Zoo internship gives Tucson vet students hands-on experience

On a recent Wednesday, University of Arizona student Chantal Lesmeister shoveled rhinoceros poop, helped conduct a behavioral study on Chilean flamingos, learned about giraffe nutrition, evaluated bloodwork on an elephant and performed a physical exam on a ferret.

And that was all before noon.

Lesmeister is one of three UA veterinary students who will spend a month learning and getting hands-on experience working with exotic animals, thanks to a one-of-a-kind internship at the Reid Park Zoo.

While many zoos offer internships for students after they’ve graduated, Reid Park Zoo officials aren’t aware of any other program that offers this type of experience for doctoral students. And with zoo medicine being highly competitive, early exposure improves a student’s chance of entering the field.

A new internship program at the Reid Park Zoo gives University of Arizona veterinary students a monthlong opportunity to train under the zoo’s head veterinarian. Video by Caitlin Schmidt / Arizona Daily Star.

Caitlin Schmidt

The UA’s College of Veterinary Medicine Oro Valley campus opened in 2020, is one of only 33 veterinary schools in the US The inaugural class of students began its final year in August, with 107 students slated to graduate in 2023.

People are also reading…

During the third and final year of the program, students participate in eight four-week elective rotations gaining on-site, practical experience in a variety of settings and with a range of species. In addition to the zoo, students can spend time learning in veterinary practices, with state and federal wildlife agencies and more.

With this year being the first year of the school’s third-year curriculum, the zoo internship program is still in its early stages, with the first cycle of students coming through in August. Two to three students rotate through at a time, with the small group size giving each intern ample opportunities to practice skills and work closely with zoo veterinarians and animal behavior specialist.



Adina Bronshtein, U of A College of Veterinary Medicine doctoral student and intern, looks at blood samples from one of the zoo’s elephants during the third day of the U of A Veterinary Medicine internship with the Reid Park Zoo. Interns will start their day working with Chief Veterinarian Dr. Alexis Roth as they go over a variety of lab work such as checking blood samples or test results.


Rebecca Sasnett, Arizona Daily Star

Reid Park Zoo, which is accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, has an on-site teaching hospital, tucked away behind-the-scenes. The zoo can do in-house lab work and can perform full surgical procedures and other diagnostic testing.

“We’re set up to do pretty much anything and everything,” said Dr. Alexis Roth, the zoo’s head veterinarian.

During their rotation, students shadow Roth as she oversees care for the hundreds of animals housed at the zoo. Zoo medicine is a competitive field and the earlier students can get hands-on field experience, the better their chances are of securing a job, Roth said.

“It’s an experience you won’t get anywhere else in veterinary medicine,” she said. “Them getting to rotate through and see what I do on a daily basis really helps them decide if this is something they can do realistically. Zoo animal medicine is very different than dog and cat.”

They also get to learn from zookeepers, animal wellness specialists and more about behavior and the training required to perform basic medical tasks on large animals. Reid Park Zoo uses a positive reinforcement model and trains their large and powerful animals to associate exams, blood draws and other routine veterinary tasks with a reward. This means, Roth said, that no animal is subjected to any procedure – barring emergencies – unless it wants to be there.



Stephanie Norton, animal wellness specialist, talks to interns and doctoral students from the U of A College of Veterinary Medicine about a behavioral program to track animal behavior during the third day of the Veterinary Medicine internship with the Reid Park Zoo.


Rebecca Sasnett, Arizona Daily Star

During a typical rotation, students will review ongoing cases with Roth and discuss lab work, medications, nutrition, toxicology and more. They’ll also learn how to perform physical exams on animals and observe some of Roth’s other duties.

“If I happen to be doing a procedure that day, they’ll shadow me through that procedure,” she said.

Roth has been head veterinarian at the zoo for almost 16 years. Several years ago she developed a rotating intern and extern program, with graduated veterinary students shadowing Roth year-round, often times in preparation for a residency in zoo medicine.

“I really love sharing what I do with these folks,” she said. “The UA reached out to us, I think, because they recognize that and saw what a unique experience it is.”



Chief Veterinarian Dr. Alexis Roth, left, explains an animal’s medical history to doctoral student and intern Adina Bronshtein at the Veterinary Medicine internship with the Reid Park Zoo.


Rebecca Sasnett, Arizona Daily Star

Three days in, UA vet student Adina Bronshtein was already excited about all they’d be learning.

“I’ve always been interested in zoo medicine, but it’s a really hard field to get into,” Bronshtein said.

