehab center in your area and you brought that animal into a wildlife hospital. That's an example of a wildlife veterinarian that works on the individual animal to get them healthy and get back in the wild. But then there's also wildlife veterinarians that kind of work at a more macro level when it comes to managing free-ranging populations, so whole herds versus an individual animal. Or maybe there are some types of wildlife veterinarians that focus a lot on disease and epidemiology or basically how diseases are moving between populations and how we can stop them from getting into other animals or even going to people. 

Dr. Biology:

03:41

Right, right, actually, that's something I want to talk to you about in this podcast. So, there are many areas. One of them, I think, is also conservation, and you've been involved with some conservation projects, right? 

Sara::

03:55

Yes. 

Dr. Biology:

03:56

What's your favorite one you've had lately? 

Sara::

03:58

Oh gosh, actually, right now, one of my favorite animals that I've been working with are the big horn sheep, which we have some here in Arizona but then out in West Texas. We also have some herds out there, and so they are all across North America, though kind of a threatened species. A lot of that is for you know, there's some habitat fragmentation, so just not enough land like there used to be for them to get food on. But also disease is a big issue for big horn sheep. That's affecting their conservation. 

Dr. Biology:

04:30

Right. So, when you talk about diseases, you know in the human population you have an outbreak of, let's just say, the flu, right? And so the doctors get an influx of it and they have certain kinds of vaccines they can use certain kind of treatments they can do. How do you do it with wildlife? That's really a challenge. It's not like they're going to come in and check in with the doctor right? 

Sara::

04:51

Exactly so. Veterinarians the patients already don't talk to us. Now you have patients that want absolutely nothing to do with you and they're out in the wild. You know where do you start. So, a lot of that is really a collaborative effort, with not only wildlife veterinarians but biologists and researchers. Where you plan, for example, we call it a capture project, where we will go out in the field and we will say, okay, we need 30 big horn sheep, and so we will work with that team that I just mentioned, but then also a helicopter crew, for example. They will go capture sheep, bring them to us and then we can get our disease samples, you know, collect blood, do an overall health exam on them, just like you would in a normal vet. 

05:38

But these animals, of course, we do everything we can to make it as comfortable as possible for them. So, that's also something you have to consider is you know your cat, your dog. He likes people most of the time. Some of those cats maybe not much, but these animals they're basically being kind of alien, abducted right, and then they have to come to us. So, we do everything we can to make that a very low-stress and fast situation for them. So, we get what we need and then they're back out in the wild and back to normal. 

Dr. Biology:

06:11

Ah, okay, that makes a little more sense. Now let me ask you there are other people that we may not think of, interested in keeping wild animals healthy, and that turns out to be hunters. Have you been working with hunters also, because they're the ones that are out there a lot. I don't happen to be a hunter, but there are a lot of people that like to go out hunting. It seems like they would come in contact with animals that may not be healthy. 

Sara::

06:44

Exactly You're right. Hunters are an excellent resource when it comes to wildlife conservation and I remember, you know, growing up I didn't really understand the role of hunters when it came to conservation of wildlife. But as I've gone into the wildlife field exactly what you're saying there are almost the front lines out there for us, because I can't be everywhere every day. So, if we get hunters out there and they say, hey, I noticed these animals acting weird or I noticed that maybe there was a couple more dead animals that I'm used to seeing, they're really our first set of eyes out there and they work with us to let us know. Okay, we need to go and investigate this situation and see what's going on, because in the end, we're all trying to be stewards of wildlife. 

Dr. Biology 

07:27

Right now with the Bighorn sheep. That's a large animal and I mentioned that you work with animals large and small. Can you tell me about, maybe, a favorite tiny animal that you're working on? 

Sara::

07:43

Oh gosh, probably the tiniest animals that I've worked on recently, I would say, to come to mind immediately the Texas horned lizard. We actually have a breeding project where we work with some zoos in Texas to get some of those little guys bred in captivity. And then this year, for example, it was a great year we released over 200 little individuals into the wild. And these little guys, they're the size of a quarter. They're so small, it's incredible, and just to see them run around on the landscape after you release them is just an amazing feeling. 

Dr. Biology:

08:19

That is, and it's also an interesting thing because we don't often think about zoos being involved with conservation. But on an earlier podcast, the one I had with Dr Gary West and several other people from the Phoenix Zoo, turns out that's a big role for maybe not all zoos, but certainly for the major zoos. That's really important to them. 

