Wings, Claws, Furs, and Feathers
My Veterinary Externship at the South Florida Wildlife Center

Young raccoons in their habitat at South Florida Wildlife Center
Veterinary externs at the South Florida Wildlife Center gain experience working with many wildlife species, including raccoons.
Jessica Sayre/SFWC

by Jessica Dreyfuss

September 17, 2013

"Are you rabies vaccinated?" uttered the veterinary technician, eyeing me carefully.

"Um, y-y-yes. Yes, I am," I stammered.

"Oh good! Grab the gloves. Raccoons to Jessie, then," she said.

Quickly, two feisty young raccoons became my first patients during my veterinary externship at the South Florida Wildlife Center. With a mission to "protect wildlife through rescue, rehabilitation, and education," the SFWC handles an astounding caseload of more than 12,000 animals per year. This fact was illustrated to me over the course of my intensely hands-on, three-week externship as everything and anything with wings, claws, fur, and feathers was brought in for evaluation and treatment at any time, day or night.

Getting My Feet Wet

After a brief introduction to the various divisions of the Center, including the Nursery and the Wildlife Ward, I began working at the veterinary hospital. As in most clinics, the patients arrived in sporadic waves, resulting in makeshift cardboard "holding" boxes pilling up in the intake room and even spilling into the treatment room. Pigeons, doves, brown pelicans, opossums, box turtles, Cooper’s hawks, armadillos, fish crows, bats, and more entered the facility with cheery yellow intake forms, complete with a description of their wounds and current condition. Drs. Antonia Gardner, Stefan Harsch, and Renata Schneider, along with the veterinary technicians taught me the importance of quickly evaluating and handling the animals – for when wildlife can be caught and contained by humans, the animal has already reached a critical level of sickness or injury. Any further stress can be extremely detrimental.


The South Florida Wildlife Center, located in Fort Lauderdale, rescues and rehabilitates more than 12,000 injured, abused and orphaned animals until they can be returned to the wild. The center also takes in several thousand exotic "pets" each year, providing shelter and adoption services for animals who would otherwise have nowhere to go.

The six-week SFWC externship offers a wide variety of experiences for fourth-year veterinary students in triage, surgery, and treatment of a variety of species. It is ideal for students considering wildlife, zoo or exotic animal medicine. Learn more»

Additionally, the proper way to restrain these animals was not something that was covered in my small animal classes at veterinary school. Did you know that you must put a finger or two between the upper and lower beak of a pelican while holding it in order to allow it to breathe? Were you aware that one of the first steps in handling an osprey (besides fostering up the courage) is to immediately grasp its talons? Did you know that restraining a Muscovy duck is a true test of strength and agility? Each species had its own hospital record and different approach to handling and treatment, yet one thing remained the same: The dedication of the staff – from the front desk assistants to the emergency vehicle drivers to the animal care technicians – to help every single animal that arrived through the door.

On one particularly humid Florida afternoon, I helped catch over 14 grackles in their outdoor habitat to prepare them for release into the wild – one bird was especially gracious and rewarded me with a slight graze on my forehead. On another day, I worked with the baby raccoon technicians at the nursery department, affectionately called "Baby Land" by those who work there, and I now know how to bottle-feed baby raccoons and properly express their bladders (as their mothers would do in the wild). Early one morning, I asked if I could ride in the emergency vehicle that responds to every phone call about injured or sick wildlife in the tri-county area. That day, I learned the importance of working efficiently and patiently with a capture net – the hot pursuit of an orphaned duckling at a local pond ended up requiring the help of three neighborhood individuals, one emergency vehicle technician, and one veterinary extern.

Getting the Word Out

In addition to working with the veterinary staff, I chose to help the social media department by creating a video of my experience at the Center (watch the video). Running a non-profit facility that accepts every animal that arrives means working on a strict budget and delving deep into the fundraising world. Social media is a great tool to show the internet audience what a facility does every day and how it impacts their community; however, it is rarely utilized by most facilities! The Center is one of the few locations I have worked at that actively strives to engage the community through the use of social media and online networking. I hope to bring my new knowledge about these tools to every veterinary practice throughout my life.

Finally, I enjoyed my time at the Center immensely and feel extremely lucky to have obtained a summer externship. When venturing outside the vet school library on a warm day, I often catch myself recognizing the birds around me, first by their calls and next by their markings. From this, and more, I know that my experience in working with wildlife will never leave me, and I am forever grateful to the staff and volunteers at the South Florida Wildlife Center for making my externship a great experience.

South Florida Wildlife Center veterinary extern, Jessica Dreyfuss


Jessica Dreyfuss is a third-year veterinary student (Class of 2015) at North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Raleigh, North Carolina. After graduation, Jessica can’t wait to pursue a career in small animal medicine as well as exotic animal medicine.