Being a Wildlife Veterinarian: Dr. Peach Van Wick

Dr. Peach with owl patientDr. Peach Van Wick is the Wildlife Center's veterinary research fellow. In this position, Dr. Peach acts as the liaison between the Wildlife Center and several other agencies, universities, and primary investigators on numerous collaborative projects.  She still takes care of sick and injured patients and acts as a mentor to veterinary student externs, but the majority of her time is focused on a huge research project that has evolved during her fellowship … Sarcoptic mange in Black Bears! This project is the perfect example of how individual animals coming to the Center can help us learn about a disease that affects wildlife populations.  After her fellowship, Dr. Peach hopes to pursue a career working with free-ranging wildlife on a population level with a state or federal agency.

See Dr. Peach at work in our 13-episode TV series, UNTAMED: Life is Wild!

What’s your background? How did you become a wildlife veterinarian?

Long before I even started vet school, I knew I wanted to work with wildlife in some capacity.  When I realized I could help bridge the gap between veterinary medicine and wildlife conservation, I knew I had found my niche.  I attended vet school at Mississippi State University's College of Veterinary Medicine and started to specifically seek out experiences that would prepare me for a career in wildlife medicine.  One of these "experiences" happened to be a four-week externship at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. At that time, I decided to apply for WCV's veterinary internship and was accepted!  I started my internship in the summer of 2016 and haven't left since!

What’s the most challenging aspect of treating bats?

This is an easy one.  By far, the most challenging aspect of treating bats is the limited availability of diagnostics.  The small size of bats in our area greatly limits what I'm able to do for a bat patient -- this is something that I tend to take for granted when dealing with larger patients.  For example, we perform blood work on the majority of patients seen at the Center.  We can evaluate the red blood cell count, white blood cell count, liver/kidney values, glucose levels, electrolyte abnormalities, etc.  I can also test blood samples for things like certain toxicities, tick-borne diseases, etc.  In a bat that weighs 10-20 grams (that's 0.35-0.7 ounces!), I physically cannot take enough blood to be able to test for such things.  And even if I could, a bat's veins are about the size of a thread … so hitting that with a tiny needle can be quite a challenge!  The limited amount of diagnostics means that, unfortunately, we don't always have a definitive diagnosis for what we're treating or why we're treating it.  We end up making a lot of educated guesses as to what's going on based on the bat's history and physical exam findings.

Leslie shared an amazing “bat midwife” story with viewers on UNTAMED. What’s your side of the story? What were you thinking as you were coaching Leslie through text messages at 10:00 p.m. at night?

Oh man, that's a text conversation I will never forget!  I had been helping Leslie with the care of the adult bat for quite some time; the bat had swollen thumbs and digits.  I believe we knew she was pregnant and Leslie was keeping a close eye on her because we weren't sure if any of the medications we were using in the adult would have any negative effects on her pregnancy.  Then it happened.  One night, Leslie texted me that she thought the bat was starting to give birth.  This wasn't super alarming since we knew that bat was pregnant and both Leslie and I are familiar with animals giving birth!  What became alarming is that the baby seemed to get stuck in the birth canal!  During this time, Leslie was frantically texting me on advice and after telling her to try multiple things to no avail, I finally just told her to gently pull the baby out herself!  Of course, with as small as a baby bat was, hurting the baby was definitely a risk; however, the mom was getting very fatigued and I knew that if we didn't get the baby out of there, we'd risk losing both of them!  I swear the time it took Leslie to text me after I advised her to pull the baby out lasted a lifetime, but she finally did and told me that it worked! Mom and baby were both healthy and doing okay :)  Lastly and most adorably, Leslie ended up nick-naming the baby "Peachfuzz" in honor of our late night mid-wife coaching session (and the baby bat's fuzzy appearance!).

Peach working with a patientWhat’s your advice for people who want to work in the wildlife medicine field?

My advice to people who want to work in this field is to hold on tight and get ready for the ride!  Wildlife medicine rarely "follows the book" which can be both challenging and exciting.  For those of you still in school or looking to go to school for wildlife medicine, conservation biology, wildlife management, ecology, etc., my advice would be to stay informed about the current issues that our wildlife populations face.  Subscribe to pertinent journals, attend conferences, and keep up with current events in the news.  Most importantly, form a network!  Wildlife medicine involves multiple players -- state/federal government agencies, agriculturalists, researchers, biologists, foresters, veterinarians, etc. You've got to learn to work with your network to reach a common goal: you will not succeed in this field alone!

Looking for more information and advice on working with wildlife?