Sara:

08:40

Exactly Wildlife agencies like Arizona Game and Fish, for example, where I work, Texas Parks and Wildlife. We couldn't do it by ourselves. The conservation of animals, especially wildlife, it really is a full effort from everyone who's willing to help. 

Dr. Biology:

08:58

All right. So, we've learned about large animals, big horn sheep. We've learned about small animals which are your tiny - what Texas horned lizard? 

Sara:

09:10

Lizards Texas horned lizards, mm-hmm. 

Dr. Biology:

09:12

How about an animal that might have been a little more, maybe, challenging? 

Sara:

09:21

Yes. So, first of all, I didn't know alligators existed in Texas until I had accepted the job. Oh, okay, well, we're going to learn about alligators. So, one of the coolest experiences that I've been able to do since I've been in Texas is actually help our alligator program attach transmitters onto alligators so we can essentially follow their movements with these transmitters. 

09:48

But what is really special about alligators is we have to go out at night and catch them. So, we're on an airboat, it's pitch black and all you have is your light looking for the glow of alligator eyes. Then, okay, how do you get the alligator to you, right? So then you have to actually catch them in the water using kind of a snare system and then, very carefully, just like the crocodile hunter, you got to kind of jump on them. You got to tape up the mouth, tape up the feet, and then, okay, your gator is secure. 

10:20

But now, what is special about reptiles? So they're cold-blooded, right, they have to warm up their blood differently than we do. So, that means that I actually can't use the same medicine that I would in a mammal in this alligator, because it will essentially take too long for him to get the medicine in a system, but then also it will take too long for him to exit it out. So, what we actually have to do is everything happens while the gator is still awake, and so all I'm doing is essentially sitting on the back of this gator. I have a little local block, which just means I numb the area that I'm working and then I'm doing it all there. 

11:01

So this thing it's awake. He could try to flip me off, he could try to, you know, make a run for it, and so that was very nerve-wracking, because we're still outside right, I'm not in a building with nice bright lights, I am in a marsh, 300 mosquitoes are biting me, sitting on this alligator with my headlamp, trying to attach this little transmitter. So, that was definitely super fun, learning experience and kind of my full circle crocodile hunter moment, which I felt really excited for. And we've been able to get really good data from all of the alligators we've put those transmitters on. So, that's super rewarding. 

Dr. Biology:

11:41

Right. And that actually brings up another area for the wildlife veterinarian and that's research, right. So, you're getting really good data. What are you learning? 

Sara:

11:50

Yeah. So, for example, with these alligators. Not a lot is known about East Texas alligators, especially when it gets cold in the winter, because they are moving to areas but we don't know where, we don't know where. They're kind of essentially brumating, so not hibernating, where they're fully asleep, but they're very slowed down in what they do. But no one's ever been able to find where they do this. So that's part one. But then we're also seeing if females are returning to the same nest sites every year with that data as well, and so far they have been. 

Dr. Biology:

12:26

Oh, so you are getting some data back. Have you published anything? 

Sara:

12:30

Not yet. This is actually just year one, so we still have at least one, maybe two more years left on that project. 

Dr. Biology:

12:37

Well, once you publish it, let us know and make sure we add it into the notes on this. 

Sara:

12:42

Oh, definitely. 

Dr. Biology:

12:44

Yeah, wrangling alligators. You ever worry about another alligator trying to get you while you're working with one alligator, or do you have people watching over you? 

Sara:

12:55

Right? Oh, that's definitely a concern, and alligators are a lot faster than you think they are. They look so big and lumbering but they're quick. So yeah, we typically have three or four people in the airboat two people wrangling and then the other two are basically spotters and making sure that no trouble is going to come up and any curious alligators out there. 

Dr. Biology:

13:18

Right, Okay, got it. Okay, I feel a little better. I'm just imagining dark, all these things going on and then other alligators saying oh, oh, oh, oh, yes. 

Sara:

13:29

And sometimes, when we're trying to get them close to the boat safely so we can, we first always tie the mouth. Sometimes they try to get in the boat. We're like no, no, no, no, please, no, no please. 

Dr. Biology:

13:42

They're a little too anxious. 

Sara:

13:43

Exactly Right. 

Dr. Biology:

13:45

When we talk about the animals, we've talked about the challenges of getting your patients into the office, so to speak, and your office actually is outside yeah, so that's kind of an interesting realm in that sense. So that means you probably have to take your stuff with you, your little black bag. It's probably not little, exactly. 

