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WEAMS president Michelle Whitehead poses with Voldemort, a great horned owl receiving treatment at the WCVM. Photo: Melissa Cavanagh.

Student enjoys vet profession’s wild side

Michelle Whitehead recalls the summer of 2012 when she took care of a menagerie of wild birds and exotic pets in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine's wildlife, exotics and zoological medicine ward.

"I hadn't had much experience in wildlife or exotics, and the two interns were really great to bring me in and catch me up on all the proper handling techniques and husbandry," says the WCVM veterinary student. "It was a steep learning curve for me."

With her third year of veterinary school now behind her, Whitehead is back on the same ward this summer but feeling more confident as she works with radiographs, monitors patients' anesthesia, and helps to treat and restrain the different patients.

Whitehead's interests have changed since she arrived at the WCVM in 2010 from her hometown of Surrey, B.C. Before applying to veterinary school, Whitehead worked in small animal practices and at the Vancouver Aquarium. She also worked alongside equine and large animal veterinarians as well as people involved in wildlife rehabilitation.

"I learned more about what vets do, about all the different disciplines and how dynamic the field is," says Whitehead, who has a BSc degree in biology from Simon Fraser University.

After her first year at the WCVM, Whitehead travelled with the Para-Equestrian Canada team to England to work as a support person. During that same summer, Whitehead also visited Lexington, Ky., to attend an equine conference for veterinary students. She and 20 other WCVM students had the chance to tour some of the area's attractions including the Keeneland racetrack and Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

"As I've been going through vet school, I've been drawn more toward the wildlife and exotics," Michelle says, who now plans to pursue a future career in wildlife and exotic animal medicine.

That gradual change in interests happened in part because of the veterinary college's Wild and Exotic Animal Medicine Society (WEAMS).

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"When I found out there was such as thing as WEAMS, I thought that it'd be really cool to see all the different species that could come in," says Whitehead. "I thought, ‘Who knows how much I'll like it but I'll give it a try.'"

Whitehead is now president of WEAMS, a WCVM program that gives students unique exposure to wildlife. When injured or orphaned wild animals are brought into the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre (VMC), WEAMS members are able to follow the cases and assist with feeding, cleaning, treating and rehabilitating the animals.

Whitehead will begin her fourth year of studies in August, and she's looking forward to the rotations she has set up throughout the year. She will study at the Vancouver Aquarium and at the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Man. She will also travel to the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, Va., for a four-week externship.

"I'll be thrown into a whole bunch of wildlife," says Whitehead. "I'm excited to explore what's out there."

Melissa Cavanagh of Winnipeg, Man., is a second-year veterinary student and the WCVM's research communications intern for the summer of 2013.
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