Slithering Superstars- Why YOU Should Care about Snakes

Here at the Wildlife Medical Clinic, we admit a wide variety of species for multiple reasons. Although we see a plethora of orphaned mammals such as squirrels, bunnies and raccoons, we also see a handful of cases in our native reptiles. One taxa of reptile that we always enjoy working with is snakes! But why do we even try to save snakes? What good are snakes anyway!?

Snake being held

It’s certainly no secret that snakes are often times perceived in a negative light. Most commonly they are feared (aka Ophidiophobia) and sometimes they are even resented due to the historic stigma against their misconceived nature. These negative biases towards snake species can lead to various harmful actions and has even resulted in planned persecutions and killings. Such actions and prejudice has unfortunately stemmed from two sources: unawareness and misunderstanding. In the Wildlife Medical Clinic however, we absolutely love snakes. Not only are they truly fascinating creatures but they also serve a critical role within their respective ecosystems. Everyone doesn’t have to necessarily love snakes, but it is important to understand why one should care about snakes.

Reason No. 1: Snakes are critical for controlling pest populations. If tomorrow, you woke up and all snakes ceased to exist, there would be extreme consequences that would rapidly follow. Many animals that people consider ‘pests’ would soon have population booms and those pest populations wouldn’t be able to be kept in check. This would be potentially dangerous and a health risk, as rodents are typically reservoirs for disease (i.e. Lyme disease) that could also potentially affect humans as well. With snakes slithering around in our backyards, they drastically reduce the spread of zoonotic diseases. Sounds like an unsung hero to me!

Reason No. 2: The Food Web relies on the presence of snakes. Snakes take on a very unique role within the food web. Although snakes are predators, they are also prey for some species. This kind of role within an ecosystem is called a ‘mesopredator.’ Snakes will typically hunt smaller animals such as rodents, insects, amphibians, eggs, birds, and the larval stages of various invertebrates. That’s quite the menu! Not only do they hunt but they also become the hunted. Many other larger predators such as birds of prey and foxes will not be shy to eat a snake. Interestingly enough, even other species of snake will also eat snakes, sometimes exclusively. Since snakes have such an integrative role within the food web, their presence is an absolute necessity in order to maintain their respective ecosystems.

Snake with NewspaperReason No. 3: Snakes help maintain the biodiversity of Earth. With their ecological services and their dynamic integration with other species, snakes promote the maintenance of biodiversity in every single ecosystem that they’re naturally apart of. Unfortunately, many snake species have become endangered and some are even on the brink of extinction. Snakes face various detrimental factors that contribute to the decline of their populations, such as habitat destruction, wildlife diseases (i.e. snake fungal disease), predation by outdoor cats, and the introduction of invasive species. Due to the stigma of snakes, they are also challenged with the direct persecution of their species. With all the benefits that snakes offer to our ecosystems and everyday life, it is more important than ever that we do our best to keep them around in order to maintain the biodiversity of the planet!

By: Kennymac Durante, College of Veterinary Medicine Class of 2022

Stephanie Heniff, Wildlife Medical Clinic Intern 2019

The Wildlife Medical Clinic has over 100 student volunteers that are responsible for all aspects of patient care and treatments. Many of these students have off-campus externships and research projects over the summer, thus much of the Clinic operations are manned by our two student managers, two veterinary students interns, and final year veterinary students rotating through for clinical experience. One of the interns this summer was Stephanie Heniff, a current second year veterinary student. We asked her about her professional aspirations, her internship, and one of her favorite cases.

Stephanie with soft shell turtle

Stephanie was performing an examination on this adult soft shell turtle.

Having started volunteering with the Wildlife Medical Clinic when she was an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois, Stephanie has been a Clinic volunteer for more than two years. In fact, the Wildlife Medical Clinic served as Stephanie’s first hands-on experience in veterinary medicine. Stephanie’s interest in zoological species as a whole began by caring for her pet ball python, Agave. As an intern at the Clinic, Stephanie spent her summer triaging new patients as they were brought in to the clinic by community members. During this time, Stephanie also shared her passion for wildlife medicine with fourth year veterinary students and undergraduate volunteers who gained experience working with wildlife this summer. One of the primary responsibilities for our interns is to teach these students about wildlife medicine and assist them with managing cases.

Stephanie with young racoon

The WMC has had over 100 juvenile raccoons brought in this year! Here Stephanie restrains a young orphaned raccoon.