Sara:

14:03

Yes, always on the road, myself and another veterinarian for the whole state of Texas and Texas, you know, it's a big state, so we are constantly on the road and it keeps it exciting, though there's all sorts of different habitats we get to experience that way. 

Dr. Biology:

14:19

Now you talked a bit in particular about diseases, and you have a real interest in wildlife diseases. Let's talk a little bit about that, because you've done several things in that space and you mentioned about the fact that it's important to know about interest species, including humans. So, let's talk a little bit about your interest in wildlife diseases. 

Sara:

14:47

Yeah. So, what's really interesting to me and that I enjoy about wildlife is kind of how I was saying, hunters are the first set of eyes for maybe a sick animal. Well, wildlife in itself is kind of a first set of eyes for us. I think, especially, you know, over the past few years with everything that's happened as far as disease and people, we're really learning how much wildlife can tell us from a disease standpoint of what's going on. 

15:13

And so, for example, right now, the avian influenza, so bird flu, that has been a kind of global pandemic. So, all different continents have bird flu out there and that is a disease where not only does it affect our domestic birds, but then it also affects our wild birds, and then there are some types of bird flu that can actually infect us. So, we're all connected, even though we are different species and we have different roles in the world. And so by taking care of wildlife and making sure that they're healthy, it creates this kind of full circle effect where we can also protect our food, like our chickens and our turkeys, or even our pet flocks in the back, but then we're also protecting us and other people around us. So, when wildlife is healthy, we can also be healthy. 

Dr. Biology:

16:05

And you, along with other people, are interested in this, and I think it's tied into what it's One Health Initiative

Sara:

16:16

Yes, yeah. 

Dr. Biology:

16:17

I think it's about One Health Initiative. 

Sara:

16:19

Yeah. So, one health initiative is basically saying we're all on this earth together. We all have to work together to make everything healthy. So, I, as a vet, am working to make wildlife populations healthy, but at the same time, that's trickling down, that's also keeping agriculture your beef cattle, your chickens, they're staying healthy. And then people are staying healthy, and not only are we doing that from like a wildlife veterinarian standpoint, but also human doctors and human researchers. They are now being able to look at wildlife and say, oh okay, I know this is happening out there. This is what we need to do for our human populations to protect them. I feel people are working together more than they ever have for this kind of global one health initiative, and that's fantastic. 

Dr. Biology:

17:13

Right, and we'll be sure. There's actually a website for one health and we'll make sure we include that because I was doing a little bit of research. I always like to read up about my guests and that was one area that I was not aware of and it makes perfect sense and I'm glad there's a group out there working on it. So, when you graduated from Arizona State University, were you planning on being a veterinarian? 

Sara:

17:40

Actually, no, I had all these hopes and dreams of being a wildlife biologist. Actually, I grew up watching Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin you know they were my core heroes and inspiration. And I said I want to do that, I want to work for the conservation of wildlife. But when I graduated in 2011, there was just really not a lot of jobs that were available. I was having a very hard time kind of breaking into the field, which is a common issue that happens in wildlife, and so I just said, okay, well, until I figure it out, I'm going to start volunteering at a wildlife center. 

18:16

And that is actually where I first met a wildlife veterinarian. I said, whoa, this is exactly kind of a mix of the best of both worlds. I always thought medicine was interesting, but I didn't know you could do that with wildlife. And then I met our state vet for Arizona, game and Fish Dr and Justice Allen, and my mind just kind of went whoa, this is it, this is what I'm meant to do. And ever since then I had said, okay, got to go to vet school. Didn't think I would even get in, but I was very fortunate. I got in for my first year and I walked into my interview and I said you're going to tell me that I shouldn't be a wildlife vet because it's too hard. But that's what I'm here for and that's what I'm going to do. 

Dr. Biology:

19:01

Wow, and what'd they say? 

Sara:

19:02

They said, okay, you know, sure, sure. But yeah, just head down and just on that path. Ever since and it's been long, it's been about 10 years between four years of undergrad, four years of vet school and with vet school, they don't teach you how to be a wildlife vet. They teach you how to do cats and dogs and, like you said, maybe farm animals or horses. So, you really have to kind of build your own program and get your own experiences in and outside of vet school. And so that's what I did. I kept volunteering with wild animals at Wildlife Rescues. I basically annoyed every single biologist that I knew saying do you need help, can I shadow a project with you? And then I did two internships. So, basically extra education outside of vet school to give me more experience. 

