Veterinary Student Wildlife Externship: White Oak Conservation Center

This is a guest post by Briana Hallman, a fourth-year veterinary student at the University of Minnesota. Briana was able to put together an incredible program of wildlife externships during her clinical rotations. She is now an oncology resident at North Carolina State University.

Briana-Hallman-uncommon-veterinarianLooking for a little taste of African wildlife without the $2K plane ticket over there? Then White Oak Conservation Center is right up your alley. White Oak is a large conservation, breeding, and research facility located 30 miles north of Jacksonville in Yulee, Florida.

The center is unique in its very large, natural enclosures for a variety of animals, a majority of which are African hoofstock. White Oak has several species of antelope, as well as Somali wild ass, okapi, and reticulated giraffe. Other animals include three of the five species of rhinoceros, cheetahs, maned wolves, and birds like curassows and sandhill cranes.

Applying for the Veterinary Student Preceptorship

The application for a student preceptorship (which you can download as a PDF here) consists of a resume, letter of intent, and one letter of recommendation. Placements are preferred to be 6-8 weeks but can be as few as 4 weeks. I was there for 4 weeks due to scheduling limitations. Applications are accepted on a rolling basis, but you should make sure to apply for the program at least one year in advance of when you would like to go.

Dr. Scott Citino, the veterinarian at White Oak, is a highly sought-after specialist and has an incredibly busy schedule, so he is not always able to respond to emails right away. I followed up a couple times by e-mail about 3-4 months after I submitted my application to see if he had been able to review it yet.

This Indian rhino, named Patrick, really loves his wallow!

This Indian rhino, named Patrick, really loves his wallow!

Living Arrangements at White Oak

Housing is provided in the form of efficiency rooms that are quite nice, located in the Animal Science Building on the second floor above the clinic. Most rooms have two twin beds, a single bathroom, closet, desk, and a television. There is a community kitchen with cupboard and refrigerator space, and cookware and silverware are provided.

While a ride to and from Jacksonville airport can be provided, I would highly recommend renting a car. The clinic is located far into the property, and the closest grocery store is 20-30 minutes away. It’s also nice to have a vehicle to get away for a weekend and hang out at the beach.

Daily Schedule and Clinical Activities

Eastern bongo, Mookie, with her newborn calf right after we did our neonate exam.

Eastern bongo, Mookie, with her newborn calf right after we did our neonate exam.

Dr. Citino has decades of experience in wild animal medicine, so he is a great veterinarian to work with. Each day, the two veterinary technicians, the resident, and the student preceptor met with Dr. Citino at 7:20 am to review any animals that needed treatments or recheck examinations that day. We then would attend the morning meeting with the keepers so that we could address any concerns with them.

Our days varied depending on what animals needed routine vaccinations or bloodwork or if there were any ill animals. Newborn animals received neonate examinations and vaccinations within a week of birth, so I participated in a couple of those as well (it doesn’t get any cuter than cheetah cubs!). Most procedures were done in the morning, and the afternoons were fairly slow.

All preceptors are required to complete a research project to be presented on the last Thursday of the preceptorship, so afternoons were a good time to work on it. An hour-long lunch break was also included in a typical day. The workday ended at 4 pm every day, and if the weather was nice that day, I would go for a run around some of the trails that are on property. (Although don’t make the mistake of trying out a new trail right before dark…this will inevitably lead to you getting lost on the pitch black dirt roads fervently hoping to be rescued by someone who happened to drive by after working late that night!)

Weekend duties depend on if there are cases that need weekend treatments, but if the days won’t be too busy, usually it’s fine for the preceptor to go away for a weekend. The veterinary resident also usually lives on the property, and he or she takes care of weekend treatments and may or may not need help from the student preceptor.

Grevy’s zebra enjoying their hay snack

Grevy’s zebra enjoying their hay snack

Realistic Expectations for the Externship

White Oak was a great experience to get a brief exposure to zoological medicine, but it was a little slow while I was there. Some days we only treated one patient. I was there in January, so the wintertime may have contributed to the low caseload. Preceptorships are not offered in the summer.

Dr. Citino enjoys explaining things to students and knows a great deal about all the species on property, including more than just the medical knowledge. However, I was not questioned very much during this experience, which did help alleviate the stress present in other more rigorous rotations. It also meant that I didn’t learn quite as much as if I had been forced to come up with treatment plans on my own. I would still recommend this rotation, but if you need something really fast-paced in order to learn, this might not be a good fit.

Baby okapi

Baby okapi

The keepers are quite friendly and are generous enough to take students on food runs with them so that you can get more up-close encounters with the animals. Petting a velvety okapi was a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

If you have any questions or want to hear more about my experience, please feel free to send me an email at briana.elyse [at]!

White Oak’s photo policies prohibit posting pictures of yourself with the animals on any type of social media site, but I did get plenty photos of hands-on experience for my personal use. These are some of the gorgeous animals with which I got to work. I also must include the disclaimer that these photographs were all taken by me and do not necessarily represent any views of White Oak.

Elliott here: Thanks, Briana, for sharing about your experience at White Oak! This is exactly the type of review I like to feature here on my site, as it gives an honest evaluation of a unique training experience for future uncommon veterinarians. I actually put in an application for the White Oak preceptorship while in vet school but was too late in applying to be able to get a slot when I needed it. Start your planning early!

Does this look like an experience any of you are interested in? How does it compare to your own zoo and wildlife externships?

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  1. Wildlife Veterinary Externship in Australia: Taronga Zoo - Elliott Garber - May 22, 2013

    […] If you missed Briana’s previous articles, head on over to read about her experiences at the White Oak Conservation Center and with the PAWS Wildlife […]

  2. Wildlife Veterinary Externship in Australia: Taronga Zoo - Elliott Garber - June 26, 2018

    […] If you missed Briana’s previous articles, head on over to read about her experiences at the White Oak Conservation Center and with the PAWS Wildlife […]

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