One of Stephanie’s favorite patients to care for was a fox snake that had become stuck to a glue trap. These traps are placed on the ground to catch “pests” such as mice or bugs. These traps can also capture predators, who are attracted to the pest but get stuck trying to reach them. Other times, unintended species may simply wander onto the trap inadvertently, getting stuck to the trap in the process. Regardless of the method of entrapment, animals often get more and more trapped as they struggle to escape. While it was impossible to predict how long the snake had been stuck, Stephanie suspected it had been some time as the snake was dehydrated and stressed. Stephanie and the Clinic team sedated the snake to reduce his stress and prevent him from further injuring himself while they worked on freeing him from the glue trap. They were able to meticulously remove the trap without damaging any of his scales. However, he didn’t come out totally unscathed; the areas where the trap had adhered were inflamed. Stephanie developed a treatment plan to treat his dehydration and skin lesions and was able to successfully release him a few days later!

Fox Snake being released

Stephanie had the opportunity to release this fox snake after treating it for Snake Fungal Disease.

Stephanie is excited to continue working in the Clinic as a team leader this school year, when she will mentor her team of twenty veterinary and undergraduate student volunteers. A large part of this commitment is managing the medical cases of patients assigned to her team. This includes planning diagnostic tests, interpreting those results, devising treatment plans, and assessing the patients’ recovery and health status at every step along the way. This experience will prepare Stephanie for her future career as a veterinarian working with peers in with a focus on zoologic species.

The Wildlife Medical Clinic appreciates and depends on the dedication and hard work of students, like Stephanie, who ensure patient care is our main priority year-round. Without help from the veterinary and undergrad students at the University of Illinois, the Wildlife Medical Clinic would not be able to fulfill its mission to serve the wildlife of Illinois. If you’d like to learn more about our Clinic and how you can help us care for these animals, please visit our website:

By Monika Liszka, College of Veterinary Medicine Class of 2022


A Visit to the Wildlife Medical Clinic

What happens to critters once they are in medical care? U of I Wildlife Clinic has the answers!

Posted by on Wednesday, August 14, 2019

If you’ve ever brought an injured or sick animal to the Wildlife Medical Clinic, you might wonder what we do for our patients. Our student-run facility takes care of these animals much like your own pet would be cared for at the U of I Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Regular physical examinations are especially important for our growing patients! This young turtle hatched recently and is still reabsorbing his yolk sac. We assess this patient regularly to ensure he is growing appropriately.

Every animal first receives a complete examination, and the first part of any exam is reviewing the patient’s history. While the finders of our wildlife patients often can’t tell us much about how the animal came to be under their care, often it’s the few details they can provide which make all the difference. In some cases, the history is very specific and we know exactly when the incident occurred, such as when a bystander sees an animal get hit by a car. Other cases are more mysterious, such as an animal found in someone’s backyard unable to walk properly but with no obvious trauma.

This bald eagle is waking up from anesthesia; the tube in his mouth will be removed when he’s swallowing and alert enough to protect his airway. He was anesthetized for a physical exam and had a soft tissue wound on his wing that was cleaned and bandaged. Anesthetizing the eagle allows us to do a thorough cleaning of the wound while preventing undue stress or pain to our patients.

The next step is our hands-off exam. We observe the animal’s breathing rate and character, whether they’re standing or lying down, and many other visual cues that will help us narrow down the animal’s ailment. This is also an opportunity to evaluate the urgency of treatment. For example, if an animal is struggling to breathe, we need to intervene immediately. In other cases, animals may need some quiet time to calm down due to the stress of being transported. Most of the animals we see can benefit from supplemental oxygen and rest in a quiet cage before our hands-on portion of the exam.

When an animal can tolerate handling, we start by weighing them. An accurate weight is extremely important. For animals sensitive to stress, we use their weight to calculate a species-specific sedative dose. This helps us reduce stress as much as possible when handling our patients. There are different ways to perform a physical exam, but we always teach our students to perform the exam in the same order each time. A common method is to start at an animal’s head, evaluating their eyes, ears, nose, and mouth, then continue systematically to an animal’s tail, observing each bodily system.

This great horned owl was stuck in a car grate when brought to the clinic. He was sedated so we could safely remove him from the grate and reduce the stress he was feeling during this process. A volunteer then collected a blood sample for diagnostic testing.

Once we complete a thorough exam, we develop a plan for our patient that often includes diagnostic testing. We regularly collect blood samples for analysis in our in-clinic laboratory. Another common diagnostic we use is radiography, or “x-rays”. This allows us to evaluate the skeletal system as well as other body systems. We are fortunate to have access to the many veterinary specialists at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital, such as ophthalmology or dermatology, to help guide our diagnostics and care, especially during challenging cases. Surgery and physical therapy can be components of our treatment plan as well. In addition to providing medical care, our patients receive tailored housing and diet formulation as a part of their comprehensive treatment plan. Some factors we account for when formulating a patient’s diet include their species, age, and health status.

This process, from physical exam to a patient plan, allows us to provide the best care for our patients. Over a patient’s time in the clinic we may repeat this process, using physical exams findings to gauge the progress a patient is making and adjusting our treatment plan accordingly.

By Monika Liszka, Class of 2022