Dr. Biology:

19:58

So what were those internships for - examples? 

Sara:

20:00

One of them was in Massachusetts and it was a wildlife-only veterinary internship. So, I had graduated, I was a veterinarian technically but I was an intern in the sense that I was still under a mentor program and learning how to do more advanced techniques or procedures on wildlife. So, for example, for any of you that have maybe found an injured bird, if that bird had a broken wing, something the internship taught me was how I could surgically fix that wing, just like a surgeon fixes your leg those kind of techniques. But then also understanding natural history is so important as well, even just knowing what medications work for some animals and what don't. What we might not realize is something that you can give your cat or dog we can't give to a cow or a wild animal, because then it could cause a problem if we later ate that animal. 

Dr. Biology:

20:57

Oh yeah, good point. You got to think downstream. Where are you going to end up? Okay, so on your journey, 10 years to some seems like a long time, and maybe it seems like a long time to you, but I suspect it went by quicker than if someone says 10 years. 

Sara: 

21:18

Right, it really does, and I think I consider myself very fortunate that I was able to get into my position with that kind of timeframe, because although it sounds long, it actually is shorter A lot of times, because wildlife veterinarian positions are so few and far in between, you know, there's maybe one per state. Some states don't even have them. They can be very difficult to get into, and so the fact that I was able to, very kind of fresh and early in my career, have that job is a blessing. 

Dr. Biology:

21:55

So in the state, it could be challenging Globally. What's it like? 

Sara:

21:59

So globally it's kind of like how it is in the United States different countries or regions. They do also have their wildlife vets and that is something that, overall, has really been increasing, though on a global level. Really before, wildlife vets weren't a thing, especially for state agencies. But with one health and realizing, oh, we actually need to know everything that's going on, more and more positions have been appearing for wildlife veterinarians to come in and assist. So, positions back maybe 20 years ago you probably had only a handful in the United States that could be wildlife veterinarians. But now we're seeing people are understanding our value, which is nice. 

 Dr. Biology:

22:44

It is and critical, and we can even be selfish, Right? You know, it's all about us humans, right? So, in the end we end up healthier. That's great. Let me shift just a bit because all my guests, all my biologists have to answer three questions. 

Sara:

23:03

Uh-oh okay. 

Dr. Biology:

23:06

So the first question is actually going to be interesting to me, because I'm curious about when did you know that you wanted to be a biologist? 

Sara:

23:18

I actually love this question, so you know I watched you, vermin Jeff Corwin. I basically, as a child, taught myself to read with wildlife books. It's always been that. But then specifically, I can picture it in my head. I was in sixth grade. We were looking at the science textbook. There's a praying mantis and a chimpanzee on that page, like that's how clearly I remember it and I just said this is what I'm here for. This is what I meant to do is science and conservation, and it was just the purest moment, I think, that I've experienced, and it's been nothing else since then. 

Dr. Biology:

23:57

It's interesting because I had a similar experience. It was in sixth grade and I was reading a thing called the Weekly Reader and there was this black-and-white photograph of a scientist in a white lab coat in front of this giant, giant instrument that it turned out to be an electron microscope, and that sounded so amazing to me and then I stopped thinking about it. I went on to other things and, lo and behold, where do I end up? I end up being a microscopist. So, my world is around really, really tiny things, and I still remember that just as clearly as you remember yours. Wow, OK, so we know when you wanted to become a biologist and you had this long road a little bit windy, but you get there. Now I'm going to take it all away. 

Sara:

24:53

OK. 

 Dr. Biology:

24:54

Now, this is a thought question, so I don't ever like my guests who get too stressed out because I'm going to take everything away. You cannot be a biologist. I'm going to take away working with animals, and what I want you to do is think about what would you do or what would you be if you could do anything else. While I'm taking things away from you, I'm going to let you have any talent that you maybe didn't have but you just didn't do it because you didn't have that talent. What would you be? 

Sara:

25:21

Oh, my gosh, that is such a hard question because I joke with my friends all the time. I have no skills or talents. This is it. So, if I didn't have animals, I wouldn't know what to do. Gosh, honestly, I would still try to do something natural Resource-wise, conservation-wise. I love science and I believe in it so wholeheartedly. My guess, really, if you're taking my animals away, then I would do infectious disease research. I'm going to meet you in the middle there because I just think diseases are fascinating and I remember in vet school, just like whoa, there is so much out there and we don't even know, and it just blew my mind all the different viruses and bacteria that we're constantly trying to fight. So, I think I would do that. 

