Dr. Amber McNamara’s story of finding herself, falling a little and flying effortlessly—as shared from one scientist to another.

By Billy Carver, PhD


There is something thrilling about watching a true master do her work. Watching an artisan carry out her craft effortlessly—making the impossible seem reflexive—is both inspirational and humbling.

That is how I felt two years ago the first time I watched Dr. Amber McNamara (or “Dr. Amber” as she is known by her students) perform surgery on a red-tailed hawk at the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (MWRC). The hawk had been hit by a car and needed many of the delicate bones in its wing rebuilt. Many of these bones are needle-fine and must endure great stress during flight, or else the hawk cannot fly.

She expertly and carefully rebuilt this broken, majestic creature; some weeks later our students released it back into the wild. Dr. McNamara, the staff at the MWRC and the Lees-McRae students they mentor are owed a great debt of gratitude by the animals of the Blue Ridge Mountains.


Leaving the nest

Dr. McNamara moves quickly and deftly when working with patients and students, her voice sometimes revealing a slight Midwestern accent from her childhood in rural Indiana.

Educated in the sciences at DePauw University in Indiana, she applied to veterinary school after graduation.

“During my second or third year as an undergrad it sort of clicked for me that [animal care] was right for me,” she said.

Despite her good grades and obvious dedication to the field, she did not immediately get into any graduate programs.

“And to be honest I was really mad,” she said.

Therefore, after graduating, she began working at a small animal practice as a veterinary assistant and reapplied to graduate school after gaining more experience.

“It taught me teamwork and it gave me a lot of hands-on experience,” she said.

After successfully reapplying to veterinary school and gaining admission into Purdue University, Dr. McNamara excelled, despite the difficulties of veterinary school.

“For me, I was one of those people that really struggled,” she said. “Working through a case on a piece of paper, I would get so nervous. You have to explain your thoughts, and what steps you would like to take and what you want to do and that is hard.”

She emphasizes the sheer amount of information veterinary students are expected to retain.

“The volume of information is more than anyone can really process,” she explained.

Veterinary students typically choose “paths”—areas of specialty in which they receive additional training. Dr. McNamara fell in love with wildlife medicine.

Finding sick and injured wildlife, caring for them and ultimately returning them to the environment is something that drives her both personally and professionally.

“There was something about the rehabilitation of wildlife that I loved, and releasing them was very rewarding to me,” she said.

After completing her veterinary degree, Dr. McNamara began an internship with Clinic for the Rehabilitation of Wildlife (CROW) in Sanibel, Florida—an island off the coast of south Florida. There she gained incredible experiences working with many different kinds of injured wildlife.

One of her favorite stories she refers to as the “flight of the pelicans.”

It all began when a small flock of pelicans missed their southern migration and were stranded in Minnesota. CROW worked with Delta Airlines to fly the pelicans (economy; not first class) to Florida so they could be rehabbed and released into a local wildlife refuge.

“It was a collaborative effort to get these birds back out in the wild,” she said.

She remained there for eight years, treating countless injured wildlife, culminating with a year as clinical director of the organization.

Pioneering territories

What many students may not realize is Dr. McNamara’s expertise in alternative medicines in animal treatment.

While many human physicians have embraced herbal and alternative treatments for diseases, veterinary medicine has been more resistant. Dr. McNamara has been on the forefront of alternative treatments for animal disease for nearly two decades.

Immediately after leaving her position at CROW, Dr. McNamara started her own mobile practice, focusing on acupuncture and other alternative treatments for small animals.

Even now, it is not uncommon to find Dr. McNamara skillfully placing ultra-fine pins into pressure points in a patient who is not progressing as well as expected. The immediate and palpable change in the patient’s disposition is incredible, and Dr. McNamara’s expertise means that her students and volunteers on campus are among the few people in the world gaining experience towards using alternative medicine in wildlife rehabilitation.


Leading the guild

In 2013, the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center relocated into its new building. As a unique and prestigious program at Lees-McRae, the decision was made to hire a full-time veterinarian to serve the wildlife that come to our campus.

“I saw the opportunity and I just thought, ‘that’s my job!’,” she said.

Her expertise in wildlife medicine, her dedication to animals and her innate abilities as a teacher and mentor have allowed her to become a much-beloved, much-respected, and much-valued member of the campus community.

Walking into the MWRC, it is unusual to find Dr. McNamara in her office. She is always in the exam rooms, in the surgical suite, or in the flight cages outside; she is always surrounded by students hanging on the edge of her every word.

Her willingness to invest in her students as an academic advisor, instructor and professional mentor is unmatched.

Because of this dedication, in 2016 she was awarded one of the College’s most prestigious awards, the Edgar Tufts Faculty Award.

Reflecting on her time at Lees-McRae, Dr. McNamara offered some perspective.

“I had my doubts,” she admitted. “You spend long days working—you never truly have a day off—but when you get to release an animal back out in the wild and do the best you can by them, it makes all the hard work and effort absolutely worth it.”

Dr. Billy Carver is the dean of natural and behavioral sciences and assistant professor. He commonly teaches courses in cell biology, developmental biology and immunology and serves as the program coordinator for the biology program. When he is not in the classroom, he can be found in his office with his red-eared slider turtle named Stevie Nicks.

The Pinnacles

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