In the first three days, the three students had already assisted with physical exams on the zoo’s squirrel monkeys, including x-rays, ultrasounds, blood draws, vaccinations and administering nasal COVID-19 tests. They also learned about behavioral training with the zoo’s herd of elephants. Intern Lesmeister said being so close and personal with the majestic animals made her a little teary-eyed.

Intern Paola Calderon wants to work with birds post-graduation. She already spent a previous rotation in Walnut Creek, California, interning at a wildlife center, but the rare experience of spending time working with flamingos and other exotic birds is not lost on her.

Zoo officials call the new program a natural extension of their longstanding partnership with the UA.

“A lot of zoos will host students, and although a lot of colleges have relationships with local zoos, I’m not aware of one that has as much involvement,” said UA College of Veterinary Medicine Dean Julie Funk. “For students to have this opportunity right in their backyard is incredible.”



Paola Calderon, U of A College of Veterinary Medicine doctoral student and intern, documents flamingo behavior during the third day of the Veterinary Medicine internship with the Reid Park Zoo.


Rebecca Sasnett photos, Arizona Daily Star

With more than 100 students participating in clinical rotations across the state this year, Funk said now is a great time to recruit “exceptional talent” into Arizona clinics, shelters and other veterinary practices.

Interest in the program has grown in the college’s three years. There were 550 applicants for the inaugural class, but the school received more than 2,000 applications for the class that will begin next fall.

“We’re a new college, but we’re also incredibly innovative in how we approach veterinary medicine,” Funk said. “I’m so excited and so grateful for our partnerships with Arizona businesses and the Reid Park Zoo for providing these great opportunities for our students.”

Even in students don’t want to pursue a career in zoo medicine, the skills they’ll learn during the rotation will be useful no matter where they practice, Funk said.

“And if you’re interested in a zoo or wildlife career, the opportunity to have close engagement with all of those species is invaluable,” she said.

Roth said the interns that have rotated through have been surprised to learn how much it takes to care for the various species, since most of them haven’t spent time around zoo animals.

“An essential thing they learn here is where to find the information they need that is valuable to be able to make the clinical decisions that they need to make,” she said. “There’s all sorts of information out there, but you’ve got to be able to access it and that’s hard with some of these zoo animals.”

With some animals, there may only be one resource and that might be a phone call to a person that’s in another country. While students are able to refer to a textbook or website for information about dogs or cats, it’s not quite as simple with zoo animals, Roth said.

In zoo medicine, no two days are ever the same, but Roth says that’s one of her favorite parts of the job.

“I may have my day planned out, but sometimes animals don’t have the same plan as I do,” she said.

Photos: ZooLights 2021: Holiday Magic at Reid Park Zoo

ZooLights

Santa and Mrs. Claus make their entrance through the dome of lights on the opening night of ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., December 3, 2021. The first night open to the public also hosted BrewLights, featuring booths offering samples from several local breweries. ZooLights runs through December 23 and Encore Nights December 26-30. Admission is $11 ages 15-61, $9 62 and older, $7 ages 2-14, free for children one or younger.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

ZooLights

Anysa Rangel, left, and Ricky McQueen get photobombed while trying to take a selfie under a sidewalk arced over with lights at the opening night of ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., December 3, 2021.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

ZooLights

A hummingbird glows next to a wall of lights along one of the walkways at the opening night of ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., December 3, 2021.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

ZooLights

Micah Hiller-Sandoval catches artificial snowflakes during one of the “snowstorms” at the opening night of ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., December 3, 2021.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

ZooLights

Passersby stroll among the animal-themed displays lighting the night at ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., December 3, 2021.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

ZooLights

Dozens of kids leap about on lighted discs near the elephant exhibit, the color changing lights and music one of the popular attractions at the opening night of ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., December 3, 2021.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

ZooLights

Passerby walk near a meerkat themed light show at the opening night of ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., December 3, 2021.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

ZooLights

The trees glow in the night sky over the crowd taking in the sights at the opening night of ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo on Dec. 3, 2021.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

ZooLights

A desert themed light of coyote, moon and saguaro at the opening night of ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., December 3, 2021.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

ZooLights

One of the lighted snow men up for display at the opening night of ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., December 3, 2021.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

ZooLights

A lighted representation of giraffe nibbles leaves near the giraffe enclosure at the opening night of ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., December 3, 2021.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

ZooLights

The pink flamingos are out at the opening night of ZooLights at Reid Park Zoo, Tucson, Ariz., December 3, 2021.


Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

Contact Star reporter Caitlin Schmidt at 573-4191 or [email protected]

.

Comments are closed.