WCVM students go wild for wildlife

Walk into the ward of the Wild and Exotic Animal Medicine Society (WEAMS) and you’re instantly greeted by a blast of hoots, screeches and tweets from the many patients that are recuperating in their temporary homes at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine.

If you peek through the ward’s windows and cage doors, you’ll see a variety of unique wildlife including eagles, hawks, owls, falcons, pelicans, songbirds and even the occasional fox, coyote, deer or snake.

Among all of the sights and sounds, a team of veterinary students, technicians, interns,  and clinicians go about their daily work — feeding, treating and caring for the injured or ill wildlife.

The concept of WEAMS — a program that gives veterinary students hands-on experience with wildlife — was developed in 1986 and became an official part of the WCVM in 1989. Students can join the society at the beginning of each school year and then help to provide care for the animals throughout the next eight months.

As Michelle Whitehead explains, anyone who finds an injured or orphaned wild animal can bring it to the WCVM’s Veterinary Medical Centre where it will be admitted for care.

“The clinical interns and clinicians take that animal in, do a physical exam and try to assess what needs to be done,” explains Michelle Whitehead, a fourth-year veterinary student and WEAMS president.

Once the animal is stabilized and can begin the rehabilitation process, WCVM clinicians and interns transfer its care to WEAMS members. These veterinary students are responsible for the daily feeding and care of the injured or ill animals until they can be released or taken to larger wildlife rehabilitation facilities.

During the school year, up to 50 students are involved with WEAMS, and in an average week, 10 to 15 wild animals will be brought in for care. WEAMS volunteers may treat even more patients in the summer months when more babies and warmer weather increase the chances of stumbling upon an injured animal.

Whitehead, who is working as a summer student in the WCVM Veterinary Medical Centre, advises anyone who finds injured wildlife to act with caution: survey the area and ensure that no other animals are around that may attack.

“If the animal is injured, try to keep it as calm as possible. You can bring it in a dark box or try to wrap it in a blanket or towel so it can’t injure you and you can’t injure them.”

Whitehead also adds that if you find what appears to be an abandoned baby animal, it may be best to just leave it alone.

“Try to consider the location it’s in and the type of animal,” she advises. “We often get baby bunnies brought in because they’re found when their moms and dads go out to feed and forage all day, leaving the babies alone. The parents only come back to the young a couple times a day, which is a natural behaviour.”

A smaller group of WEAMS members — known as “Team Falconry” — specifically work to rehabilitate and exercise larger birds and prepare them for release.

“We try not to make the birds too sociable because the goal is to have them be released,” says Whitehead. “It gives them some time outside of the cage or flight pen so they can practise their flight and build their muscles.”

WEAMS used to have an on campus barn where animals were kept during their rehabilitation, but because of maintenance and safety issues, the facility had to be shut down. Students are now working to raise money for a new rehabilitation barn.

“WEAMS has been trying to fundraise and find grants and sponsorships to try to build a more permanent barn that can house our raptors and larger birds. It would give us more flexibility with which species we are able to keep and how far we are able to rehabilitate them,” says Whitehead. She adds that WEAMS is discussing potential collaborative arrangements with the university’s biology department.

WEAMS’ mandate isn’t just to teach veterinary students about wildlife: Jasmine, the group’s resident Swainson hawk, acts as an educational ambassador in the community. The 12-year-old bird travels to schools and events to increase awareness about local wildlife. “Team Education” is a small group of WEAMS members who work closely with Jasmine, regularly exercising and socializing him so that he’s always ready to attend events.

Jasmine was brought to the VMC in 2002 with a fractured humerus, and after undergoing treatment, the hawk had to be overwintered in the WEAMS ward. After his release in 2003, Jasmine was brought back to the VMC only 10 days later – he had grown too used to humans, and was deemed unsuitable to be re-released.

“Since he was habituated to humans we decided to see if he’d be a good candidate for education,” says Whitehead. “We transitioned him into being more sociable, and since then, he’s been our education bird.”

Groups and schools can book Jasmine and a veterinary student handler for educational talks and presentations at no cost — but WEAMS does encourage donations.

Besides its building project, the non-profit organization needs funding for cages, perches and enrichment items for the animals as well as supplies for student labs. Most of WEAMS’ operating costs are raised through students’ fundraising efforts or donations.

“We couldn’t do it without all the volunteers. Students are giving up a lot of time to make sure that the birds and other wildlife are well cared for,” says Whitehead.

“And without WEAMS, the students wouldn’t be able to see any of the wildlife that they do now.”

To learn more about WEAMS or to make a donation, visit http://blogs.usask.ca/weams/about/

Melissa Cavanagh of Winnipeg, Man., is a second-year veterinary student and was the WCVM’s research communications intern for the summer of 2013. Visit WCVM Today to read more WCVM news.