As students prepare for the second half of this spring semester, the Wildlife Medical Clinic is undergoing some big personnel changes. Third year students are moving onto their 4th (and final) year of the veterinary medicine curriculum and will no longer be volunteering at the WMC. One of these students is our senior Student Manager, Erica Bender. She’s mentored hundreds of students over her two years managing every aspect of the clinic’s operations. Over the next year, she will be completing several externships to hone her skills as a veterinarian. We interviewed Erica about her time at the WMC and learned about what the future has in store for her!
On behalf of the clinic’s students all the patients you’ve helped over the years, THANK YOU ERICA!
Where are you from?
I’m from the San Francisco Bay area in California.
Where did you go to undergrad?
I studied Biological Anthropology at UC San Diego. I like to joke that my major was mostly monkeys.
What initially sparked your interest in wildlife medicine?
Most of my pre-vet experience was actually in wildlife medicine. Because I didn’t decide I wanted to apply to vet school until my senior year of undergrad, I took two years off in between undergrad and vet school to gain more hands-on experience. I was interested in wildlife and zoo species more than cats and dogs and luckily the Bay Area has a number of amazing wildlife rehabilitation hospitals that I was able to volunteer and intern at. During this time, I really developed a love for birds (especially barn owls and red-tailed hawks) as well as for marine mammals such as California sea lions and northern elephant seals.
What inspired you to apply to be a manager at the Wildlife Medical Clinic?
Like many other students, the WMC was one of the main things that drew me to apply to the University of Illinois. After a semester of volunteering, I knew I wanted to get more involved in the leadership of the WMC to really be able to take advantage of all of the learning opportunities and personal relationships the WMC has to offer. Plus, Kara and Cassie (past managers) seemed very cool and ridiculously smart; Kara also liked marine mammals and was also from California so basically it was perfect. Joking aside, seeing the confidence and knowledge displayed by the previous student managers, as well as the established careers of other former managers, really pushed me to decide that this position was the best way for me to learn and take steps towards my dream of being a zoo vet.
As a manager, what was your favorite part about working in the Wildlife Medical Clinic?
While the animals are VERY cool, and I absolutely love learning the medicine and am appreciative of the leadership skills the position has forced me to learn, hands down my favorite part of the clinic is the personal relationships I’ve made. My classmates, the house officers, the faculty- these are the people who I have laughed with, been overwhelmed with, worked hard with, and most importantly, who have spent so much of their valuable time and effort to help me learn. The WMC has definitely become my family here at vet school, and I’m excited to be able to continue to foster the friendships I’ve made and see the amazing things everyone will go on to accomplish.
What has been your favorite case you’ve been a manager at the Wildlife Medical Clinic?
Looking back over the past two years, the cases that have stuck with me the most are the cases in which I learned the most medicine. Because of the often advanced, complicated injuries these stand-out cases presented with, many did not respond favorably to our attempted treatment and were ultimately euthanized. While not the coolest injury or case I’ve seen, I think my favorite case as a manager was an American white pelican that presented during my first week as an official manager. The bird was found on the Mississippi River three hours away unable to fly. That particular day in the clinic had been overwhelming with lots of new orphaned bunnies and squirrels, an adult raccoon, and all the current patients we had. When the pelican came in that night it was dumpy, skinny, and overall we were unable to find a specific reason for its condition. Unfortunately, it did not respond to our supportive treatments and was euthanized a few days later.
While the pelican didn’t have a happy ending, and it may not have been the most interesting case I’ve seen, it really signified my transition into becoming a manager. Because that day was so hectic, I recruited friends and was really forced into a role where I needed to manage new cases, current patients, as well as direct all the help I had received. I learned a lot from this almost ‘trial by fire’ and I think overall it set me up to be successful for the rest of my time in this position.
What is your career goal after graduation?
I plan to pursue a veterinary residency to become a board-certified zoo vet. There’s always something new to learn in zoo medicine and so much research is being conducted to further the field to provide better treatment for these animals. It’s very much something I want to be a part of.
What is one thing you’d like more people to know about Wildlife Medical Clinic?
I think the one thing I’d like more people to know about the WMC is the value of humane euthanasia in our patients. Our volunteers and staff care so much about these animals and put so much of their time and effort into their care, but unfortunately we still have limitations. Because our patients are wild animals and the goal is to get them to release, an animal’s injury or disease can’t just be treated, but needs to be fixed to the point that it will not affect their survivability in the wild. Extremely young animals often have nutritional demands that we, as humans, just cannot meet. Our decision to humanely euthanize to prevent future suffering is taken very seriously and truly places an enormous weight on our volunteers. I’m constantly amazed by the time, effort, and passion shown by our volunteers, who yes, are here to learn how to become veterinarians, but more importantly, are here because they are passionate about conservation and our native wildlife.