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K-State veterinary students provide care for Sunset Zoo’s exotic animals

By Joe Atmonavage

Every year, over 50 senior College of Veterinarian students will have the opportunity to do clinical work on the variety of animals at Manhattan’s Sunset Zoo.

The zoological medicine elective is a three-week clinical rotation where students work with exotic pets and the nearly 200 species at the zoo. Carpenter said he has been doing it every year since he arrived at the university in 1990.

“The students benefit because there are several hundred animals there and many of them are rare and endangered that we have the opportunity to work on,” Carpenter, the professor of the class, said. “It is once in a lifetime opportunity for many of these students.”

There are 17 three-week rotations and three students are in each rotation. The selection process to get in the class is computerized, though you must be a veterinarian student and a senior, Carpenter said.

The elective is intense and fast-paced, but the experience is helpful for students nearing graduation, Carpenter said.

“We only have three weeks to work with them clinically to make them feel more comfortable when they get out in the real life of veterinarian medicine and work with exotic animals,” Carpenter said. “It is pretty intensive.”

On Wednesdays and Fridays of each week the three students in that rotation visit Sunset Zoo where they assist Carpenter, his assistant and an intern go through the various protocols they have designed for the animals at the zoo.

“The students get hands on experiences, which they may not get in other programs,” he said. “They help us with anesthesia, the physical exams, getting the blood samples, helping with the diagnostics and they really participate and the zoo encourages that.”

This summer, a spotted hyena needed dental attention because the African-born animal fractured his K-9 tooth on the bar of his cage at the zoo. Carpenter, a dental expert and the students went to the zoo to care for the carnivore.

Students assisted with the anesthesia, dental care, physical and record keeping of the hyena. This is a standard Wednesday in the elective, Carpenter said.

The zoo encourages this help because of Carpenter and the university’s reputations, Sunset Zoo director Scott Shoemaker said.

“Dr. Carpenter is internationally renounced as an exotic animal vet,” Shoemaker said. “It is a great partnership. For a little bit of money, we get probably the best care I have ever seen at a zoo.”

Many zoos only have one veterinarian on staff, Carpenter said, but because of the partnership with K-State, the Sunset Zoo has three vets on call around the clock. Shoemaker said there would be no zoo in Manhattan without the resources K-State provides.

On the flip side, Carpenter knows the proximity and openness of the Sunset Zoo is a reason why the elective and the College of Veterinarian Medicine are nationally acclaimed.

“The Sunset Zoo is the key to our success,” Carpenter said. “Students really do enjoy working with exotic pets, but most of them that probably come here for zoological medicine are really coming here for the zoo experience. The Sunset Zoo provides that experience.”

Even students who are not looking to pursue a life in zoological medicine can benefit from the elective because they will face similar scenarios in other veterinarian fields.

“Even if they are not interested in zoological medicine as a career, which is understandable because the number of positions at zoos can be limited, the information, procedures and planning that they learn are all applicable to any other species,” he said.

In the program students will also work with exotic pets, such as snakes, lizards, ferrets and other rodents.

Exotic pet ownership has increased dramatically over the last 20 years and is opening more doors for graduates because the traditional private practices have to care for them to stay competitive, Carpenter said.

Ninety-six percent of College of Veterinarian graduates in 2014 had employment upon graduation and Ronnie Elmore, the associate dean for academic programs, adversity and diversity for the college, said employers know K-State students are going to have the clinical experiences to thrive after graduation because of electives like zoological medicine.

The elective will get students ready for life after graduation while providing top-notch care for the animals of Sunset Zoo—a belief the university and zoo share.

“This relationship that we have with the zoo is absolutely incredible because the zoo administrators, myself and my associate all have the same goals,” Carpenter said. “The goals are to provide the best quality care for their animals and provide the best clinical training for students.”

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