Dr. Biology:

26:11

All right, I'll meet you in the middle. The last question, and this one will be really important because we get a significant number of questions from young scientists that say they love animals and they want to work with animals when they grow up. So, what advice would you have for that young scientist that says what do I do? 

Sara:

26:40

Yeah, great question. I would say for sure, start as early and as soon as you can. That's going to be really important because these jobs are still competitive. It's getting better, but the sooner that you can start building the foundation, the better it's going to be for you in the long term. And another thing, too, that I really like to stress to students is extracurricular activities are so important. 

27:07

When these jobs are looking for what you've done, they see the things you have to do in school, you have to do for work, but they want to know what are you willing to do in your spare time. Are you willing to spend a four hour shift a week helping at a rescue? Are you doing some type of education and outreach? How passionate you are can be shown by some of those extracurricular activities. And I guess, really the third thing I would say is, just like you mentioned earlier, sometimes the path isn't linear. If you want it and that passion is there, just keep working for it. Everything is a stepping stone, even if it doesn't seem like it in a moment, and you will get there. Just believe in yourself for it. 

 Dr. Biology:

27:52

So, when you're in vet school, was there anything that was the most challenging thing that you? What was the most challenging thing for you? 

Sara:

28:02

The most challenging thing in vet school - it's a good question. Honestly, it was probably just making sure to get all of those wildlife experiences, especially since the school that I went to Midwestern I was a part of the very first class, so it was a brand-new vet school, so really I didn't have any upperclassmen to ask questions about. A lot of programs hadn't even been set up yet. I was able to utilize that position. But then also, being an Arizona resident where I could say, oh, I know this wildlife place, oh I know people at the Phoenix Zoo, and I was able to build a program not only for me but for future people who are interested in wildlife medicine, and so that at first was kind of a difficult hurdle to get over, but now it's really has established itself in that vet school and that's something that I'm really proud of helping create. 

 Dr. Biology:

28:59

Right, so you're helping other future veterinarians there, yeah, okay, well, I think that's great.

Sara. thank you so much for taking time out to visit with me and sharing your experiences as a wildlife veterinarian. 

Sara:

29:14

Thank you again. This was awesome, and I hope there's some inspired wildlife veterinarians out there now. 

Dr. Biology:

29:20

I'm sure there will be. You have been listening to Ask A Biologist and my guest has been Sara Wyckoff, a wildlife veterinarian at Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. She's also an alumna of Arizona State University. If you liked this episode and want to learn more about the life of a wildlife vet, we have included some links in the podcast. The Ask a Biologist podcast is produced on the campus of Arizona State University and is recorded in the Grassroots Studio housed in the School of Life Sciences, which is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. And remember, even though our program is not broadcast live, you can still send us your questions about biology using our companion website. The address is askabiologist.asu.edu, or you can just use your favorite search engine and enter the words Ask A Biologist. As always, I'm Dr. Biology and I hope you're staying safe and healthy.

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Bibliographic details:

  • Article: Guardian of the Wild - A Veterinarian's Story
  • Episode number: 132
  • Author(s): Dr. Biology
  • Publisher: Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist
  • Date published: January 1, 2024
  • Date accessed: June 12, 2024
  • Link: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/wild-vet

APA Style

Dr. Biology. (2024, January 01). Guardian of the Wild - A Veterinarian's Story (132) [Audio podcast Episode.] In Ask A Biologist Podcast. Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/wild-vet

American Psychological Association. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/560/10/

Chicago Manual of Style

Dr. Biology. "Guardian of the Wild - A Veterinarian's Story." Produced by Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist. Ask A Biologist Podcast. January 1, 2024. Podcast, MP3 audio. https://askabiologist.asu.edu/wild-vet.

MLA Style

"Guardian of the Wild - A Veterinarian's Story." Ask A Biologist Podcast from Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Ask A Biologist, 01 January, 2024, askabiologist.asu.edu/wild-vet.

Modern Language Association, 7th Ed. For more info, see http://owl.english.purdue.edu/owl/resource/747/08/
Sara Wyckoff attaches a transmiter on a wild alegator.
Alligator wrangler is just another part of Sara Wyckoff's life as a wildlife veterinarian.

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