I’ve had a lot of big breaks during my undergrad career, but none of them compare to the first one. I was sitting by myself in the back of a lecture room, quickly writing every word down on a napkin. Dr. Paul Gibbons, a reptile veterinarian and director of the Behler Chelonian Center (BCC), displayed a slide of him treating a tortoise the size of a quarter.
I remember being amazed, having never seen a veterinarian treating a tortoise before. I immediately thought, I have to get some experience in this veterinary specialty. It was the first time I came in contact with the vet I want to be.
Personal Networking: Mark’s Key to Success
That was two years ago when I attended the Avian and Exotic Animal Medicine Symposium at UC Davis’ School of Veterinary Medicine. The symposium consisted of various talks about avian and exotic animal medicine. One talk was about emergency medicine in rabbits, another was about potbellied pig nutrition, but the most unforgettable presentation was the talk about turtles given by Dr. Paul Gibbons.
Two months after the symposium my fellow pre-vet friends were excitedly talking about returning to volunteer at their local veterinary clinic, going on all expenses paid research trips to exotic lands and traveling to rural communities for veterinary mission trips. And here I was feeling like a loser with a stack of rejection letters from almost 20 internship programs.
One weekend as I was cleaning out the pockets of my pants I suddenly found Dr. Gibbons’ business card. My inner voice told me to take a chance and ask him for advice about what to do for the summer. I eventually summed up the courage to send him an email.
A few anxious days went by with no response, but thankfully he replied with an email offering me an opportunity to intern the Behler Chelonian Center in Southern California. I had absolutely no experience taking care of one tortoise, let alone over 500!
I knew I had to seize this rare opportunity. I realized that by following my instinct and persevering through all the rejections, I had finally found just the right person to say yes.
The Internship at Behler Chelonian Center
I spent a total of three weeks in the awesome Southern California weather. The husbandry staff were really nice and always seemed happy to answer one of my thousands of questions regarding chelonian husbandry.
In the first week I had the opportunity to help the husbandry staff in providing care to over 500 tortoises in 5 greenhouses. During that first week, I gained the understanding that proper husbandry is critical in maintaining optimal health for the tortoise collection, as well as identifying each species.
In the second week, I was able to gain more hands-on opportunities in reptile medicine. For example, I learned the proper technique for nasal lavage on a group of critically endangered ploughshare tortoises. I even got to assist in a couple of necropsies on tortoises that died unexpectedly.
It was amazing to witness disease processes firsthand through these necropsies. By the end of the second week, some of my favorite activities were assisting in tortoise beak trims (using a Dremel tool), restraining tortoises during their physical exams, and helping the veterinarian repair a cracked egg.
Finally, in my last week, I was given a project integrating my knowledge of turtle husbandry gained during the internship. Dr. Gibbons and the husbandry staff gave me the opportunity to design and build a new housing unit for an upcoming group of juvenile Burmese black mountain tortoises. And I got to do it all by myself.
In order to come up with a design I had to research the natural history of the species and husbandry in captivity. I was able to accomplish this by using the reference books in the BCC library. Once I settled on a design I was able to gather the essential supplies in constructing the new housing unit.
Though I felt intimidated by the assignment, I was contributing to the conservation effort of these endangered tortoises. In the end, I was able to design and build a housing unit that pleased both Dr. Gibbons and the newly arrived tortoises.
Lessons Learned Through the Experience
My time at the Behler Chelonian Center was very rewarding. I feel very fortunate to have worked with a veterinarian like Dr. Gibbons, who is extremely knowledgeable in the field of reptile medicine and is also an excellent teacher. He was very eager to answer all of my questions about turtle medicine and veterinary practice.
During the internship, in addition to learning about the many tasks a veterinarian performs in running a conservation center, I was also able to spend time with a group of passionate people concerned about the fate of these amazing reptiles. I would highly encourage students to pursue opportunities in other fields of veterinary medicine in order to expand their knowledge of the field.
My combined expenses for this three-week internship with the Turtle Conservancy were about $75. I’ve had to self-fund a lot of my education and extracurricular experiences, so it was very appealing when I found out that lodging was provided for free for interns at the BCC. I caught a ride down to SoCal with my cousin and ended up sleeping in a Greyhound station the night before the internship started!
I hope this post will convince you all that you do not necessarily need to pay for experience, or go to another county to make you stand out in the applicant pool. Opportunities do not exist in thin air, but they exist in people. So all you pre-vets like me need to make your own opportunities and put yourselves out there.
By not choosing to pursue the familiar and the safe opportunities, thanks to that inner voice, I seized tougher endeavors, learned harder lessons, and really got to know myself.
Elliott again here: Thanks, Mark, for sharing about this unique experience! I agree that personal connections are an incredibly important part of being successful in the path of an uncommon veterinarian.
These connections can be made at your schools, at conferences, or even online. I’ve found that Twitter and LinkedIn are great places to connect with people who might not be as inclined to help out a professional admirer in any other context. Strange but true.
Any other aspiring turtle veterinarians out there? How do a few weeks in sunny southern California working with these unique creatures sound?