Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Not Your Average Veterinarian

Pet Column for the week of December 31, 2007

Related information:

Services - Veterinary Profession

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Ashley Mitek
Information Specialist

From working nights at a paper mill and going to school during the day, to performing complex surgeries on cougars and antelopes is quite a jump. But Dr. Avery Bennett, a professor of surgery in the Department of Veterinary Clinical Medicine at the University of Illinois who is looked up to by exotic animal veterinarians around the globe as the go-to man for complicated cases, did just that.

He was working in the Peace Corps, living at the poverty level on $150 a month in Belize, when one of his friends asked him why he never pursued his lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian. "Because I didn't do well in chemistry," explains Dr. Bennett. "Math and language came easy to me," but when he found out he would be getting a D in his freshman chemistry course, he thought a career in veterinary medicine was doomed.

Needless to say, Dr. Bennett overcame that hurdle--and countless others. Not only did he endure four years of veterinary school, he went on to do an internship and a three-year residency in surgery. While in his surgery residency at Colorado State, he would attend conferences for zoo veterinarians.

"I'd get a blank stare from people when I told them I was a surgery resident at Colorado," says Dr. Bennett. "They would reply, 'Why are you here then?'" Dr. Bennett was there because he realized early on that he needed to have a strong surgery background, and also an understanding of the exotic species in order to do what he wanted--combine both fields so he could be a surgeon and an exotics veterinarian all in one, thus creating his own hybrid professionexotic animal surgery.

Because Dr. Bennett's achievements as a veterinary surgeon garner so much attention, his contributions in laying the foundation for students who wish to follow in his footsteps are sometimes overlooked. "Back then, formal training programs in exotics were very rare," mentions Dr. Bennett when describing his years in veterinary school. "The faculty advisor to the zoo vet club told us, 'forget about it, you'll never be a zoo vet.'"

Dr. Bennett certainly got the last laugh on that one. Not only did he become the head veterinarian at the San Francisco Zoo, he went on to receive numerous awards and was asked by his students to give the commencement speech for the 1997 graduating class at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, where he was a professor of zoo and wildlife medicine.

His list of accomplishments is as numerous as the patients he has helped over the past decades. Dr. Bennett has devoted his life not just to saving animals of all walks (and even animals who don't walk), but also to helping students achieve their dreams. "I feel like my role is to mentor other people in their quest to do what they want to do," says Dr. Bennett.

From his first "surgery" on a baby rabbit with an abscess he found while in junior high, to being revered as the authority on exotic animal surgery, Dr. Bennett certainly has proven that dreams do come true with hard work, and along the way he has pioneered the pathway for future students.