Veterinary intern helps care for injured, orphaned wildlife

Closeup of two porcupines.

Dr. John Winter stood alongside his colleagues and stared at the wild porcupine in the exotics ward of Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

How exactly was he supposed to get a blood sample from an animal armed with 30,000 quills? This was not a lesson he was taught in veterinary school.

“It was found walking in circles in someone’s front yard and was brought into the clinic in a cardboard box,” Winter, a wildlife intern at the teaching hospital, said. 

Getting the sample presented challenges, but it turns out the trick is wearing thick gloves and keeping a solid grip on the animal’s tail.

“Holding it from underneath its tail and abdomen will prevent it from whipping its tail at you, which is their main defense mechanism,” Winter said. 

The porcupine was just one of many wild animals he has helped to care for since he started at WSU in July. Winter’s internship is funded by Partners 4 Wildlife, which provides two clinical veterinary internships annually for practicing veterinarians who aim to work in wildlife rehabilitation settings. In January, Winter will head to Lynnwood, Washington, where he will spend the final six months of his internship at the Progressive Animal Welfare Society.

Dr. John Winter and a colleague examine a porcupine at Washington State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Winter works closely with the Veterinary Teaching Hospital’s exotics team, led by Drs. Nickol Finch and Marcie Logsdon, to care for the wildlife brought into the hospital. Since arriving, he has seen a steady flow of turtles, squirrels, hawks, eagles, owls, ducks, and other animals. The goal is always to return the animals to full health and release them into the wild.

Winter encourages anyone who suspects a wild animal may be in need of care to call the teaching hospital or a wildlife rehabilitator before intervening.

“It’s important to screen the wildlife that gets brought into the clinic as some well-meaning folks will sometimes bring in healthy litters of rabbits or nestling birds. Mothers of certain species will only come back to the nest a few times a day, so it is not uncommon to never see them,” he said.

Winter grew up in Florida and has always had an interest in wildlife, but it wasn’t until he was an undergraduate at the University of Florida that he began to consider a career in veterinary medicine after initially exploring the possibility of pursuing a master’s or doctorate in mammalogy or a similar field.

“After working with a veterinary surgeon and attending a wildlife health course in Belize, I became much more interested in working in the field of animal health,” Winter said. “It wasn’t until I was in veterinary school that I realized I could combine my interests by working in the field of conservation medicine.” 

While at veterinary school at the University of Illinois, Winter still found himself drawn to wildlife and got involved with a wildlife epidemiology laboratory conducting field research on turtles. 

He hopes his current internship and experience will help him stand out this fall when he begins applying for zoo medicine residencies.

“I am hoping to contribute to conservation in the future through a career in zoo and wildlife medicine and research. A zoo medicine residency would provide me with advanced training for working with fascinating species and improving the health of these animals,” Winter said. “I am still very interested in research and hope that in the future I am able to help expand our wildlife health knowledge and conserve wild populations worldwide.”

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