I was a freshman at the University of Illinois studying Animal Sciences when I first saw the Wildlife Ambassadors. I was sitting in a lecture hall for a Pre-Vet Club meeting on a Tuesday evening when three students walked in with large boxes. The students introduced themselves as volunteers at the Wildlife Medical Clinic at Illinois. They opened the boxes and out stepped three birds of prey onto their gloves. I was fascinated. They described the natural history of the birds, how they presented to the clinic, why they couldn’t be released, and how they are now ambassadors for their species. I was entranced by these majestic animals, and I asked the volunteers how I could become involved in their care. The following year, I became an undergraduate volunteer at the Wildlife Medical Clinic.
I had the privilege of working with both the wild patients in the clinic as well as the animals in the Wildlife Ambassador Program. I took part in all aspects of care of these animals, from husbandry procedures to training techniques. I felt a deep connection to the residents, and I enjoyed building a bond with each of them. One of my favorite aspects of volunteering with the Wildlife Ambassadors was participating in public outreach activities. The most memorable event that I participated in was when I brought Odin, a Red-tailed Hawk, to an elementary school. We discussed everything from what a hawk was to how the students could help wild animals like Odin. Seeing the young, bright-eyed elementary students connect with Odin reminded me of my own initial encounter with these amazing animals.
Six years later, I am a veterinary student and still an active volunteer at the Wildlife Medical Clinic. The Wildlife Ambassador Program connected me to the living world, inspiring me to make a difference by providing high-quality medical care for injured and orphaned wildlife at the Wildlife Medical Clinic. I have no doubt that my experience with these animals has influenced my desire to pursue a career in aquatic and zoological medicine.
The Wildlife Ambassador Program has grown tremendously in the years I have been a part of it. Every year, its reach expands, connecting with more students and inspiring environmental stewardship in the next generation. This year, funding has been secured for an exciting upgrade – a brand new enclosure for the resident animals. The birds in the program have been housed in the same outdoor enclosure since 2002. The building was designed to give these remarkable animals more natural, outdoor exposure and while it has served that purpose, it is no longer suitable for the ambassadors and the student volunteers that work with them on a daily basis. The new structure will be able to house all of the resident animals – birds, reptiles, and mammals. It will also include an outdoor area with staging and seating, which will facilitate outreach and teaching events for veterinary students and the local community.
This upgrade will not just benefit the Resident Ambassador Program. Once the building is complete, the former resident enclosure will be repurposed to house current patients of the Wildlife Medical Clinic. This will be the first time the clinic will be able to house patients outside, allowing them time for reconditioning and to acclimate to the weather prior to release.
We expect the new enclosure to be ready by the summer of 2019! It will be visible from Hazelwood Dr., just south of the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. While we are moving forward with the design and construction of the building, there is still a long way to go. Our aim is to design individual enclosures that can mimic the natural environments of our ambassador animals and provide as many enrichment opportunities as possible. Additional funding will need to be secured to provide perches, nest boxes, enrichment items, etc.
This is an extremely exciting step for the Wildlife Ambassador Program and the community is encouraged to follow along during the entire process. Updates will be posted on our website at https://vetmed.illinois.edu/wildlife/ or our Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/UIWMC/.
Sarah Wright, 2nd-year veterinary student