Leor Shuflita

University of Florida veterinary students share their expertise with the wildlife of western North Carolina

The May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is an on-campus learning lab that gives Lees-McRae students real-world experience working with injured and orphaned animals. For a few select individuals, the positive impact of the rehab center extends beyond Lees-McRae.  

Leor Shuflita, a rising senior at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, reached out to Dr. Amber McNamara in May 2020 to discuss the possibility of interning at Lees-McRae as part of Shuflita’s fourth-year clinical rotation in 2021. She had participated in a Wildlife Science Summer Program years before and knew that doing a rotation at the center would match her personal interests and provide invaluable experience. She invited her classmate Sara Stiehler to participate as well, and McNamara invited them to Banner Elk. 

“We both have a passion for wildlife rehab,” Stiehler explained, “and not every rehab center has a veterinarian on staff or is so well-staffed.” 

The two students came to the rehab center mid-May and immediately got to work. As veterinary students a year out from graduation, they offered a valuable perspective for the Lees-McRae Pre-Veterinary Medicine and Wildlife Biology undergrads who regularly intern at the center.  

“Lees-McRae students get the benefit of drawing from the veterinary students’ clinical knowledge and veterinary school experiences,” said McNamara. “Shuflita and Stiehler shared course materials and techniques they have learned in their time at the University of Florida and led students through several necropsy exams and a ‘Vet school 101’ discussion. For those Lees-McRae students interested in veterinary school, these students have been a great resource and inspiration.” 

For Shuflita and Stiehler, getting to work with local wildlife under the direction of a veterinarian was a significant draw. Shuflita in particular came to the internship with limited surgical experience, so she appreciated the opportunity to watch McNamara at work and even assist in the surgery.  

“One of the most valuable experiences is that Dr. Amber asks us our opinions,” said Stiehler. “We get an understanding of the doctor mindset.”  

During the internship, Shuflita and Stiehler helped with all aspects of the rehabilitation process, including helping monitor anesthesia on numerous occasions, drawing blood and evaluating several diagnostic parameters, setting up and taking radiographs, performing physical, eye, and fecal exams, and feeding baby birds. They were also able to participate in several wildlife releases, including the broad-winged hawk release at MacRae Meadows 

McNamara explained that working with wildlife requires a different skillset and approach than treating domesticated animals, so it’s important that veterinary students wanting to work with wild animals understand the challenges.  

“Domestic animal practice can be very different, as most patients have owners and most animals aren't opposed to being handled,” McNamara said. “With wildlife medicine, we try to give each patient the tools for recovery and release back to the wild, including handling them as little as possible.” 

One of the benefits of coming to North Carolina for an internship is the opportunity to become familiar with species not native to the intern's home state, or species that might not be treated in other veterinary settings. And although the goal of wildlife rehabilitation is to keep the animals wild and prevent them from getting used to human care, it’s almost impossible not to feel a connection to the patients. Shuflita says her favorites are the birds, especially intelligent birds like parrots and crows, while Stiehler says she has fallen in love with box turtles.  

Shuflita and Stiehler are only the second and third veterinary students from other universities to intern at the rehab center. There is not a formal application process or regular internship position, but veterinary students interested in working with McNamara are invited to reach out.  

The process usually begins with a third-year veterinary student reaching out to me directly,” McNamara said. “Once we have discussed their interests, experience, and availability, we can discuss whether their availability will align with ours. It is also important for potential interns to consider how or if this type of experience might benefit their education and potentially their career choices. 

May is an ideal time to host interns because classes are finished for the semester and the Lees-McRae students haven’t begun their clinicals. If there is a student interested in academic areas like zoonotic diseases, comparative anatomy, histology, or radiology, McNamara is open to bringing an intern in during the academic year to participate in both classes and clinicals.   

Shuflita and Stiehler were only at the center for a short time before going to their next clinical, and they were sad to move on. Wildlife rehabilitation remains a passion for both and they hope to incorporate the skills they developed at Lees-McRae in whatever career path they pursue after their graduation in May 2022.  

“If a job like this opens up somewhere, I’d take it in a heartbeat,” said Shuflita. “I don’t want to leave.” 

By Emily WebbJune 12, 2021